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ClassicsOnline Home » HANSON, H.: Symphonies (Complete), Vol. 4 - Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 / Elegy / Dies natalis I (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Hanson’s symphonic cycle reached a profound spiritual crux at the time of the Fourth Symphony, which was written, in effect, as a Requiem for his father. It journeys from turbulence to the simplicity of resolution, in a way both characteristic and also deeply moving. The Fifth Symphony also evokes religious imagery in a tautly structured, richly atmospheric canvas. The Lutheran element surfaces too in Dies Natalis, whilst Hanson’s admiration for Serge Koussevitzky is marked by the Elegy he wrote for the conductor. “Schwarz’s commitment to the music is evident in every bar: you really can take the quality, not least of his marvellous orchestra, for granted.” (Gramophone on the original Delos release)
By Steve Schwartz
By Dan Morgan
By Laurence Vittes
Howard Hanson (1896–1981)
Symphony No. 4 ‘Requiem’ • Symphony No. 5 ‘Sinfonia Sacra’
Throughout his long career, Howard Hanson (1896–1981) was many things, but rarely an equivocator. In life as in his music, he was forthright and generous; the “fervent embrace” he gave Romanticism extended also to teaching, conducting, and encouraging the work of others.
Hanson’s stature as one of America’s most important musical educators is a matter of record; but the indifference of a generation more excited by experimentation than by Romanticism resulted in a widespread neglect of Hanson’s music, a situation being rectified by more and more conductors today.
Along with the opera Merry Mount, Hanson regarded his Symphony No. 4 ‘Requiem’, Op. 34, completed in 1943, as his favorite work. It is an elegy for the dead, inspired by the death of the composer’s father, to whom the score is dedicated.
The Symphony is compact (lasting roughly 25 minutes), yet fully realized in its expression of grief and remembrance. Hanson’s orchestration is typically colorful, but intimate where necessary (as in the graceful highlighting of individual lines in the first movement). The subtitles of its four movements are taken from the Requiem Mass: Kyrie, Requiescat, Dies irae, and Lux aeterna. Hanson’s use of the Latin names runs deeper than structural convenience, revealing as it does his spiritual nature; as a young man he considered becoming a Lutheran minister, and remained deeply religious throughout his life.
At the time of the première Hanson asked his former pupil William Bergsma to prepare a description of the Symphony. This concise analysis reflects the immediacy of Hanson’s music:
“The four movements can be characterized briefly; the first (Andante inquieto) is a turbulent and varied movement, a Kyrie theme alternating with dance and song-like sections, and a chorale statement preceding a stormy coda. The second (Largo) is a simple and tender treatment of a scale-like theme in eighth notes, given a first statement in the solo bassoon. The third (Presto) is a furious and bitter scherzo. The last (Largo pastorale), a pastorale with stormy interpolations, has a simple 2/4 ending, dying off on the second inversion of a major triad.”
One may also note the work’s invigorating polyphony, characteristic of Hanson, but perhaps also suggesting the Symphony’s religious aspect, and the contrasting simplicity of the Lux aeterna, whose belllike last chords convey a sense of summation and catharsis.
The Fourth Symphony had its première on December 3, 1943, with Hanson conducting the Boston Symphony. The work found immediate popularity, and in 1944 received the first Pulitzer Prize given to music.
Hanson’s Symphony No. 5 ‘Sinfonia Sacra’ is the most compact of his symphonic works, a single compressed movement of just fifteen minutes in length, but packed with musical content. At the time of its première in 1955, Hanson said the work was inspired by the story of Christ’s resurrection as described in the Gospel of St John: “The Sinfonia Sacra does not attempt programmatically to tell the story of the first Easter, but it does attempt to invoke some of the atmosphere of tragedy and triumph, mysticism and affirmation of this story which is the essential symbol of the Christian faith.”
