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ClassicsOnline Home » HANSON, H.: Symphonies (Complete), Vol. 2 - Symphony No. 2 / Lux aeterna / Mosaics (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Hanson’s intent in 1930 to write music that was “young in spirit, lyrical and romantic in temperament”, was fully realised in his ardent Second Symphony. This, his best known symphonic statement, acknowledges a Sibelian inheritance through horn fanfares, powerfully lyric string writing, and a sense of unity both all-embracing and memorable. Lux Aeterna is a rhapsodic, strongly modal work for viola and orchestra, richly repaying Hanson’s interest in Palestrina. Mosaics is a much later set of variations revealing his organisational control and expressive power. “Richly drawn is the Second Symphony—the Romantic, its second movement anthem beloved of millions of Americans. [Schwarz’s] feeling for long-term growth is possibly the surest of all, leading us from one resolution to the next with an increasing sense of expectation.” (Gramophone on the original Delos release)
Howard Hanson (1896–1981)
Symphony No. 2 ‘Romantic’
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.
A clue to the genesis and long-term success of Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Romantic’ may be found in this comment by the composer in 1930, the year of its composition: “The Symphony for me represents my escape from the rather bitter type of modern musical realism [that] occupies so large a place in contemporary thought. Much contemporary music seems to me to be showing a tendency to become entirely too cerebral. I do not believe that music is primarily a matter of the intellect, but rather a manifestation of the emotions. I have, therefore, aimed in this Symphony to create a work that was young in spirit, lyrical and romantic in temperament, and simple and direct in expression.”
The ‘Romantic’ Symphony is Hanson’s best-known orchestral score, and it fulfills the expression implications of its title. His second symphonic work is laid out in three movements and also employs cyclic use of motives. After an atmospheric introduction intoned mainly by winds before being joined by horn and then strings, the opening Adagio-Allegro moderato starts in earnest with a much-repeated three-note figure that leads the orchestra to a fine climax. A horn fanfare clears the air for a descending and increasingly powerful thematic statement uttered by the brass, which in turn yields to a tender theme marked in the strings. An English horn solo leads into the development section in which themes are varied and along with beautifully gauged alternation of lyrical and forceful episodes joined unerringly as a seamless flowing narrative.
Woodwinds accompanied by quietly rapturous strings initiate the second movement, marked Andante con tenerezza. A contrasting interlude courtesy of the brass instruments recalls the introduction of the opening movement. With the strings acting as a kind of steadying chorus, busy winds herald a reprise of the movement’s principal theme. A palpable sense of yearning, the signature of early Romanticism, permeates the entire Andante.
After a brief flurry of slashing introductory figures from winds and strings an assertive and positive brass fanfare catapults the finale, Allegro con brio, upward and onward. Thematic reappearances from the opening movement receive newly expanded drama and dynamism. The Symphony ends with a coda that restates the primary theme in a grandly sonorous fashion. An odd sidelight: music from the Symphony No. 2 accompanies the end credits for the science fiction thriller Alien.
The symphonic poem with viola obbligato Lux Aeterna dates from 1923 and the end of Hanson’s three-year stay in Italy as the first winner of the American Prix de Rome. In addition to the influence of his teacher Ottorino Respighi in matters of orchestration, Hanson was affected even more profoundly by his discovery of the music of an older Italian composer. “I learned an awful lot from Palestrina about letting the lines flow through the harmonies,” he said. “It was probably the biggest single influence in my life, because when I went to Rome in 1921, I was fascinated by Gregorian chant, and the Sistine choir, and we had the works of Palestrina in the original clefs…and I became imbued with the whole Palestrina technique.”
Lux Aeterna was originally inscribed to the great English violist Lionel Tertis, who apparently declined the honor of playing it, since in Hanson’s revised version the dedication was removed. (Although Tertis did more than anyone to gain acceptance for the viola as a solo instrument, he was not always the best judge of new music. Thus with “shame and contrition,” he would later admit, he would also turn down the first performance of the Walton Viola Concerto.)
Formally, Lux Aeterna is among the most apparently loose-limbed of Hanson’s works, as much a free rhapsody for viola and orchestra as a symphonic poem. Following a wistful pizzicato introduction, the viola announces the plaintive principal theme, yet another of Hanson’s Gregorian melodies. After the theme is driven to an emotional climax, the clarinet joins the viola in a even more starkly modal duet. When asked if he considered himself a modal composer, Hanson admitted, “I was very much influenced by the modes; that was largely the Palestrina influence, and I think it was also the influence of my three year stay in Rome. There is a lot of my music in the Dorian mode, more than anything else. I’m very fond of the D-E-F-G-A-B natural line, and I find myself coming back to that again and again, whether I intend to or not; it’s simply a part of my vocabulary.”
A tolling in the horns and a canon-like string figure lead to a rapid episode marked Allegro non troppo, set in motion by the solo violin’s cadenza-like restatement of the principal theme over urgent tremolo strings. At its climax, a doleful new subject is announced by the contrabassoon, this nearly a decade before Maurice Ravel’s celebrated use of the instrument in the Concerto for the Left Hand. An animated modal dance of increasing contrapuntal complexity leads to the hushed coda.
The manuscript of Lux Aeterna is dated Christmas Day, 1923. The first performance was given in Rome on 27 May of the following year by the Augusteo Symphony conducted by the composer.
Today, Hanson is best known for his large-scale symphonic works and for his distinguished role as an educator, particularly his forty-year tenure with the Eastman School in Rochester. In recent years, however, Gerard Schwarz has helped to illuminate other aspects of Hanson’s output with recordings of works that may be unfamiliar, but which remain as vital today as upon their creation.
Mosaics is one such overlooked gem, a set of variations written in 1957 for the Cleveland Orchestra and its then-conductor George Szell. Hanson was fond of the variations form; it appealed to his sense of order and structural unity, and proved an ideal medium in which to explore contrasting emotional states. Mosaics contains certain Hanson hallmarks: the foreboding, Nordic intensity that pervades the piece; its rhythmic vitality; the straightforward clarity with which Hanson presents his theme, heard immediately in low woodwinds and strings, and its lucid, dramatic development.
Steven C. Smith
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