Howard Hanson (1896-1981): Piano Music
Though perhaps best known for his choral and orchestralworks, the piano played a central role in the development of Howard Hanson as acomposer. The instrument is heard, with few exceptions, in virtually everythinghe composed prior to winning the prestigious Prix de Rome at the age of twentyfive. Under the influence of Respighi (his teacher in Rome) he succumbed to therich tonal vocabulary of the orchestra, and wrote ever fewer works for thepiano. Indeed, his last published solo piano work, For The First Time,is an arrangement of a suite originally composed for orchestra. Nonetheless, itwas through the medium of the piano that the composer's distinctive idiom foundits first expression in the works of an early maturity: the four Poemes erotiques,Op. 9, the Sonata in A Minor, Op 11 (1918), and the ThreeMiniatures, Op 12 (1918-1919). Here we find already the essence of Hanson'sstyle: the bold outlines, the soaring melodies, the layered climaxes, thepenchant for unpredictability, the subtle northern flavor (that does not escapeeven his most "American" compositions) - all exuding sincerity andimbued with personality.
This recording brings together much of Hanson's solopiano oeuvre, a great deal of which is as yet unpublished. All of the holographscores are housed in the collection of the Sibley Music Library at the EastmanSchool of Music, the venerable institution where Hanson had served as director.
A great many were presented by the composer to the library on 19th November, 1949, while others were gradually added prior to his retirement in 1964.
After his death in 1981, the remainder were transferred from his office to the library.
The son of Swedish immigrants, Hanson grew up in thesmall Lutheran community of Wahoo, Nebraska. His earliest musical instructioncame in the form of piano lessons, given by his mother. He left Wahoo at theage of fifteen to embark on an odyssey of remarkable success. He studied pianoin New York with James Friskin, flirting briefly with the notion of pursuing acareer as a concert artist. A teaching fellowship led him to Northwestern University,where he received his Bachelor of Music degree before he was twenty years old.
Accepting an appointment to teach theory and composition at the College of thePacific, just two years later he was named Dean.
It was at this time he composed those works that led tohis being awarded the Prix de Rome in 1921, the first American to ever be sohonored. Towards the end of his three-year fellowship in Rome, while in the United States to conduct a performance of his Nordic Symphony with the RochesterPhilharmonic Orchestra, he had a fateful encounter with George Eastman, founderof the Eastman School of Music. Not long thereafter came an invitation fromEastman to assume directorship of the school. From 1924 to 1964, Hanson wouldguide that institution through a remarkable era of growth, all the whileserving as a tireless advocate in the cause of American music and composers.
Such a record of accomplishment inevitably brought Hanson his fair share ofdetractors, none of which has caused the popular appeal of his music amongaudiences to diminish in any way.
The Two Yuletide Pieces, Op. 19, were first performedby Hanson in San Jose, California, in the spring of 1921. The first, Impromptu,is dedicated to his mother. The rich sonorities of March Carillon (dedicatedto American composer Leo Sowerby) prompted Hanson to consider a symphonictreatment and an orchestrated version is found among the manuscripts in theSibley Music Library.
Hanson articulated his inspiration for the Poemes erotiques
in a handwritten postscript: "The Four 'Poemes erotiques' [only three areextant in the manuscript book] are my first studied attempt at psychological'writing. Written during my first/second year at Pacific (1917/18) and performedhere. The third and fourth have a slightly morbid tendency reflecting a perturbedstate of mind." The composer gave the set a premiere performance at theCollege of the Pacific in 1918.
Hanson might well have had a program in mind when hecomposed the Sonata in A minor, Op. 11, as the front page bearsdescriptive titles for the work's constituent sections: Andante espressivo,Elegie herbique, Triumphal Ode, though they are not placed in the scoreitself. These three sections are, in the manner of Liszt and Berg, drawntogether to form a single movement. Although the manuscript is incomplete, itis clear from an annotation in the composer's hand ("Written during summerof 1918. Performed April7, 1919") that the work was heard on at least one occasion.
For reasons unknown, Hanson never bothered to bring the manuscript tocompletion, leaving instead a sort of musical shorthand. Never one to revisehis earlier work (to "pour new wine into old bottles," as he put it),perhaps his attention had already turned to other compositions.
The Three Miniatures, Op 12, were given their firstperformance by the composer on 7th April, 1919. The score is dedicated toRudolph Ganz. All are characterized by long, arching melodies, rich sonorities andharmonies that appear to consciously avoid resolution in an almost Wagnerianmanner.
First performed by Hanson in San Jose in the Spring of1921, the titles and movement headings for the Three Etudes, Op 18, appearin Italian on the manuscript, apparently for use during his fellowship in Italy.
The title page bears the inscription "Omaggio della Accademia Americana inRoma. Omaggio a sua Maestil il Re Vittorio Emmanuele [sic]III." In spite of the specific movement titles (Studio ritmico,Studio melodico, Poema Idillico) all three appear, above all, to be mostconcerned with sound and color.
The delightful miniature Enchantment was composedin 1935, brought out by Carl Fischerin 1936, and is inscribed to "Tad andBaba." Hanson often cited Grieg as an early influence, and this piece, inboth its simplicity and harmonic language, recalls the Grieg of the LyricPieces.
The orchestral suite For the First Time was composedin 1963 for a commission by the Music Teachers National Association. It wasfirst performed by the Eastman Philharmonia with the composer yielding thebaton on 16th May, 1963. The piano version dates from 1970 and bears adedication to Claudette Sorel on the published score.
The quaint Slumber Song (undated) which brings thisrecording to a close, is the sole representative here out of a fair number ofjuvenile manuscripts in the Sibley Music Library collection. Simple andeffective, the Slumber Song embraces the sort of sentimental melodycharacterized by Hanson's biographer Burnet Tuthill as "a tune to becarried away and to haunt you."