No, not the former boy band from the 1990s. We’re talking about composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981), one of the more important American musical figures of the 20th century. A great deal of American musical culture over the last half century owes a huge debt to Hanson, who, in his forty years as director of the Eastman School of Music, presided over an institution that has become one of the premiere music schools in this country.
Hanson was also a noted composer and conductor. I first encountered his work at a summer music camp, when the concert band played a transcription of the second movement of his Symphony No. 1. A few years later, in college, I was blessed with the opportunity to play the Symphony No. 2, subtitled “Romantic”. And Romantic it is: despite living in the age of Modernism in music, Howard Hanson’s heart clearly beat with lyrical Romanticism, and it’s that quality that shines through in nearly everything he wrote.
The Symphony No. 2 in addition to being loaded with gorgeous melodic material, is a dramatic work that employs a cyclic construction. When listening to the work, you’ll hear in each movement references to what has gone before, especially in the third movement, when the entire piece builds to one of the more moving conclusions to a symphony that I know.
And speaking selfishly as a former brass player, I loved this piece from the standpoint of the principal trumpet part. So did our principal horn player, next to whom I sat. Each of us got a lot of cool stuff to do, which is always nice. One of the first things any brass player does when encountering a new piece in an orchestral setting is thumb through their part and say, “What do I get to do on this one?”
Here is Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2. (UPDATE: I replaced the recording that I had used originally, because the third movement of the original recording had so many skips it was like listening to a worn LP.)
Tomorrow: a work I have never heard before. Seriously! I’m not even going to listen to it for the first time until tomorrow morning. That’ll be fun!