Music Post: Howard Hanson, Great U.S. Composer

Updated: Oct. 9, 2018 at 1:48 PM HST
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We tend to think of American composers in terms of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. In a second tier we find Leonard Bernstein and Roy Harris. And a long list of others follows, sometimes including Howard Hanson (1896-1981). But with the advantage of time we find that Hanson’s work, including seven symphonies and some excellent concertos and chamber music, excels some works by these other gentlemen.

A composer’s reputation begins to form while she or he is still alive, and is often affected by extramusical factors – Paul Hindemith’s personality was a bit rough around the edges, Ottorino Resphigi got along with Mussolini, Virgil Thomson was a powerful critic, Peter Mennin was thought of as an administrator since he headed Juilliard, and Germaine Tailleferre moved to America from Paris twice, removing herself from the Paris scene for an “out of sight, out of mind” effect.

In Howard Hanson’s case, he spent 40 years as head of the Eastman School of Music and made many fine Mercury recordings that put American classical masterpieces before the public, but made relatively few recordings of his own compositions. Did we think his forbearance was a realistic self-assessment? Perhaps I did, because I recall being astonished when Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony began recording the Hanson symphonies.

It quickly began evident that (1) his “Romantic” and “Nordic” symphonies were by no means his only masterpieces, and (2) Schwarz, fronting a better orchestra and having the advantage of having heard the older recordings, was a better Hanson interpreter than Hanson was.

Hanson wrote tonal music when the conservatories of our land were teaching serial composition, and to be taken seriously as a composer one was expected to be dissonant at the very least. Schoenberg himself had observed that there was still plenty of great music to be written in C, but his disciples and disciples’ disciples didn’t believe it. Today, more than a century after the 12-tone revolution and generations after it became evident that, no, our ears were not going to adjust to serial composition and listen to it for pleasure, Pierre Boulez est mort and it is easier to appreciate Hanson’s individual harmonies and orchestration.

Hanson was a child of Swedish immigrants, born in Wahoo, Nebraska, outside of Omaha. He studied piano, cello and trombone (like Gustav Holst) as well as composition. By the age of 20 he was a teaching assistant at Northwestern. California’s College of the Pacific hired him and by his middle twenties he was dean of fine arts. Before he was 30 he was a recognized composer and conductor. That’s when Kodak founder George Eastman hired him to set up the Eastman School of Music. Hanson made a rule that half his teaching hires would be Americans and half would be from Europe. At one point he tried to hire Bartok to teach composition. Bartok declined, wanting to teach piano, but Hanson already had a European piano teacher, so the gig fell through. For decades Hanson premiered hundreds if not thousands of works by American composers.

Hanson’s music tends to be dramatic, with unexpected chord changes, and tone color polish. For example, he sometimes has piccolo double high notes in the strings. He liked theme-and-variations, and wrote themes catchy enough to withstand the variations.

I found it quite easy to make a two-hour show of Howard Hanson’s music.