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ClassicsOnline Home » HANSON, H.: Symphonies (Complete), Vol. 1 - Symphony No. 1 / The Lament for Beowulf (Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra, Schwarz)
Howard Hanson, a composer of imagination and sweep and a colorist of huge eloquence, is one of the most approachable of all twentieth century symphonists. His guiding spirit was always Sibelius, and in the Symphony No. 1 ‘Nordic’ he used the same key as in the Finnish composer’s own First Symphony. The work is haunting, rapturous and serene, beautifully orchestrated and wholly commanding. The Lament for Beowulf, written for chorus and orchestra, dates from 1925. Its dark, brooding tension reflects its poetic inspiration with indelible force. “This is confident, generous, beautifully made music, richly (and sensitively) scored. Schwarz, and his splendid Seattle orchestra do not short-change us on any of this and they are beautifully, ripely, recorded here.” (Gramophone on the original Delos release)
By Gary Lemco
By John J. Puccio
Howard Hanson (1896–1981)
Symphony No. 1 ‘Nordic’
Three decades after his death, Howard Hanson remains one of America’s most persuasive compositional voices. Though conservative in his harmonic vocabulary, a figurative “kiss of death” during the university-dominated 1960s in the United States, his deeply felt music resonates with renewed appreciation in the 21st century. Born in Wahoo, Nebraska, of Scandinavian heritage, Hanson drew inspiration from the music of Jean Sibelius as well as from his American surroundings. His inborn warmth of expression was deepened by a tinge of melancholy that is heard in many works by Sibelius and other “northern” composers. He became the first director of the Eastman School of Music upon the invitation of the famous school’s founder, George Eastman. Hanson fulfilled his administrative and academic responsibilities with seemingly limitless energy and commitment.
In 1921, Hanson was awarded the first American Rome Prize for a tone poem, Before the Dawn, which led him to Italy to study with Ottorino Respighi. During his two-year stay in the Italian capital, he completed his Symphony No. 1 ‘Nordic’, which had its première in Rochester in 1923 and is what originally brought him to Eastman’s attention. The ‘Nordic’ Symphony initiated an expansion in size and scope of Hanson’s compositional vision. The sobriquet “Nordic” reflects the composer’s Swedish ancestry in general and the influence of Sibelius in particular. (Sibelius, of course, was Finnish, but grew up speaking Swedish; he did not learn Finnish until early adulthood.) Hanson laid out the symphony in three movements, incorporating cyclical form inherited from Saint-Saëns and the Romantic era in general.
Hanson composed the ‘Nordic’ Symphony in 1922 while living in Rome and still reverberating from his valuable experience under Respighi’s mentoring. Still, the spirit of Sibelius hovers in the music’s intuitive structure as well as in adopting the same key, E minor, that served as home tonality in the Finn’s First Symphony.
The opening Andante solenne: Allegro con forza starts low in the strings in a moody, inquisitive and somewhat anxious theme. A rapturous appended theme soon appears, utilizing a fuller string sonority enriched by winds and brass. When the winds intone luminous variants on the opening theme, Sibelius is clearly evoked, especially when the textures grow lean and lonely. Mid-way in the movement the emotional temperature rises as the mood darkens before a heightened reprise of the opening theme emerges. Before the dramatic emotional apogee is reached, Hanson cannily posits a luxurious restatement of the second theme and wind/brass episode that tends toward the heroic. After another forceful outburst followed by a horn- and wind-enriched passage of exquisite melancholy, the movement ends with a series of haunting drum beats.
The ensuing Andante teneramente, con semplicità begins quietly in the strings, soon to be emotionally touched by solos from oboe and flute. The strings reenter with an emphatic restatement of the opening theme. Lovely commentary from the clarinets and horn seems to evoke the image of seabirds in easy flight and brings the movement to a serene close.
Cymbals, trilling winds and an overall mood of tempestuous energy sweep aside the calm of the second movement. The mounting drama and epic dimensions in this Allegro con fuoco finale are impressive enough on their own, but are especially laudable for a composer in his early twenties. His use of portentous drum beats, rich and deep string melodies and colorific wind textures mirror both the “Northern” ambience of Sibelius as well as the sheer orchestral savvy he learned from Respighi, an acknowledged master of orchestration.
The Lament for Beowulf
One of Hanson’s earliest pieces is The Lament for Beowulf, written for chorus and orchestra and completed in 1925. Four years earlier, at the age of 25, Hanson had received the Prix de Rome award, which took him to Italy for three years of work and study. During a side trip to England, he came across a version of the epic poem Beowulf translated by William Morris and A.J. Wyatt. One of the earliest and most important writings in English, Beowulf is believed to date from 700 A.D.; it was a translation of this eighth-century version that captivated Hanson—the final pages seemed “to cry out for a musical setting,” he recalled. He began sketching the Lament while in Scotland, “an environment rugged, swept with mist, and wholly appropriate to the scene of my story.”
Hanson continued work on the score in Rome, after becoming director of the Eastman School of Music (a post he held for forty years). “My intention has been to realize in the music the austerity and stoicism and the heroic atmosphere of the poem,” Hanson wrote. “This is true Anglo-Saxon poetry and may well serve as a basis for music composed by an American.”
The legend of Beowulf follows the brave nephew of the King of the Geats (now Sweden) as he defeats a ferocious monster, ultimately paying for its destruction with his life. The Lament depicts the Geatan people’s sense of grief over Beowulf’s death: “There is a brief picture,” Hanson explains, “of the great burial mound by the sea on which the funeral pyre of the hero is built. A great beacon mound is constructed and on it are placed the trophies of the hero, mementos of his famous battles and victories. The women lament as the mound is built by the warriors. Then follows an episode in which the wife of the hero and her handmaids voice their grief. The young warriors in a group surround the bier of their dead king and tell of his prowess. The work ends with the eulogy of the great hero.”
The Lament remains one of Hanson’s finest choral works. Its harmonic language combines ancient modality with modern tonality, evoking both a harsh, tribal age and a timeless sense of bereavement. The work had its première at the Ann Arbor Festival in 1926, under the composer’s direction.
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