Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature


Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981) circa 1930

Nebraska-born of Swedish ancestry, Howard Harold Hanson (1896 ─ 1981) became by his mid-thirties what he had determined to become from an early age, the most popular American composer of serious music in the European concert tradition.  He had also become a sought-after teacher, orchestra leader, and musical administrator.  Hanson poured his seemingly inexhaustible vitality not only into the promotion of his own creativity, but, generously, into the promotion of his fellow composers, many of them, as time went on, his students at the Eastman School where he presided.  A radio documentary about the composer from the late 1980s revealed another side of the man.  Several of those interviewed by the producer complained – one of them indeed rather bitterly – about Hanson’s alleged egocentrism and insistence on getting his own way.  No doubt but that Hanson, believing himself a force, often stormed over those who, as he saw it, put themselves in the way of his schemes, his magnanimity in other circumstances notwithstanding.  The man being dead, however, and his personal entanglements being buried with him, the impressive practical and artistic achievements remain.  Paramount among these stands Hanson’s compositional legacy: Seven substantial symphonies, at least as many symphonic poems, a handful of concerted scores, numerous choral works, and an opera, which should have a more active place in the repertory, and not only by way of recordings.

With his contemporaries Roy Harris (1898 ─ 1979) and Aaron Copland (1900 ─ 1990), and with the slightly younger Samuel Barber (1910 ─ 1981), Hanson created a recognizably American sound in concert music, and demonstrated that American composers could adapt European musical forms to the conditions of a new society seeking to set its own mark on an inherited culture.  It is useful to compare Hanson’s legacy with the legacies of his countrymen-composers in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Harris certainly matched Hanson in egocentrism, maybe exceeding him; but Harris lacked Hanson’s talent, peaking with his Symphony No. 3 (1937), really an extended passacaglia for orchestra, and repeating himself, at ever lower levels, for the remainder of his career.  Copland began as an avant-garde composer in the 1920s, assimilating influences from Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; he found his marketable voice in the “cowboy” ballets of the 1930s and the populist, large-scale Symphony No. 3 (1946), for whose finale he adapted his own earlier Fanfare for the Common Man.  Copland wrote a surprisingly small number of works and ceased to compose altogether after 1964.

Barber, like Hanson, was a precocious Prix-de-Rome winner, whose scholarship permitted him to study at the Academia di Santa Cecilia in the Eternal City for three years; also like Hanson, Barber hewed to a musical language that the critical bien-pensants identified as aesthetically atavistic, a throwback to Nineteenth-Century ideas of harmony and structure.  Hanson, religiously sensitive, responded spiritually to Rome, while remaining more or less Protestant and Lutheran in his disposition; Barber, an entirely secular personality, polished his already formidable technique, but seems not to have drawn much inspiration from the environment of his sojourn.  Both Hanson and Barber would compose a respectable body of work in a Neo-Romantic style; both would suffer the same eclipse and rebirth of reputation.  Barber, however, would experience lapses of confidence, making his oeuvre less consistent than Hanson’s and rather less artistically persuasive.  Compared with his peers, Hanson brought greater drive to his art; if he were indeed an egomaniac, it would have been because his ego channeled his creativity.  Hanson was stubbornly Romantic in an increasingly anti-Romantic century.  His art should be of interest to those who espouse a reactionary aesthetic.


Re-Issue on CD of Mono-Era Composer-Conducted Performances

Hanson’s “American” status might be qualified: Born of Swedish immigrants in Nebraska, he maintained throughout his life a keen responsiveness to things Scandinavian.  While Hanson’s literary taste, as attested by his vocal and choral compositions, ran to the American Transcendentalist school of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, he drew musical predilection from his ancestry, modeling himself on the Finnish-Swedish composer Jean Sibelius, making the symphony the core of his productivity, as had Sibelius.  Hanson’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor Opus 21 (1923), bearing the moniker “Nordic,” has an unmistakably Sibelian sound and corresponds in its formal outlines to the three-movement form that Sibelius used in his Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5.  Hanson’s key (E Minor) is the same as that of Sibelius in his Symphony No. 1 (1899).  Although it is something like a thesis-score, having been written during its author’s time in Rome, the “Nordic” is nevertheless obviously the work of a precocious and talented artist, whose command of his medium can only impress the listener.  Like Sibelius, Hanson thought polyphonically, with the harmonies resulting from the sounding together of numerous independent lines; yet again like Sibelius, although Hanson thought polyphonically, he never composed according to the rules of a strict counterpoint.  While chorale plays a prominent role in Hanson’s music, one hardly ever encounters a fugue.  Hanson also had the gift to write music whose direction is immediately perceptible and that always gives the impression of moving toward an intelligible goal.