The Symphony is in three sections, reflecting perhaps the idea of the Holy Trinity: the adagio part one, echoing Sibelius in its cryptic murmurings for brass and low strings; part two, which contains the work’s chief theme, heard in thick chord clusters and followed by two additional themes, the first a Gregorian-style melody, the second a pastorale introduced by English horn; and part three, which develops the preceding ideas, climaxing in a chorale for brass based on the Gregorian theme. The final codetta is a mere eight measures long, a hushed benediction whose simplicity is all the more persuasive.
The Fifth Symphony received its première on 18 February 1955; the Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
Steven C. Smith
Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky
Hanson composed the Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky, longtime Music Director of the Boston Symphony, in 1956, five years after the conductor’s death. Hanson and Koussevitzky had enjoyed a long and productive creative partnership. Under Koussevitzky the Boston Symphony had given the first concert performances of Hanson’s Second, Third and Fourth symphonies as well as his Piano Concerto. The Elegy derived from a joint commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation and the Boston Symphony. Koussevitzky’s successor Charles Munch led the premiere in January 1956.
The music opens with an atmospheric unison melody in the strings soon joined contrapuntally by other instruments. An appropriate feeling of deep and reverent melancholy is felt almost immediately and soon grows in intensity. An arpeggio from the harp sets up a four-note theme in the major that is subsequently echoed twice by flutes and clarinet. After an orchestral swelling Hanson develops the four-note theme, enlisting the oboe to lead into the minor. The orchestral sonorities vary from ardent and full-throated utterances to intimate, chamber-like moments which greatly add to a sense of personal grieving. Echoes of Hanson’s early love of Wagner are heard in some of the rich brass writing, which blends beautifully with Hanson’s Sibelius-like writing for winds. As if to signify a farewell to a close friend, Hanson inserts a distant muted trumpet just before the strings bring the piece to a serene string chord.
Completed during August of 1967 at Hanson’s summer home on Bold Island, Maine, Dies Natalis was written on a commission from the Nebraska Centennial Commission and is dedicated to Hanson’s “native state of Nebraska on its 100th birthday.” The first performance took place on November 13, 1967, at a special centennial concert by the Omaha Symphony. Three years later, Hanson would make a transcription for symphonic band for a series of concerts honoring the 50th anniversary of the Eastman School of Music, whose fortunes he guided from 1924 to 1964.
Dies Natalis is only one of the more obvious manifestations of Hanson’s lifelong affection for the Lutheran chorales he had first sung in Wahoo, Nebraska’s Swedish Lutheran Church as a boy. As the composer recalled in 1978, “Some were German and some were of Swedish descent—I’m not too sure of my musicology here—but the symphonies and the Chorale and Alleluia and the Dies Natalis are full of chorale-like passages. I don’t think I would have written those if it hadn’t been for the tremendous influence of the Swedish Lutheran Church which I attended as a youngster. Hearing the music impressed me very much emotionally.”
Formally, Dies Natalis consists of an introduction, a Lutheran Christmas chorale, seven variations, and finale.
Following an eight-bar timpani solo, a sequence of amiable, slowly moving brass chords leads to a series of rising string figures from which a sturdy, four-square chorale, despite the fact that its first bar is in 6/4 time, emerges in the horns. A mournful trumpet call signals the first variation, whose growing agitation erupts in the heavily accented, percussive violence of Variation II. Against a relentless four-note pulse, heavy, widelyspaced brass chords dominate Variation III, while the pensive oboe melody marked “nel modo Gregoriano” at the beginning of Variation IV underscores Hanson’s longstanding fascination with Gregorian chant. In Variation V, militant brass exchanges are heard over a bed of swirling strings and woodwinds. Marked Larghetto semplice, the elegiac Variation VI provides a brief respite before the tempestuous Variation VII, launched by hectic sixteenth-note figures rumbling out of the depths of the orchestra. The steady pulse of the timpani announces the beginning of the finale. Fragments of the chorale and the rising string figure of the introduction re-introduce the chorale, which concludes Dies Natalis in a blaze of brassy splendor.
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