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 Rodeoand Billy the Kid, or 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 Sevenis 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.
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).
Last Wednesday the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presented an outstanding concert performance of Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount at Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring For Music festival. In a previous post I provided some background on Hanson and the opera, which had not been heard in New York since its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1934.
If you missed the performance and the live radio broadcast, you can listen to it here. Read reviews of the performance here and here. The New York Times review referred to Merry Mount as a “period piece”, but its topic of religious fundamentalism and repression could not be more relevant today.
A Carnegie Hall performance not only showcases the visiting orchestra on an international stage; it also generates community pride at home, as this local news clip shows. With the RPO currently in the middle of a search for a new music director, this seems like an excellent time for the community to take stock of its hometown team. The recording above demonstrates the ensemble’s extraordinary polish and musicianship.
The following notes, which appeared in the program, discuss Merry Mount and Howard Hanson’s connection to Rochester:
“Be as a lion, dread Jehovah, and tear the flesh of unbelievers.”
So begins Merry Mount, the only opera that the American composer Howard Hanson wrote. Full of Puritanical hell-fire and brimstone, the quintessentially American story centers on the conflict between religious fanatics and hedonistic, free-thinking cavaliers, exploring age-old dichotomies between piety and desire, restraint and excess, spiritual and sensual—and exposing the dire consequences of repression.
No other composer would have been as fitting a choice as Howard Hanson for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Spring for Music program, for no other figure has shaped the city’s musical climate so profoundly. The Nebraska native came to Rochester in 1924 to be the director at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. During his 40-year reign, Hanson molded the school into one of the most highly-rated conservatories in the world, a legacy that continues to this day. At a time when established European works dominated the classical music scene, Hanson strove to give American music a place in the concert hall, initiating a series of American composers concerts at Eastman, and later, an annual festival devoted to American music. Hanson was instrumental in elevating Eastman’s international profile throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, simultaneously turning Rochester into a center for new American music.
A celebrated composer, Hanson continued writing throughout his tenure at Eastman, and it was during this time that he created Merry Mount. Although he composed throughout the rise of the 12-tone movement, his style remained steadfastly lush, Romantic, and approachable. His gift for melody shines through in tonight’s program. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Merry Mount had its stage premiere there in 1934, and met with an enthusiastic response (it still holds the Met record for curtain calls, a whopping 50). But despite the initial buzz, modern revivals and concert performances are rare.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is thrilled to bring Howard Hanson’s masterpiece back to the New York City stage, 80 years after its premiere and 50 years after Hanson’s retirement from Eastman. Today, Rochester remains a thriving musical hub steeped in world-class talent. The RPO and the Eastman School of Music enjoy the same synergistic relationship that was fostered during Hanson’s tenure, each contributing to a rich musical landscape that belies the city’s size.
Enriching this landscape has been a priority of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra since its founding. Committed to the importance of lifelong musical engagement, the RPO inspires audiences of all ages with a variety of offerings each season, bringing the thrill of live music to Rochester and the Finger Lakes region. Currently in the midst of an international search for its next music director, the RPO is well positioned to build upon its proud musical legacy for the next generation of concertgoers.
This concert production of Merry Mount embodies the spirit of everything that Howard Hanson helped to create and showcases everything that makes Rochester’s musical scene so special, joining young and old, current Eastman students, recent Eastman graduates, talented local singers, and the musicians of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for a celebration of Rochester—past, present, and future.
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 Musichas 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:
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.