Symphony No. 1 exhibits all of the traits associated with Hanson’s later scores, in their germinal form, as it were, and with real éclat.  The Symphony’s First Movement (Andante Solenne; Allegro con Forza) opens with a modal melody reminiscent of Gregorian chant and given mainly to the string band with contributions from the French horns and the woodwinds; it works its way, in a wave-like pattern through several climaxes.  As a number of commentators have pointed out the movement – and maybe indeed the symphony entire – is monothematic, deriving all of its themes and motifs from its first few bars.  Thus what formally would be a second subject is audibly a rhythmic variation on what has come before.  In the development section, Hanson fragments the long melody and works out combinations and recombinations of the resultant material in a kind of musical kaleidoscope sequence.  Listeners will notice fine touches of orchestration – as when Hanson uses the harp and the celesta to “illuminate” the many crescendos; or, early on in the movement, when a pair of French horns call as though from a remote distance.  Walter Simmons makes a telling remark in his chapter on Hanson in Voices in the Wilderness (2004), writing of the “Nordic” that audiences ought to remember that this score precedes what came to be known as “film music.”

The slow Second Movement (Teneramente, con Semplicita) unfolds quietly and with dignity: It is essentially songlike, existing in the same modal atmosphere as the First Movement.  The Third Movement (Allegro con Fuoco) begins with bright fanfares, explores a sorrowful theme that Hanson claimed as a genuine Swedish folksong, but whose relation to the generative melody of the First Movement is evident.  Con fuoco means “with fire.”  Certainly the insistent ostinati – which pick up the pace after the meditative “Swedish” episode and serve as the foundation for a series of brassy climaxes – suggest the progress of a rapidly developing conflagration that consummates itself in the proverbial blaze of glory.  As Simmons suggests in his analysis of the score, Hanson pursued the goal, less of landscape painting in the manner of Sibelius, than of defiantly Romantic personal expression.  But is it a soul on fire?  Or is it that soul’s fiery, mystical response to a sense of God in nature?  Not quite.  And yet the aesthetic principles of the symphony, the spontaneous and improvisational character of its basic material and the generation of all other material from that basis, suggest a metaphysical background.  Emerson’s essay on The Poet (1843) explicates what the listener intuits in his concreted audition of Hanson’s score.


Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840); Landscape with Rainbow (1810)

In The Poet, Emerson criticizes the paltriness of the prevailing taste of his era.  “There is no doctrine of forms in our philosophy,” he writes; one surveys, rather, a ubiquitous and timid insistence on “rules and particulars” for their own sake and on a decorousness without inspiration.  Emerson would indict the “umpires of taste” of his time for cultivating what is “merely local,” by which he means parochial, earthbound, and without any transcendent reference.   It is as though, Emerson asserts, “you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the rest remaining cold.”  Such people fall below the level of “beautiful souls,” Emerson argues; their performances ignite no sympathetic flames, but produce only a transient and pointless effect.  “It is a proof of the shallowness of the doctrine of beauty… that men seem to have lost the perception of the instant dependence of form upon soul.”  Making (the word poetry comes from a Greek verbal stem meaning to make) should be vital, organic, and active; but it should also participate in the thermodynamics of creation: “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.  And this hidden truth, that the fountains whence all this river of Time, and its creatures, floweth, are intrinsically ideal and beautiful, draws us to the consideration of the nature and functions of the Poet, or the man of Beauty, to the means and materials he uses, and to the general aspect of the art in the present time.”

The “Nordic” Symphony and Hanson’s musical oeuvre in general spring forth from the union of two Emersonian principles: Fire and flow.  What Emerson writes about the literary variety of making may be applied with equal validity to the musical variety of making “For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down”; the artist acts under a conviction, that “nature is as truly beautiful as it is good, or as it is reasonable, and must as much appear, as it must be done, or be known.”  Allen Laurence Cohen quotes Hanson himself, accessing an Emersonian mood, in Howard Hanson in Theory and Practice (2004).  “There is a basic difference in the approach of the scientific mind and the creative mind,” Hanson asserts, such that when the artist’s interest becomes fixated on “the diagram of the work or the mathematical relations within a work,” then it has gone askew, and sterile form will result.  “Composition,” Hanson declares, “must be a certain free flow of fantasy that doesn’t have anything to do with a preconceived system.”  [Emphasis added]  The phrase “free flow” does not mean indiscipline, however.  As Emerson stresses, only the one who has risen arduously, step by step, through the equivalent of spiritual initiation, and who therefore supremely matches himself to his risky undertaking, should attempt the ordeal of tapping into the primal fire.


