Heralding Hanson's Symphonies on Amazon


Review of Howard Hanson: Complete Symphonies by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle SO: https://www.amazon.com/Hanson-Complete-Symphonies-Gerard-Schwarz/dp/B01HNSJ9QM/ref=sr_1_1?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1472933634&sr=1-1-mp3-albums-bar-strip-0&keywords=hanson+symphonies

I own all these recordings on the original cds, which are scuffed up and barely play without skips and distortion, so it was wonderful to see them repackaged in a bargain set like this. Schwarz's recordings of Hanson are glorious and first turned me onto this glorious repertoire 20 years ago. Thanks to a generation or two of Serialism and its numerous proponents, great composers like Hanson were basically blacklisted from concert life, their works seen as quaint, reactionary throwbacks to an earlier age. Yet Hanson went on composing (as well as teaching future generations of musicians), developing in his own, quiet, original way based on the models of past masters. While Hanson might fit strangely in the hierarchy of 20th century American composers, he will be welcomed by anyone who enjoys the work of Samuel Barber of Nicholas Flagello. Yet to my mind, Hanson is the greater master, as he unapologetically wrote in an "old" style and found so many new things to say. His Seven Symphonies are minor masterpieces just a step behind the great Seven of Sibelius (whom he is musically a student of), and his musical thumbprint is recognizable after a handful of notes. The combination of distinct melodies, superior craftsmanship, and dazzling orchestration, mark out Hanson's music every time. Hanson's music speaks of wide-open vistas on the Northern plains; of long, forgotten struggles among people who were often serious, but never sober; and of a boundless optimism that may have immigrated from another land but remains firmly, and defiantly, American.

The best way to enjoy these symphonies is chronologically. The First is a monumental Romantic epic, written in big blocks of melody, full of struggle and hope. The highlight (besides his endless, trademark melodies) is the finale, when toward the end, the orchestra engages in a 'battle' with the percussion in almost Nielsenesque fashion. The Second Symphony, subtitled "Romantic," is probably his masterpiece, and was used at the end of the film Alien to underscore the sense of escape and hope (too bad for Ripley, many sequels awaited her!). This is beautiful, nostalgic music which is still full of energy and spirit. The slow movement out-Barbers Barber in its rich Romanticism which never sounds dated. This is, I hesitated to suggest, where music should have evolved to had not World Wars and Fascism cut it short. 

We see a slight change in his development (perhaps due to Modernism) in the Third Symphony, which though still richly Romantic, has a slightly more angular cut, and is full of terse motifs rather than long winded themes (though the slow movement reverts back to the earlier Hanson). It's a marvelous symphony and like Sibelius' Third, criminally overlooked. The Fourth and Fifth are a pair, written in the same style with a "requiem" feeling to both. They are dark, searching, introspective works full of haunted melody (again, a bit like Sibelius' Fourth, but slightly less gloomy). The Fifth is also like Sibelius' Seventh in that it contains one terse movement, and follows a similar trajectory. His Sixth is his most modernist score, taking a cue from Nielsen this time: it has a lot in common with Nielsen's 5th and 6th symphonies, particularly in its macabre (and sometimes, humorous) use of percussion. There is less obvious melody in this score, yet it's captivating from beginning to end, and of course never strays a mile near twelve-tone technique. The Seventh, a choral symphony based on Whitman, is a throwback to the Second (which it quotes), and is full of joyous, heroic optimism as he neared the end of his life. It's a brief but inspiring score, and not surprisingly, reminds one a bit of Vaughan-Williams' First (a choral symphony also based on Whitman).


This collection also contains a wonderful grab-bag of orchestral gems, such as the bardic Lament for Beowulf, which beautifully channels the spirit of this ancient epic. Another stand-out is the Elegy for Serge Koussevitsky, which contains a melody which could/should have been used in a missing symphony. It's gorgeous and would make most composers' careers. If you like one piece on this collection, you'll probably like them all. Hanson was remarkably consistent, composing within a narrow range that still managed to grow and evolve. This is an ideal way to get to know his work, and I can't imagine these works better performed by any conductor or orchestra (and indeed, I think they rival Hanson's own accounts on Mercury). You can download the entire set for only $6.99 at Amazon, whereas buying each disc individually would cost $5.99 (and there are 5 of them!). Mandatory buy for anyone even remotely interested in where the American symphony went in the dark days of war and serialism. 

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