Howard Hanson and the Sounds of the Wide Open Prairie

The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.
The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.

More than any other composer, Aaron Copland is credited with establishing the virtual soundtrack of the American West. Listening to Copland ballet scores such as Rodeo and Billy the Kidor his music for the film The Red Pony, instantly evokes images of wide open prairie spaces and the rough and tumble adventure of a mythical frontier. These associations have been re-enforced by countless film scores which generously borrowed Copland’s sound (the opening of Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven is one small example). In reality, Copland grew up in Brooklyn and never saw the West. But his music still embodies something big, bold, and uniquely American.

Copland wasn’t the only American composer to draw upon inspiration from the prairie. Occasionally, cinematic sonic landscapes can also be heard in the music of Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Born in Wahoo, Nebraska to Swedish immigrant parents, Hanson was director of the Eastman School of Music for forty years. In my earlier post we heard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 and music from the opera, Merry Mount. 

Hanson’s music has more than a few layers of Scandinavian influence, but underneath all of that, I hear the majestic sound of the Great Plains. Listen to the second movement (Andante tranquillo) of Hanson’s Third Symphony and see if you agree.

This is Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony:

The long, sustained chords in the trombones and tuba under the sweeping string lines create a feeling of endless, expansive vistas and suggest the noble, eternal beauty of the land. John Barry used the same sound for the film score of Dances With Wolves (listen here, here and here for comparison).

Explore the TAFTO Archive

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For many professional orchestra musicians and audience members, August offers a rare period of downtime and a chance for contemplation. Summer seasons and festivals are beginning to wind down, while subscription seasons remain just around the corner. There couldn’t be a better time to explore the newly updated Take a Friend to the Orchestra (TAFTO) resource website, created by Drew McManus, arts consultant and author of the popular blog, Adaptistration

Take a Friend to the Orchestra is a series of fun and inspiring essays about how patrons can introduce their friends to the powerful, mysterious and even cathartic experience of a live orchestra concert. TAFTO tears down common stereotypes which may discourage some people from ever entering a concert hall. It reaffirms the idea that going to an orchestra concert should be fun, and should be an occasion which defies perceived rules about dressing up and knowing when to clap. Like sports teams, orchestras are cultural institutions which belong to the entire community. A wide range of viewpoints are represented, including, “critics, bloggers, musicians, classical music enthusiasts, and administrators.” Back in 2006 I was honored to contribute an article to the series. Other contributors include Alex Ross, Sam Bergman, Lynn Harrell, Leonard Slatkin, Gerard Schwartz and Henry Fogel. Drew talks about the series in this interview

Reading these essays, you won’t find gimmicky ideas or overhype about the need to re-invent the wheel in order to remain “relevant.” Instead, you’ll sense passion and enthusiasm for the magic of live orchestra concerts. In the next few weeks, explore the archive and then consider accepting this exciting grassroots challenge and take a friend to your local orchestra.

Howard Hanson, America’s Neglected Romantic

The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY
The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, NY, home of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

This Wednesday, May 7, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Michael Christie will be performing at Carnegie Hall as part of the final Spring For Music festival. Since 2011, Spring For Music has showcased North American orchestras and innovative programming. After this year the festival will end due to lack of funding.

The RPO’s decision to present a concert performance of twentieth century American composer Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount, is significant. Hanson (1896-1981) was the long-time director of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He is widely credited with building the school into one of the world’s finest music conservatories. Industrialist George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, established the Eastman School in 1921 and founded the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra a year later.

As a composer, Howard Hanson’s conservatism made him a rebel. At a time when dissonant, atonal music was in style with the establishment, Hanson wrote music rooted in melody and harmony. His Romanticism blended the Nordic sounds of Grieg and Sibelius with the wide open spaces of America’s Great Plains (Hanson was born in Nebraska). As a result, Merry Mount, based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about Puritan oppression, was enthusiastically received by the Metropolitan Opera audience in 1934 (a Met record of 50 curtain calls), but was panned by most critics. Listen to a suite from the opera here and listen to a rare excerpt from the February 10, 1934 Met production here. Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony recorded the complete opera for Naxos.

With Hanson’s Merry Mount, the Rochester Philharmonic revives a neglected score and honors its rich history, which includes such notable conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner, Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman and Sir Mark Elder.

The facade of the Eastman Theatre bears the inscription:

For the Enrichment of Community Life

The words are a reminder that orchestras and music education belong to everyone. The joy of hearing a full orchestra never goes out of style. In each community, our challenge is to create, preserve and build on legacies such as George Eastman established in Rochester.

Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”

Here is the first movement of Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, performed by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony. The piece was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. Pay attention to the way Hanson mixes the instruments of the orchestra to create unique colors (the expectation-building opening is a good example). Throughout the piece, you’ll hear conversations between voices (the horn, flute and clarinet 1:57-2:14 in the last movement).

Hanson’s music seems to have influenced Hollywood film composers (John Williams drew upon the last movement for E.T.), but it shouldn’t be dismissed as “movie music.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear music which deserves to be taken seriously:

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Here are the second and third movements from Leonard Slatkin’s equally excellent recording with the Saint Louis Symphony. Common motives and themes are developed throughout all three movements. For example, you’ll recognize the motive from the first movement at 1:40 in the second movement. In the climax of the final movement, themes from the entire symphony are blended together.

Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 can be described as a celebration of harmony and orchestral color in all of its subtle beauty. Out of style in the mid-twentieth century, Hanson’s music may come to be appreciated more with time.