About this Recording
8.559702 - HANSON, H.: Symphonies (Complete), Vol. 3 - Symphony No. 3 / Merry Mount Suite (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Howard Hanson (1896–1981)
Symphony No. 3 • Merry Mount Suite


Throughout his long career, Howard Hanson was many things, but rarely an equivocator. In life as in his music, he was forthright and generous; the “fervent embrace” he gave Romanticism extended also to teaching, conducting, and encouraging the work of others.

Hanson’s stature as one of America’s most important musical educators is a matter of record; but the indifference of a generation more excited by experimentation than by Romanticism resulted in a widespread neglect of Hanson’s music, a situation being rectified by more and more conductors today. No Hanson work is more ripe for rediscovery than the Symphony No. 3, composed between 1936 and 1938. Appropriately enough, the work was commissioned by a group especially supportive of American music, the CBS Symphony; like Hanson, who was not only a prolific composer but a seemingly inexhaustible educator and conductor, CBS was responsible for the performance of hundreds of new works by American composers. Six years had passed since Hanson’s last symphony, the enormously popular “Romantic”, the embodiment of Hanson’s belief in “emotional” music versus that of the “cerebral” neo-classicists and serialists. The Third Symphony was a similarly passionate example of Hanson’s subjective style, and a heartfelt tribute to the Swedish ancestry that played so great a role in his upbringing.

Hanson had first studied music at a Lutheran school in his native Wahoo, Nebraska, a predominantly Swedish community. Both his mother’s and father’s parents had come to the United States from Sweden; their old-world culture, and the music of Hanson’s boyhood idol, the Scandinavian Edvard Grieg, would be powerful influences throughout Hanson’s life.

“Temperamentally the Third Symphony is…closely related to [my] First Symphony, the ‘Nordic’”, Hanson wrote. “The Third Symphony springs definitely from the North, and has its genesis in [my] reverence for the spiritual contribution that has been made to America by the sturdy race of northern pioneers who as early as 1638 founded the first Swedish settlement on the Delaware, and who were in later centuries to constitute such a mighty force in the conquering of the West.”

The Symphony, accessible yet emotionally complex, vividly evokes the pioneers’ “rugged and turbulent character [and] religious mysticism.” Its breadth and spiritual fervor (Hanson once considered becoming a minister, and sometimes served as a substitute preacher at a Presbyterian church) also make it something of a self-portrait.

The first movement, Andante agitato, suggests a passage that is both geographical and psychological with its opening ostinato and brooding, fugal introduction. After some development, trombones intone the solemn yet hopeful chorale theme that will be the Symphony’s religious idée fixe. A Sibelian mini-scherzo suggests a renewal of industry and commitment, before the chorale theme brings the movement to a benedictory close.

The second movement, Andante tranquillo, features a typically expansive and lyrical Hanson theme, reverent yet sensual in its propulsive accompaniment and rich orchestration. The third movement, Tempo scherzando, is the work’s most rhythmically charged, recalling, perhaps inevitably, Dvořák’s famous tribute to American pioneers.

The Symphony’s first three movements were performed by the CBS Symphony under Hanson on 19 September 1937; the following year, the composer completed the fourth movement, Largamente e pesante, which gives the work its hard-won emotional antiphonal chorale before the reappearance of the spiritual motto and the second movement’s main theme end the Symphony “on a note of jubilation and rejoicing.” The complete work had its first performance in an NBC Symphony broadcast of 26 March 1938, again with the composer conducting.

It was conductor/composer Eugene Goossens who persuaded Hanson in the early 1930s to turn his hand to opera. The result, Merry Mount, was its composer’s most ambitious work. Its existence alone is amazing, considering the breadth of Hanson’s activity at the time. After a long day of teaching, organizing, and administrating at the Eastman School, Hanson would come home and work on the opera until two a.m. each night.

Based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Maypole of Merry Mount, its plot is anything but merry: set in a Puritan town in old New England, it concerns a pastor’s romantic obsession with a visiting Lady, and the unleashing of his repressed hedonism. The story was a natural for Hanson, combining his love for “warm-blooded music,” poetic description, and Puritan history. The opera had its stage première on 10 February 1934, at the Metropolitan Opera; four years later, Hanson prepared an orchestral suite from the work, which is presented here. The dazzling Merry Mount, with its lush orchestration, elicited fifty curtain calls in its operatic première at the Met.

The austere Overture, which describes the Puritans, makes extensive use of the modal writing Hanson considered “very much in keeping with the Puritan character…I have always been passionately devoted to the great modal melodies which have come down to us from the past. As a boy, I heard countless Swedish folksongs and folk-dances, most of which were in the Aeolian or Dorian modes…In church I was impressed with the chorale melodies which form so important a part of the Lutheran service, many of which are so strongly influenced by the Gregorian chant.”

The playfulness of the second movement, Children’s Dance, is deceptive: it reflects the disruptive presence in town of the hedonistic Cavaliers. The third movement, Love Duet, would not be out of place in Hanson’s Romantic Symphony, with its passionate account of Pastor Bradford’s desire for Lady Marigold Sandys; while the exhilarating Maypole Dances use original themes written in “the old modes” to depict the erection of the maypole, an object that scandalizes the Puritans, and reflects the human sensuality that leads Pastor Bradford to murder.

Steven C. Smith

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