Thomas Moran (1837 – 1926): Pacific Sunset (1907)

What exactly was Hanson’s religiosity?  If one were simply to tally the work-titles, one would find equal numbers of Pagan and Christian references.  Hanson acknowledged the ancestral Swedish-Lutheran tradition but seems to have done so without practicing it formally; he regarded it, as it were, sentimentally only.  His Roman years incited him to curiosity about the Catholic Church and its tradition, traces of which show up in his work, which occasionally incorporates actual Gregorian melodies, but there was never any intention on his part to convert to Catholcisim.  In both Lutheranism and Catholicism, what attracted him were the strands of mystic experience and the traces of Pagan practice.  Like Emerson himself, Hanson espoused a personal syncretism as much literary as religious in which Protestant (in his case Lutheran) moral earnestness tries to maintain itself in balance with Pagan sensuality.  (The attempt to maintain such balance functions as the primary motive for the dramatic action in Hanson’s only opera, Merrymount, based on a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, from 1933.)  Two of Hanson’s scores, both of them tone-poems completed in the aftermath of the “Nordic” Symphony, explore this tense polarity.

Pan and the Priest Opus 26 (1925) takes as its program the confrontation between a Christian evangelist (the “Priest”) and the assertive genius loci (the “Pan”) of a Pagan place, supposedly Nordic rather than Hellenic.  The composition falls into two discernible halves.  The first half presents the Priest in music stern, insistent, and with reference to Gregorian melody; building from quiet, intertwining woodwind lines, the music rises to something like a homiletic climax with plenty of brass and percussion, after which it sinks again into a quiet or meditative mood.  About five minutes into the score, Pan responds to the evangelical appeal.  Hanson introduces the Great Spirit of All in a passage for solo piano obligato, the dance-like syncopated rhythm of which recalls the choreographic element of archaic ritual.  The sound of the piano breaking in suddenly arrests the listener.  Percy Shelley’s “Hymn of Pan” comes to mind:

From the forests and highlands

We come, we come;

From the river-girt islands,

Where the loud waves are dumb.

Hanson clearly sympathizes with Pan, whose Terpsichore gives way to extraordinary relaxation in a languorous melody for the cellos.  This melody unmistakably flows, reminding the listener that Pan figured not only as the deity of fields and flocks, but also supplied the name of an early philosophical concept in the adages of Heraclitus.  “Panta rhei” (“everything flows”) is the Heraclitean motto.  Pan and the Priest bears some resemblance to Charles Martin Loeffler’s composition A Pagan Poem (1906) which Hanson would record with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra in 1941.

Lux Aeterna Opus 24 (begun 1923; completed 1926) takes its name from the plainchant sung during communion in the Catholic liturgy:

Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine,

cum sanctis tuis in æternum,

quia pius es.

Hanson began Lux Aeterna (“Eternal Light”), a concertante work with a prominent part for solo viola, under Ottorino Respighi’s tutelage at the Academia di Santa Cecilia in Rome; he completed the score on his return to North America.  Hanson’s score would be contemporary with Respighi’s “Roman Trilogy” (The Pines of Rome, The Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals), all three of which utilize Gregorian melodies; and Lux Aeterna would be the most plainchant-oriented of Hanson’s works.  The score’s concertante character makes for a natural dramatic structure in which the soloist functions as the protagonist of a narrative.  Simmons, in his chapter on Hanson, rates Lux Aeterna lower than the “Nordic” Symphony.  “It does not share that work’s coherence of phraseology,” Simmons writes.  Possibly that is so, but in the melancholy musings of the soloist, the astute listener will detect the proverbial lost soul of mysticism who goes in search of light and the dawn.  The light lives in the orchestral accompaniment, with which the solo line gradually merges until the whole reaches a kind of musical apotheosis.  The liturgical Lux Aeterna has a synonym in the Lux Perpetua invoked in the Requiem as the asylum of the spirit after death.  If Pan and the Priest affirmed the Pagan view, Lux Aeterna would do the same for the Christian view.


