In the last entry Howard Hanson was sitting in the audience—one of many notable musical figures—in the Kennedy White House in 1961 for the “return concert” of Pablo Casals.
This got me thinking about Hanson (1896-1981), one of those figures hovering at the dim periphery of my consciousness as the teacher of my own first composition teacher, Martin Mailman (1932-2000). So I picked a disc—a CD this time—of Hanson’s Second and Fourth Symphonies, along with his Elegy, Op. 44, played by the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra under David Montgomery and released in 1997 on the Arte Nova label.
If anyone has heard a Hanson symphony these days, it’s probably the Second (“Romantic”), which has many attractive qualities to recommend it: the proposal of an American answer to the epic challenge of first-movement form; generous and heartfelt lyricism in the slow second movement; a third movement that seems to me to point toward the film scores of John Williams. (“Did you hear that?! That’s Star Wars!!” I yelled to no one in particular.) But I was more fascinated by a piece on the disc that I’d never heard, the Symphony No. 4, Op. 34 “Requiem.” For what it’s worth, the piece won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1944. It also belongs to an important micro-genre of twentieth-century orchestral music: the war symphony. With a subtitle like “Requiem,” I can’t imagine anyone hearing the work in 1944 wouldn’t have thought of “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.”
It’s curious, then, that Hanson’s dedication reads, “in memory of my beloved father,” and listening to the work reveals that Hanson mostly eschews the sound and the fury of a world at war in favor of, yes, a more personal and modest grief, a suggestion of ritual (through recourse to lyrical lines that suggest Gregorian chant), and a certain ambiguity about consolation. The closing bars of the fourth movement, where Hanson separates the funereal intonement of the lower strings and timpani from the ethereal upper strings, creating a tonal, timbral, and material gulf between mourning “here on earth” and the accomplishment of “paradise,” is particularly powerful.
But another reason for my fascination has to do with another war symphony, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940). Okay, here it is. Britten’s movements: I. Lacrymosa, II. Dies irae, III. Requiem aeternam. Hanson’s movements: I. Kyrie, II. Requiescat, III. Dies irae, IV. Lux aeterna. And Britten’s dedication, whatever the origins of the piece, is “to the memory of my parents.” Britten’s work was given its première in Carnegie Hall in 1941 by the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, but it was soon thereafter performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, who was so impressed that he engineered the commission of—well, let’s just say it—Peter Grimes. And finally, at least for now, Koussevitzky was a champion of Howard Hanson’s music, and it’s to the conductor’s memory that the composer dedicated his Elegy, Op. 44 (the last work on this disc). A more serious comparison of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Hanson’s Symphony No. 4 “Requiem” would seem to be in order.
At the national conference of the American Musicological Society this November (musicology alert!), I attended a concert of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at Kodak Hall, Eastman Theatre. How many times, I wonder, was Hanson in that hall? How many times did he hear his own music played there? And how many times was my own teacher there? Both places and pieces can remind us of relationships, but they do so in different ways. When I press play, Hanson sings his song again, because I’m listening.