HANSON: Symphony No. 4 "Requiem," op. 34 (1943). Symphony No. 5 "Sinfonia sacra," op. 43 (1954). Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky (1956). Dies Natalis (1967).
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz.
Naxos 8.559703 TT: 69:44.

Sacred things. Between the World Wars, Howard Hanson exerted tremendous influence on American music from his base as head of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. This testifies to Hanson's administrative gifts. Rochester, a lovely city, lies quite distant from the then-major artistic centers of New York, Boston, and Chicago. Nevertheless, Hanson not only turned out a gaggle of good, well-trained composers, he also found ways to give American composers a hearing, including those neither his students nor especially friendly to his aesthetic. His annual festival of American music not only beat the drum for established figures like Copland and Harris, but presented work by newcomers.

Hanson, a musical conservative, wrote as if neither Stravinsky nor Schoenberg had ever penned a note. He looked mainly to Sibelius (one of the few front-rank American composers of his time to do so) and to the School of Franck, with a smidgeon of Debussy thrown in. He proudly and correctly considered himself a Romantic and, to some extent, swam against the neoclassic aesthetic so prominent in the U.S. from the Twenties through the Forties. He even subtitled his most popular symphony, the Second, the "Romantic." Critics wasted a lot of ink discussing it as if it were a manifesto, when the work really couldn't bear such weight. It's a good symphony, but not a world-beater. Hanson himself wrote better. I can't put Hanson among America's very best, even among his contemporaries, who include Gershwin, Copland, Thomson, Harris, Barber, Piston, Sessions, Diamond, Lees, and Mennin, but that sort of ranking doesn't mean a lot to me. Hanson is a composer who knows himself. He found his artistic salvation early, and although he expanded the capability and scope of his idiom as he went on, he didn't really change it. Consequently, you can tell a Hanson composition within a few bars -- not a negligible trait, since it means that if you want Hanson-like music, you must deal pretty much with the man who has the monopoly.

Although he wrote in many different genres, most people (I'm not one of them) consider Hanson's cycle of seven symphonies his central achievement. For me, they group into early (nos. 1 through 4), middle (no. 5), late (no. 6), and Big Mistake (no. 7), which almost drowned his then-low critical standing like a kitten in a burlap bag. The Fourth, subtitled "Requiem," Hanson wrote in response to the death of his father to whom he dedicated it in memoriam. It brings to a culmination Hanson's early symphonic style. There are four movements: "Kyrie: Andante inquieto"; "Requiescat: Largo"; "Dies irae: Presto"; "Lux aeterna: Largo pastorale."

For 1943, this symphony runs a bit conservative, perhaps thirty years out of date. It even shocks me to hear a composer trying to reproduce Sibelius at this point: lots of pedal points, very old-fashioned (although quite individual) harmony. The first movement, like many other Hanson works, is based on rising and falling scalar fragments over a relentless timpani beat and leans especially heavily on the Phrygian mode (E to E' on the white notes of the piano). The sound of that particular mode tends to leave things up in the air, as far as the emotional temperature goes, while retaining the melancholy of a minor scale. Furthermore, there probably haven't been this many pedal points (a note held over several measures, usually in the bass) since Sibelius's Fifth. The mode switches to Dorian (D to D') for a coiling theme. The tempo changes to something dance-like, a variant of the opening ascending modal scale. This climaxes first in a broad tune, which Hanson relates to the opening scales, and then in a gorgeous chorale, mainly for brass. The earlier themes return in different forms, all girded by the steady timpani beat. The movement winds down and ends with an octave leap on a solo horn.
The second movement begins with that solo horn call. Again, Hanson builds up his movement on ascending modal scales, this time Dorian. In general, the movement offers solid consolation. A second theme, a descending arpeggio (sol-mi-do), reinforces this, and indeed the music becomes passionate. Fans of the composer will recognize the general idiom from a number of Hanson works, notably the love music from Merry Mount. The movement ends on the octave leap, this time from the solo bassoon.

The third-movement scherzo leaves the serenity behind for Hanson's "martial" idiom. The music rages and spits and gnashes its teeth. This is the most "modern" movement in the symphony, and yet it derives from the scherzo of Sibelius's First -- not the only Hanson scherzo to do so, by the way.

In the finale -- gorgeously lyrical -- Hanson sings as raptly as he can. This kind of music I'm sure makes composers despair. Like Barber's Adagio for Strings, there are no obvious tricks, just music and song apparently. Yet there's plenty of architecture, with fragments of ideas in previous movements echoing. And it's not all ecstasy. The music goes through an extensive dark patch before it reaches its final safe haven.

