Howard Hanson: Symphony no. 2 in D-flat, op. 30, ‘Romantic’

performed by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin

…a popular concert work which is the epitome of the twentieth-century symphony that could have been written by an American.

(cover photo by Les Anderson)

Howard Harold Hanson is not a cartoon character. The composer with that alliterative name was born on 28 October, 1896, almost exactly 121 years ago. He was born in Wahoo, Nebraska to Swedish immigrants, and began studying music with his mother as a child. He went on to study at Luther College in his hometown and later at the Institute of Musical Art, “the forerunner of the Juilliard School,” in NYC, where he studied with a man named Percy Goetschius, a man I’ve never heard of (nor have I heard of anyone under whom he studied).

After his studies in the Big Apple, he found himself at Northwestern University, where he studied composition, and later began working as a teacher’s assistant. His primary instruments, apparently, were piano, cello and trombone.

In 1916, he got his first full-time position, working at the College of the Pacific (in California) as a theory and composition teacher. He had composed some work already by this time, but in 1921 he won the Prix de Rome in Music for some of his works and was thus able to move to Italy for three years, where he wrote his first symphony, subtitled ‘Nordic’ (what else?). In fact, the performance of this work in New York in 1924, under the composer’s baton, got him noticed by George Eastman, of the Eastman School of Music, which is where he excelled as an educator.

Today’s symphony, the second, comes from a few years later, in 1930. I picked it over the first because I feel it’s the more famous, but I could be wrong. It was commissioned by the man who seemed to be almost everywhere in 20th century music, Serge Koussevitzky, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony, but it wasn’t the only one to be so honored. Honegger, Prokofiev, Roussel, and Stravinsky were also included in the celebratory commissions. It premiered on 28 November, 1930.

Neil Butterworth, in his book The American Symphony says that the ‘Romantic’ title “could have been applied to any of the set” of symphonies in Hanson’s output. The first few bars of the symphony, in the first adagio movement, give us a general idea of what this symphony will be about. As Butterworth states:

The Adagio introduction is dominated by three rising notes… later balanced by a mirror image of three descending notes which form the basis of the principal theme of the ensuing allegro.

There’s an almost cinematic feeling to this music, a constant kind of organic swelling, growth and sound that come in waves. An image in the book shows these three notes to be A-flat, B-flat and C, and a comparison is made to the opening of Sibelius’ second symphony. I hear it in the organic, rounded, kind of Arctic sound in the music, but the horns enter triumphantly and shatter the peaceful landscape.

Things continue to grow, though, and “the tonal ambiguity of the three-note motif creates an ever-changing key basis from bar to bar,” something that Butterworth notes composers like Harris and Schuman would later use. Technical matters aside for just a moment, the music has an emotional immediacy. The horns that broke that initial calm later give us the beginnings of a very sentimental swell.

What we’ll realize, though, is that these beautiful washes of sound are really no more than that, and I don’t just feel that way because Butterworth is also critical of the music. It’s beautifully written, but what we come to realize is that each of these crests in the first movement is just another wave lapping the seashore; they don’t culminate in anything particularly exciting. The concept of tension and release that is so critical to any work, be it a movie, a novel, a play, or a symphony, doesn’t really go anywhere here. Butterworth says:

The loose structure of this first movement involving frequent changes of tempo, creates an episodic sequence that does not constitute a satisfactory symphonic movement. A further disconcerting feature is the constant building of tension which seems to be leading to significant goals that are seldom reached. Too often the drama engendered simply fades away into a period of calm instead of an uplifting resolution. (p. 78)

That may sound harsh for how melodious this music is, but instead of having shape and direction, it’s more like a very comfortable, very nice warm ball of dough. It could be lots of things, but right now, it’s just… there. The only climax of note in the movement is led by horns with additional brass assistance, but is content we’ve already (mostly sort of) heard before already, but it’s the most commanding thing to come out of the waves of the first movement.

The second movement is what you’d expect a slow movement to sound like if you made a guess based only on having heard the first movement. Horn appears prominently again, and trumpet gives us a solo before another great symphonic swell of sound. If you’d ever wondered whence comes the magical, even otherworldly sound of much American film music, say the Star Wars prequel trilogy, when they’re visiting an underwater world like the Gungan city, then have a listen to this second movement. It’s all there, really more of the same.

And… if you had to guess at what a suitable finale to those first two movements would sound like, you’d probably be right. It begins jubilantly, and the celebratory opening gesture may remind you of Respighi, with whom Hanson studied in Rome. There’s lots of action from horns and trumpets, and some content from the first movement is used as the basis for this finale, a sort of saving grace that ties this giant wash of symphonic swells and horn melodies together into a sort of cohesive idea.

It has the color and intensity and spirit that Respighi’s ‘Roman’ works have, but again, you’ll hear the forerunner to John Williams in it as well. Of this, Butterworth says:

… film composers of later generations have adopted Hanson’s affirmative codas, blazing brass and soaring strings in their big screen spectaculars. As a student in Rome, Hanson had been a pupil of Respighi, the inspiration behind the first generation of Hollywood composers, Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and Miklós Rósza. hanson’s more American home-spun langauge has suited well the likes of John WIlliams and Jerry Goldsmith some 40 years later. (p. 78)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m having a harder time than it sounds like I am being critical of this work. You too might be apprehensive to speak against it after hearing only the gorgeous first movement, but after all three, which are of almost equal length and contain so many of the same gestures, one feels that these blasts of color between quiet moments are (maybe ‘cheap thrills’ is a bit harsh but at the very least) a bit gimmicky. It’s certainly pretty music, but Hanson harps on the same angle for a half hour, and I don’t get much else out of this work.

I’ve already included a few lengthy quotes from Butterworth, but I’ll end with this one. Butterworth himself has a block quote of Hanson’s words, so I’ll quote only a part of the author’s introduction. He says that Hanson knew that “the Romantic Symphony would emerge into a world hostile to its message,” so the composer “issued an artistic apologia,” as follows:

The symphony represents for me my escape from the rather bitter type of modern musical realism which occupies so large a place in contemporary thought. Much contemporary music seems to me to be showing a tendency to become entirely too cerebral. I do not believe that music is primarily a matter of intellect, but rather a manifestation of the emotions. I have, therefore, aimed in this symphony to create a work that was young in spirit, lyrical and romantic in temperament, and simple and direct in expression. (p. 79)

One can certainly say he was successful in the ‘lyrical and romantic’ and ‘simple and direct’ respects, and if you’re against modern music, and are against everything it stands for, then this is certainly a work for you, but it’s not a work for me. It may indeed be his most famous, though, and that is why it appears here.

We still have a bit of time before we get to anything too terribly modern or challenging, but we will indeed get there, so do stay tuned and thank you very much for reading.

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