Howard Hanson (1896-1981): Orchestral Works, Vol. 1
Howard Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, on October 28th, 1896. He studied at the Institute of Musical Art, before graduating from Northwestern University in 1916. He taught at the College of the Pacific, and theConservatory of Fine Arts, before winning the American Prix de Rome for hisballet Californian Forest Play of 1920. His appointment as Director ofthe Eastman School, Rochester, inaugurated a 40 year association, during which Hansontaught many composers of the younger generation, as well as shaping itsorchestra, the Eastman Philharmonia, into a body of national standing. This isreflected in the many recordings they made, particularly in the 1950s and '60sfor the Mercury label, covering a wide range of American music in addition toHanson's own. In 1964, Hanson founded the Institute of American Music of the Eastman School, marking the culmination of his pioneering work into the study anddissemination of American music across a broad range of genres. He received 36American honorary degrees, a Pulitzer Prize for his Fourth Symphony, andwas elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1935, and to the American Academy of Arts and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979. He died on February 26th, 1981.
As a composer, Hanson was an unashamed musical romantic.
Perhaps through his Swedish ancestry, he displayed an early and lifelong adherenceto North European symphonism - particularly Sibelius, whose influence hetransmuted in very specific and, in his view, specifically American ways. Thisis nowhere more apparent than in his Nordic Symphony, Op. 21, the firstof the seven symphonies which would span the entirety of his composing career.
Completed in 1922 during his time in Rome, the influence of his then-teacher Respighican be detected in the powerfully evocative orchestral style. The fact,however, that it shares the same key, E minor, as Sibelius's First Symphony cannotbe coincidental, as Hanson's freewheeling and often intuitive approach to form frequentlybrings to mind the Finnish composer.
The opening movement begins with an earnest melody onstrings, quickly becoming more expansive and impulsive. A vivid panorama opensout, with more than a hint of Bax's Tintagel in the vivid orchestral colouration.
After an evocative transition on horn and solo woodwind, the second theme (2:21)alternates between upper and lower strings, before sounding forth imperiouslyin full orchestra. Solo wind herald a return of the opening theme, as the movement'smaterial is not so much developed as animated by skilful harmonic eleboration.
Increasing intensity is gained (6:46), and the mood darkens, before aheightened restatement of the opening theme. The second theme now maintains themomentum, as a rhythmically-incisive figure in the horns presages the mainclimax (beginning 10:35). This is snatched short, however, and the movementends with a plangent reminiscence of the opening mood.
The slow movement opens with expressive string gestures,solo oboe and flute contributing evocatively, to this musical seascape. A briefclimax heightens the pictorially-inclined mood, before strings usher in a morerobust version of the opening theme (4:02). Solo horn comments resignedly onthe idea, and clarinets wind the music down to its restful close. The Finalebreaks out impulsively with a rhythmically-agitated theme on fullorchestra, clearly related to the opening theme of the first movement. Oboesand upper strings introduce a more wistful melody, abruptly cut short by strokeson the bass drum (3:50). A starkly tragic theme now emerges over a heavy treadin the lower strings, an well-defined episode in place of the expected development,before the opening agitation reasserts itself. The second theme now expands directlyinto the movement's clinching climax - a heady peroration (from 8:15), afterwhich the surging rhythmic energy sees the symphony through to a powerfulconclusion. Its E minor tonality stated forcefully and unequivocally.
Completed in 1933, Merry Mount was to be Hanson'sonly opera. With a libretto by R. L. Stokes after the novel by NathanialHawthorne, the premiere, under Tullio Serafin, took place at the Metropolitan Opera,New York on February 10th, 1934 (a recording taken from the New York run isavailable on Naxos Historical 8.110024/5). The scenario, concerning witchcraftand sexual obsession in seventeenth century New England, offered unlimitedscope to the composer's full-bodied orchestration and lush harmonic manner.
Despite initial sucess, however, the opera was not revived until 1964 andseldom thereafter. Hanson compiled the present five-movement suite in 1938 andrecorded it in 1940. The Overture begins with a brass chorale, whichsounds forbodingly over tolling timpani and gongs, gaining in passion as themusic emerges into focus. A heightened turn to the major, replete with pealingbells, indicates the powerfully emotive nature of the story about to unfold.
Children's Dance is a witty and rhythmically agilescherzo, bounding forward with uninhibited zest. Ironically, it depictsthe presence in the town of pleasure-seeking cavaliers. Love Duet iswarm and lilting, the melodic material intensifying by degree, before itreaches a purposeful climax over a measured timpani tread, and closes in asuddenly ominous mood, reflecting the doomed desire of Pastor Bradford for LadyMarigold Sandys. The Prelude to Act II opens pastorally, becomingrhythmically animated as the music moves forward impulsively into the MaypoleDances. This vividly descriptive sequence, complete with modal inflectionsand offbeat percussion touches, heads relentlessly to its whirlwind conclusion;a graphic image for the conflict between hedonism and puritanism whichunderlies the opera's fateful conclusion.
Written during 1925-6, Pan and the Priest is an intriguingsymphonic poem, which introduces a new rhythmic clarity to Hanson'scompositional armoury. The opening idea sounds out mournfully, and appropriately,on cor anglais, soon joined by clarinet and oboe, before strings add anatmospheric backdrop. The music grows more animated over a steady pulse, reachinga short-lived climax, before solo wind effect a brooding return to the opening.
Suddenly a piano, marked obligato in the score, brings about a new impulsiveness,the music striding forward vigorously. Lower strings introduce a new theme (6:28),which grows quickly in expressive ardour, while not neglecting the more pensivemood heard earlier. The reappearance of the first idea presages the mainclimax, with both themes passed excitedly around the full orchestra. The workcloses in a mood of full-throated eloquence.
Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns is one ofHanson's least known works, and was thought to be lost until quite recently.
The first hymn emerges sombrely and spaciously, before a solo violin (1:29) soundsforth its successor, melancholy and with just a hint of the archaic, over ahalting accompaniment. This is combined in canon on full strings, before thetexture opens out and the hymns combine to draw this short, evocative piece toits expressive conclusion.