Howard Hanson is one of the first American composers that I really feel in love with, around the same time that I had discovered and also fell for the music of composers such as Hovhaness, David Diamond, Paul Creston, Roy Harris, William Schuman and so on. I was enchanted after hearing Hanson's "Merry Mount" Suite (from the Opera of the same name) on the radio, I think it was during my first year of college. Soon after I bought every Hanson recording I could find; once I listened to the Symphonies, "Lament for Beuwolf", "Song of Democracy" and others I was a full-blown Hanson addict, past the point of no return. Hanson was born on October 28, 1896 and died Feburary 26th, 1981.
In 1924, Hanson became director of the Eastman School of Music, building that school into one of the best conservatories in North America. During his tenure there Hanson continued to compose prolifically; he also embarked on a career as a conductor, in which capacity he proved himself one of the great champions of American music. At Eastman, it has been calculated, he presented some 1,500 works by 700 composers. Hanson also commercially recorded a number of modern works in a series for the Mercury label in the 1950s, drawing much attention to otherwise neglected repertoire. He also founded an important annual festival of American music, with performances both of contemporary composers and of composers of earlier generations. As a conductor, he developed a particular interest in the "Boston School" of composers – John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick, and Horatio Parker among them.
Hanson's early music combines elements of Jean Sibelius, César Franck, and Claude Debussy, but to list these influences to a large extent misses the point. Early work like the "Concerto da Camera" for piano quintet (1917) has interest but great awkwardness as well. Hanson hit his mature style in the Twenties with such work as the "Symphony No.1" "Nordic" (1922), the String Quartet of 1923, "Lament for Beowulf" (1925, and one of his most powerful scores), and the "Organ Concerto" (1926). None of these works show much trace of the new Modernism of Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, or Béla Bartók. Hanson remained pretty much outside mainstream Modernism, with a sound and idiom instantly recognizable as his own. Many criticized him as musically reactionary, and yet his music could not have been written in the Nineteenth Century. There's a directness and concision, an avoidance of padding, more in keeping with Twentieth-Century ideals. His harmonies belong mainly to him, and he retained an interest in chordal combinations and odd scales to the end of his career. Hanson's music in the Thirties consolidated his musical discoveries with his opera Merry Mount (1933, another very powerful score, deserving revival), Songs from "Drum Taps" (1935), and the "Symphony No. 3" (1938). The Forties brought about a restlessness in Hanson's idiom, as if he had found himself in a bit of a rut and wanted to get out. The idiom becomes harsher and the architecture more concise and more dependent on short thematic cells rather than on full-blown themes. Works of this period include the "Symphony No. 4 "Requiem" (1943), the "Piano Concerto" (1948), and "The Cherubic Hymn" (1949). The Fifties and the Sixties – inaugurated even more experimentation: "Fantasy-Variations on a Theme of Youth" (1951), "How Excellent Thy Name" (1952), "Symphony No. 5 "Sinfonia sacra" (1954), "Mosaics" (1957), "4 Psalms" (1964), "Symphony No. 6" (1968), and "Young Person's Guide to the Six-Tone Scale" (1972). Needless to say one of Hanson's best loved and most beautiful works is his "Symphony No.2 the "Romantic"
From the mid-Fifties on, Hanson's music began to disappear somewhat from concert programming. He still received prestigious commissions, but critics began to lose interest, particularly as post-Webernian serialism came to the fore. It was with those Mercury-label recordings (of his own music as well, along with many products of the Eastman School, and his beloved American late Romantics) that Hanson remained well within the radar of American musical life. All of these recordings have become complete classics.
Hanson considered himself a Romantic, and although a committed advocate of all stripes of Modern American music, he nevertheless avoided both neoclassicism and dodecaphony in his own work. Because of that, he became a kind of poster boy for those who kept wanting young composers to write the Bruckner Tenth. Hanson found himself caught a little in this, going so far as to subtitle his Second Symphony (1930) the "Romantic" and to consider it a manifesto of sorts. Hanson produced no heirs. His music remains unique to him, which is one of the best things about it.