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ClassicsOnline Home » HANSON, H.: Symphonies (Complete), Vol. 5 - Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 / Lumen in Christo (Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra, Schwarz)
Hanson’s last two symphonies offer a fitting conclusion to his compositional career. Commissioned for the 185th anniversary season of the New York Philharmonic and dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, the romantic Sixth is cast in six continuous movements pervaded by a haunting three-note motif. The Seventh sets the poetry of Walt Whitman and reaffirms Hanson’s Sibelian inheritance whilst proudly ending his own symphonic cycle in a blaze of glory. Lumen in Christo, which intriguingly bears the inscription “with variations on themes by Haydn and Handel,” is a choral work for women’s voices that sets sacred texts on the subject of light, ending in ethereal calm. “I found this to be an even more satisfying release than its predecessor, and it is sure to please those who have been enjoying Schwarz’s Hanson survey.” (Fanfare on the original Delos release of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6)
By Rob Barnett
Howard Hanson (1896–1981)
Symphony No. 6 • Lumen in Christo • Symphony No. 7 ‘A Sea Symphony’
Symphony No. 6
Throughout his long career, Howard Hanson 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 Symphony No. 6 was commissioned in 1967 by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate its 185th anniversary season. Despite this prestigious commission, Hanson was considered something of an anachronism by the 1960s. Nevertheless, Hanson composed a work that dared to be Romantic in character, formally tight and tonally inviting to the listener. Its structure was a source of pride to the composer: its six continuous movements are linked by a three-note theme which Hanson introduces in the woodwinds at the symphony’s beginning. Two snare drums usher in the second movement, Allegro scherzando, with its relentless triplet figure and battle-like summons in the brass (which also introduce the work’s chief lyrical idea). The third movement, Adagio, explores the motto with great sensitivity, while the scherzo-like Allegro assai takes the theme on a propulsive, dangerous journey through combustible explosions of orchestral color. The fifth movement, a stately Adagio, builds inexorably into an antiphonal Allegro, and a final, exultant restatement of the motto theme.
Steven C. Smith
Lumen in Christo
Written in 1974, Lumen in Christo was commissioned by Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. Composed to celebrate the school’s fiftieth anniversary, and arranged for women’s voices, Lumen in Christo also bears the inscription “with variations on themes by Haydn and Handel.” When Hanson’s friend Ruth T. Watanabe once asked him if he ever planned to reveal precisely what themes by Haydn and Handel were used, he replied, “Oh, that’s too much work!” For his text, Hanson chose sacred works all touching on the subject of light: the first five verses of Genesis, three verses from the book of Isaiah, Lux Aeterna from the Requiem Mass, and Lumen in Christo from the pseudo-epigraphic IV Esdras.
Taking his cue from Haydn’s The Creation, Hanson begins Lumen in Christo with a similar “description of Chaos,” a portentous, unsettled prelude that contains some of the most harmonically ambiguous music in his entire output. A meditative viola theme leads to the first statement of Lumen in Christo—this one of the most Gregorian of Hanson’s melodies—after which the chaotic music of the opening returns. To a primitive, off-kilter dance whose meter changes in virtually every bar (3/8, 3/4, 3/8, 3/4, 4/4, 3/8, 2/4, etc.), the altos chant the opening lines of Genesis. A series of climbing phrases on “And God said, let there be light” leads to a climactic eruption on “And there was light,” supported by the pealing of tubular chimes. The tranquil central section (“And God saw the light, that it was good…”) concludes with the second appearance of Lumen in Christo.
An ominous call in the bassoon and lower strings begins the second part, devoted primarily to the three verses from Isaiah. Suitably dark harmonies accompany the prophet’s vision (“the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people”) a vision which lightens almost imperceptibly in the second verse, “And the Gentiles shall come to Thy light, and Kings to the brightness of Thy rising.” The emotional heart of Lumen in Christo is the poignant setting for the second verse of Isaiah 9, the same chapter whose sixth verse Handel would set so memorably in the chorus, “For Unto Us A Child is Born” from Messiah. The Gregorian “Lumen in Christo” returns, followed by a sequence of ascending statements of the phrase which resolve in a luminous “Amen” and an ethereal “Lux Aeterna.”
Symphony No. 7 ‘A Sea Symphony’
Hanson bade farewell to the symphonic form in 1977, with his grandly rhetorical Symphony No. 7, ‘A Sea Symphony’ for Chorus and Orchestra, after Walt Whitman. At the time, Hanson’s idiom seemed to some contemporaries a quaint anachronism; but like the poet who inspired the work, Hanson, at age 81, remained true to his course. The symphony was written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the National Music Camp at Interlochen, a summer training center for the performing arts near Traverse City, Michigan.
But the Symphony can also be seen as a conscious farewell to the large-scale Romantic writing that Hanson had embraced throughout his lifetime. Maestro Gerard Schwarz feels that, in that sense, the Sea Symphony is “the culmination of all of Hanson’s works.” It “comes full circle,” says Schwarz, from the favorite ‘Nordic’ and ‘Romantic’ Symphonies, matching their compelling and uplifting qualities and bringing back the “famous Hanson chords.” Schwarz recalls with great fondness his youthful experiences at Interlochen with Hanson’s music, in particular “conducting the theme from the Symphony No. 2 when I was eleven years old. Now, many years later, it is a very moving experience to be a part of such a major undertaking as the recording of all of Hanson’s symphonies.”
The Symphony also completed another circle: Hanson first set Whitman’s verse to music in 1915, with his six songs Opp. 2 and 3. (Other Whitman settings by Hanson include Three Songs from ‘Drum Taps’ , Song of Democracy , and The Mystic Trumpeter .)
After a largamente introduction, the first-movement, “Lo, the unbounded sea,” evokes its unbridled setting with metrical shifts from 5/4, 4/3, 3/4 to 9/8. It concludes with another allusion to the composer’s idol, Sibelius, whose influence is heard in virtually all of Hanson’s symphonies. The second movement, “The untold want,” is only 46 bars in length, a chromatic escalation that finds terra firma on the note A with the words “Now voyager” before a quiet coda for strings and alto voices. The final “Joy, shipmate, joy!” ends Hanson’s symphonic cycle on a note of hope and jubilation, but not before a last, proud quote from the composer’s best-known work, the ‘Romantic’ Symphony. Hanson’s intent here is unmistakable: he is affirming a lifetime of accomplishment, not timidly but with a burst of youthful emotion, taking listeners once more onto the “unbounded sea” that Hanson envisioned so clearly to the end of his days.
Steven C. Smith
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