About this Recording
8.559251 - HANSON: Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings / Nymphs and Satyr
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Howard Hanson (1896-1981)
Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite • Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings • Fantasy Variations

 

The cause of American music could hardly have asked for a more enthusiastic champion than Howard Hanson. Throughout his long career as a composer, conductor, and educator, Hanson was absolutely indefatigable in his commitment, generosity, and enthusiasm for the contemporary music of his homeland. Born in Wahoo, Nebraska, on 28 October 1896, to Swedish Lutheran immigrants, he studied at the Institute of Musical Art and Northwestern University. Hanson joined the music faculty of the College of the Pacific in 1916 as a professor of theory and composition and within three years became dean of the college's Conservatory of Fine Arts. He was awarded the first American Prix de Rome in 1921. During his three years in Italy, he studied with the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, whose orchestration techniques influenced him greatly. In 1924 George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Corporation, invited Hanson to become the director of the then-young Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, New York. During his forty years at Eastman, Hanson developed the conservatory into one of America's finest institutions of musical learning and pioneered an innovative curriculum based on his vision of American musical life, integrating practical instrumental study with academic theory and musicology disciplines. He also created the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) final degree that is now offered by most American conservatories. As director of the Eastman School, Hanson held an influential position in American musical life, and he used this position consistently to promote new works of living composers. The most wide-ranging of these efforts was the series of recordings he made for the Mercury label of hundreds of American works with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, a group made up of Eastman students and local professionals. Hanson also established the American Music Festival, a yearly presentation of works by living American composers, which continued until 1971. He maintained an active schedule as a guest lecturer and conductor, served frequently as a consultant on musical education issues, and published a theoretical text, The Harmonic Materials of Modern Music. During his years, despite the busy schedule of his Eastman life, Hanson maintained a steady stream of musical compositions, ranging from his famous affirmation of neo-romantic musical identity, his Symphony No. 2, "Romantic" (1930), to the Pulitzer-prize winning Symphony No. 4, "Requiem" (1943), to numerous works for chorus and orchestra, his favourite genre, to the full-length opera Merry Mount (1933), one of the first operas to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. Hanson retired from Eastman in 1964 but continued both his own composing and his promotion work on behalf of American music until his death on 26 February 1981.

Hanson's unabashedly romantic musical language was remarkably consistent throughout his entire life. Influenced by the Nordic tradition represented by Jean Sibelius, his work took a decidedly American approach to the European symphonic genre and influences. The musicologist Walter Simmons writes the following in his seminal study of American neo-romanticism, Voices in the Wilderness (2004): "Howard Hanson was a bold and outspoken advocate of music as a euphonious vehicle for untrammeled emotional expression during a period when the new-music community had become hostile to such a point of view." The consistency of Hanson's musical vision and style is remarkable, during a period in which he saw himself gradually considered an anachronism by a new generation of American composers. With a surge of new recordings beginning in the late 1980s and continuing to the present, listeners have been rediscovering the immense pleasures afforded by Hanson's grand musical landscapes.

Perhaps because he was an excellent pianist himself, with particularly legendary score-reading abilities, Hanson's two essays in the concerto genre are for keyboard instruments, piano (1948) and organ. His Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings, Op. 22, No. 3 (1941), began life as a symphonic poem entitled North and West (1923). Hanson turned that work into the Organ Concerto (1926), written for the Eastman School's organist Harold Gleason, which used a full symphony orchestra. Owing to the difficulties of performing works for organ with large symphony orchestras, since most organs are in confined church spaces, Hanson created this final, tighter version, using smaller musical forces. It is cast in the one-movement episodic form that Hanson frequently employed. The opening begins mysteriously with strings and harp, leading to the organ's initial subdued entrance. The main two themes of the work are presented by the organ. The second section introduces a dancing ostinato, a favorite Hanson device, leading to a development of the themes of the first section. An exciting cadenza for organ pedals alone leads to a quiet return of the opening music. The faster music returns, driving towards the vibrant coda.

Nymphs and Satyr (1979), a ballet suite for chamber orchestra, was Hanson's last completed major composition, and was a commission from the Chautauqua Institute, a Western New York artists' colony which was was one of Hanson's summer home retreats for many years. The musical material of the work is taken largely from two shorter pieces written in the years earlier, a fantasy for clarinet and a scherzo for bassoon. The opening Prelude presents an upward unfolding motive that is developed in the Fantasy. The main material of the Scherzo presents a melody with a distinctly Swiss mountain flavour, apparently a tune which Hanson had devised to sing to his dog while feeding her biscuits. The Epilogue brings back the opening material theme and winds down to a contemplative conclusion. The composer wrote the following scenario for the ballet:

Destiny moves the nymphs on a journey. As they travel they express their joy of life. Satyr is touched on the shoulder by Destiny and he joins the nymphs in their expression of happiness. At the end, Satyr is left alone, contemplating life and friendship.

Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth (1951) for piano and string orchestra was commissioned by Hanson's alma mater, Northwestern University, to celebrate their centenary. Hanson commented: "It occurred to me that it would be appropriate if I could write a series of variations on a theme which I wrote when I was a young student there. Looking through my student works, I found one theme which seemed to be as fresh today as it was when it was written well over thirty years ago." The theme which he chose was the opening motive of his Concerto da Camera in C minor for Piano and String Quartet (1917). The new work begins with the theme as it appeared in the early composition and then is followed by four variations of contrasting character. The first is dark and brooding, the second alternates music of percussive and flowing characters, the third is a lyric meditation, and the fourth is a vibrant and ferocious dialogue. A quiet coda ends the work in peaceful tranquility.

Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings, Op. 35 (1945), was composed as a courtship gift to Margaret Elizabeth Nelson, whom Hanson married in 1946. It was commissioned by the WHAM Radio Station in Rochester for their Treasures in Music programme series. The work is a lyric and flowing song for the flute which courses through a series of typically warm string harmonies, energized with more rhythmic textures in the harp.

Summer Seascape No. 2 (1965) for viola and strings is one of Hanson's most obscure compositions. It is not to be confused with the middle movement of his orchestral Bold Island Suite (1961) which bears the same title. Dedicated "to the memory of Edwin Hughes", it was written for the North Carolina Symphony in tribute to Hughes, a noted pianist and highly idiosyncratic editor of standard piano repertoire for G. Schirmer. Inspired perhaps by both the nature of the commission and the darker timbre of the viola, the small piece is elegiac in tone, though not without some of Hanson's characteristic omnipresent energy. The seascape of the title is that of Bold Island, Maine, on which Hanson spent the large portion of his summers, in a house he had inherited from his uncle. This otherwise small work is significant, however, in that it is clearly a conceptual sketch in many regards for one of Hanson's best works, his Symphony No. 6 (1967), written for the New York Philharmonic's 125th anniversary. Like the sixth symphony, Summer Seascape No. 2 is constructed entirely around a three-note cell (G-G-A) which is presented at the outset by the viola and subject to ongoing development throughout. In the symphony, each of the six short movements uses this very same musical cell as a departing point for contrasting varied musical explorations. Hanson was very proud of the structural tightness of the symphony. His approach may well have been connected to his work on his textbook Harmonic Materials of Modern Music, the first book in what would later be termed "pitch-class set theory".

Pastorale for Oboe, Harp, and Strings, Op. 39 (1948-49), is a similar work to the flute serenade and also bears a dedication to the composer's wife. Hanson originally wrote the work for oboe and piano, but orchestrated it in 1950 for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The work is somewhat darker in tone than the flute serenade, though not without warmth.

Carson Cooman


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