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ClassicsOnline Home » HANSON: Symphony No. 1, 'Nordic' / Merry Mount Suite
Howard Hanson (1896-1981): Orchestral Works, Vol. 1
Howard Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, on 28 October 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 the Conservatory of Fine Arts, before winning the American Prix de Rome for his ballet Californian Forest Play of 1920. His appointment as Director of the Eastman School, Rochester, inaugurated a 40 year association, during which Hanson taught many composers of the younger generation, as well as shaping its orchestra, the Eastman Philharmonia, into a body of national standing. This is reflected in the many recordings they made, particularly in the 1950s and '60s for the Mercury label, covering a wide range of American music in addition to Hanson'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 and dissemination of American music across a broad range of genres. He received 36 American honorary degrees, a Pulitzer Prize for his Fourth Symphony, and was 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 26 February 1981.
As a composer, Hanson was an unashamed musical romantic. Perhaps through his Swedish ancestry, he displayed an early and lifelong adherence to North European symphonism - particularly Sibelius, whose influence he transmuted in very specific and, in his view, specifically American ways. This is nowhere more apparent than in his Nordic Symphony, Op. 21, the first of 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 Respighi can be detected in the powerfully evocative orchestral style. The fact, however, that it shares the same key, E minor, as Sibelius's First Symphony cannot be coincidental, as Hanson's freewheeling and often intuitive approach to form frequently brings to mind the Finnish composer.
The opening movement begins with an earnest melody on strings, quickly becoming more expansive and impulsive. A vivid panorama opens out, 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 imperiously in full orchestra. Solo wind herald a return of the opening theme, as the movement's material is not so much developed as animated by skilful harmonic eleboration. Increasing intensity is gained (6:46), and the mood darkens, before a heightened restatement of the opening theme. The second theme now maintains the momentum, as a rhythmically-incisive figure in the horns presages the main climax (beginning 10:35). This is snatched short, however, and the movement ends 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 brief climax heightens the pictorially-inclined mood, before strings usher in a more robust version of the opening theme (4:02). Solo horn comments resignedly on the idea, and clarinets wind the music down to its restful close. The Finale breaks out impulsively with a rhythmically-agitated theme on full orchestra, clearly related to the opening theme of the first movement. Oboes and upper strings introduce a more wistful melody, abruptly cut short by strokes on the bass drum (3:50). A starkly tragic theme now emerges over a heavy tread in the lower strings, an well-defined episode in place of the expected development, before the opening agitation reasserts itself. The second theme now expands directly into the movement's clinching climax - a heady peroration (from 8:15), after which the surging rhythmic energy sees the symphony through to a powerful conclusion. Its E minor tonality stated forcefully and unequivocally.
Completed in 1933, Merry Mount was to be Hanson's only opera. With a libretto by R. L. Stokes after the novel by Nathanial Hawthorne, 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 is available on Naxos Historical 8.110024/5). The scenario, concerning witchcraft and sexual obsession in seventeenth century New England, offered unlimited scope to the composer's full-bodied orchestration and lush harmonic manner. Despite initial sucess, however, the opera was not revived until 1964 and seldom thereafter. Hanson compiled the present five-movement suite in 1938 and recorded it in 1940. The Overture begins with a brass chorale, which sounds forbodingly over tolling timpani and gongs, gaining in passion as the music emerges into focus. A heightened turn to the major, replete with pealing bells, indicates the powerfully emotive nature of the story about to unfold.
Children's Dance is a witty and rhythmically agile scherzo, bounding forward with uninhibited zest. Ironically, it depicts the presence in the town of pleasure-seeking cavaliers. Love Duet is warm and lilting, the melodic material intensifying by degree, before it reaches a purposeful climax over a measured timpani tread, and closes in a suddenly ominous mood, reflecting the doomed desire of Pastor Bradford for Lady Marigold Sandys. The Prelude to Act II opens pastorally, becoming rhythmically animated as the music moves forward impulsively into the Maypole Dances. This vividly descriptive sequence, complete with modal inflections and offbeat percussion touches, heads relentlessly to its whirlwind conclusion; a graphic image for the conflict between hedonism and puritanism which underlies the opera's fateful conclusion.
Written during 1925-6, Pan and the Priest is an intriguing symphonic poem, which introduces a new rhythmic clarity to Hanson's compositional armoury. The opening idea sounds out mournfully, and appropriately, on cor anglais, soon joined by clarinet and oboe, before strings add an atmospheric backdrop. The music grows more animated over a steady pulse, reaching a 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 pensive mood heard earlier. The reappearance of the first idea presages the main climax, with both themes passed excitedly around the full orchestra. The work closes in a mood of full-throated eloquence.
Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns is one of Hanson'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) sounds forth its successor, melancholy and with just a hint of the archaic, over a halting accompaniment. This is combined in canon on full strings, before the texture opens out and the hymns combine to draw this short, evocative piece to its expressive conclusion.
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HANSON: Symphony No. 1, 'Nordic' / Merry Mount Sui...