Over a decade passes until Hanson's Fifth, and we find that his music hasn't stood still. I sense a greater openness to experiment, especially structurally. The first four symphonies belong together mainly due to their viewpoint -- identical with the post-Brahmsians of the end of the 19th century. Here, we have a one-movement work with cyclical elements -- that is, ideas from the beginning of a work show up throughout as a matter of building structure. Furthermore, the composer has found a new terseness; the symphony lasts a mere fifteen minutes. Hanson said he drew inspiration from the passages on the Resurrection from St. John. However, it's not a Sunday-school symphony, and it succeeds as a musical statement even if a listener doesn't know the source. Like most one-movement symphonies, the Fifth divides into major subsections akin to symphonic movements: an andante, a slightly slower adagio, a moderato increasing to an allegro, and an andante finale. The symphony also differs from its predecessors in that Hanson deals not in song-like themes, but in smaller cells of notes. The score overall comes off as tightly-knit, highly unified. Hanson's kit of ideas has expanded to include more angular combinations.

The opening section features a brooding chromatic coil which foreshadows the main theme of 1957's Mosaics, answered by a memorable rhythm (dotted quarter - eighth - dotted quarter - eighth) over a "swaying second" and a fanfare idea in the winds. This last blossoms into a brief bit of song, but another theme based on the rhythm breaks in as Hanson develops all the ideas so far. The section ends on the coil, and a variant of the swaying theme leads us to the second part which uses Hanson's characteristic interplay of ascending and descending modal fragments. A cor anglais solo based on the fanfare idea in the opening begins an impassioned section, which intensifies as it proceeds and climaxes on the fanfare in the full orchestra. In fact, all the main ideas so far appear in their most ardent form. The finale kicks off with the ascending modal fragment, this time set as a triumphant chorale. The symphony ends in a whisper, "trailing clouds of glory."

Of all American orchestras, Koussevitzky's Boston Symphony was probably, player for player, the best technically. Like Stokowski in Philadelphia, Koussevitzky performed a fair amount of Modern music. However, he also premiered a lot of important American music. His programs read like a music history book. He took up not only Hanson, but Copland, Gershwin, Barber, Schuman, Harris, Diamond, Piston, Bernstein, and many others. He premiered the Hanson Symphonies 2 through 4, as well as the Piano Concerto. Koussevitzky wasn't only Hanson's patron. The conductor died in 1951. In 1956, the Koussevitzky Foundation and the Boston Symphony commissioned Hanson for a work, and the composer produced his symphonic movement Elegy, to the memory of my friend, Serge Koussevitzky (to give the score its full title).

An elegy differs from personal grief in that it is a formal public statement. Some of the greatest elegies come from poets who didn't even know, or knew only slightly, the person who had died, some formal distance necessary to successfully express grief. There's plenty of formality here. The Elegy seems to grow organically from its opening idea -- a wide-leaping theme actually more typical of Samuel Barber than of Hanson. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Soon, however, Hanson's ascending modal fragments creep in, although the main matter remains the leaping theme. Four minutes in, we get a radiant passage reminiscent of the Second Symphony, the "Romantic." Indeed, throughout the elegy, we get echoes of the Third and Fourth as well, as if Hanson recalls his personal debt to the conductor and the times they shared. The ending blows me away with a momentary quote from the Second in the brass. The piece sings as only Hanson can -- powerful, concentrated, and above all genuine, one of Hanson's best.

Born in a family of Swedish-Americans, Hanson hailed from Nebraska, where the Swedes settled mainly to farm wheat. As of the early Sixties, the town of Wahoo boasted a sign proclaiming itself Hanson's birthplace. In 1967, Hanson wrote a piece commissioned by the Nebraska centennial and called it Dies Natalis (natal day). Hanson put out two versions -- one for orchestra, one for concert band. The title refers to the founding of the State, but also to the birth of Christ. The piece varies the Lutheran Christmas chorale "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern," known in English as "How brightly shines the morning star," and the basis of Bach's Cantata No. 1. Dies Natalis consists of an introduction in which fragments of the chorale gradually coalesce into a full statement, seven variations, and a finale. The variations are continuous and are less important as variations per se than as rhetorical and architectural points in a symphonic movement, again one of Hanson's best. Although written for a specific occasion, the score transcends its circumstances. The chorale tune pulls the best from Hanson's melodic imagination. It covers a variety of moods, from peace to fury, and ends on a sustained triumphal note. The brass writing throughout is gorgeous, like the sun shining on the Rheingold.

The composer himself recorded every piece on the program (except Dies Natalis) for the Mercury label with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra -- each album a classic. Some of these are still available. I've known all these works for close to 50 years in those versions, so hearing Schwarz and his Washingtonians startled me a little, the ERO having a unique, readily-identifiable sound. I'm sure Schwarz grew up on those stereo albums just as I did, since he essentially went back and rerecorded Hanson's catalogue for the old Delos label. Those recordings now show up on Naxos. Critics almost universally praised the Schwarz set when it came out. Fortunately, the times favored Hanson. Hanson knew what he wanted from his scores, and Schwarz has had the advantages both of having the composer's interpretations at hand and of considering his own interpretations for decades. Schwarz does differ from the composer mainly in execution. The Seattle simply plays better than the ERO, and the recording betters the Mercury sound, state-of-the-art at the time. Most important, Schwarz commits to Hanson, as if convinced of his worth. It's a pleasure to welcome these performances back to the catalogue.

S.G.S. (August 2012)