Thomas Moran (1837 – 1926): A Miracle of Nature (1913)

When people still recognized the name “Howard Hanson,” they generally did so through acquaintance with his most popular score, the Symphony No. 2 in D Flat Opus 30 (1930), subtitled “The Romantic,” and written on commission for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Unlike the two tone-poems, the “Romantic” Symphony conforms itself to no explicit program, its sobriquet implying only an ethos.  In his discussion of Hanson in Music in a New Found Land (1964), Wilfrid Mellers writes, “That Hanson is aware of the nostalgic element in his music is evident in the fact that he subtitled his Second Symphony (1930) ‘the Romantic’; but there is more than regression in his music because, like [Horatio] Parker, he is genuinely a man of religious sensibility.”  Like Simmons, Mellers discerns Hanson’s affiliation with Sibelius, “from whom he learned his technique of motivic evolution”; but Mellers believes that Hanson might enjoy an even stronger affiliation with Ralph Vaughan Williams, “whose lifelong struggle was to achieve reconciliation between the ‘conflict’ symphony and the ‘religious’ principles of vocal monody.”  Hanson wrote a Pilgrim opera; Vaughan Williams wrote one too.  Mellers intuits a correspondence between the constant musical-spiritual aspirations in Vaughan Williams’ setting of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1951) and the attempt to enter into the flow in Hanson’s orchestral scores, making Hanson one of “the Pilgrim’s American descendants.”  This would be the case especially when the “liturgical manner,” so characteristic of the American composer, “becomes fused with Sibelian nature-mysticism,” as often occurs.

Given Mellers’ remarks, Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony earns its place in the discussion of his search for “God in Nature,” but as the vulgate of that search, or the report of it, which attempts to make an initiatory experience accessible in some degree to a laical audience.  In an attenuated way, the Twentieth Century concert experience still partook in the aura of ritual.  The audience, perhaps unbeknownst, sought catharsis, and would find it in the emotional itinerary and climax of a symphony by Peter Tchaikovsky or César Franck.  By 1930, however, a conspicuously “modern” and audience-unfriendly new musical aesthetic had begun to intrude itself.  Another commission for the Boston Symphony’s half-centenary, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, stands thus at the opposite pole from Hanson’s score aesthetically.  Stravinsky, a practicing Russian Catholic, qualifies personally as a more authentically religious person than Hanson.  Stravinsky’s Symphony might well be an authentic religious work, but not one intended to appeal to a bourgeois audience, although the composer himself was as bourgeois as any concert-subscriber or his wife.  The Symphony of Psalms is nevertheless ascetic and acerbic in the extreme.  Fairly or not, the soul that is immediately sympathetic to the “Romantic” Symphony most likely reacts to the Symphony of Psalms with annoyance, dislike, and dismissal.

Structurally, Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony has much in common with an earlier and in its day extremely popular symphonic score imbued with religious implications – Franck’s Symphony in D Minor (1889), with its “cyclical” principle and programmatic-harmonic outline of a journey through three movements from darkness to light.  While Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony involves very little in the way of darkness, it does employ Franck’s “cyclical” principle.  The First Movements of both symphonies begin with a slow introduction involving similar triplet motifs rising through the registers, an ascent-by-reiteration that the ear can interpret as a long, slow melody.  Like the D Minor, the “Romantic” derives its entire thematic and melodic material from its opening germinal procedure.  The movements of the “Romantic” are: Adagio – Allegro Moderato; Andante con Tenerezza; and Allegro con Brio – Largamente; although Hanson deploys in the First and Third Movements numerous changes of tempo.  What Mellers writes of Franck’s D Minor – that in it the “most impressive moments are purely sensuous” rather than spiritual – could apply with justice to Hanson’s “Romantic.”  It is an exercise on a larger scale of the purely Pagan spirit of Pan and the Priest, exhilaration without a creed or a concept.


Thomas Moran (1837 – 1926): Shoshone Falls, Idaho (1900)

Simmons and Nicholas Tawa (the latter in his study of The Great American Symphony, 2009) agree that Hanson’s Symphony No. 3 Opus 33 (1941) represents his supreme accomplishment as a composer of purely abstract music, with an emotional range much wider in comparison to that of its precursor.  Nevertheless, the score’s two successors, Symphony No. 4 Opus 34 (1943), subtitled “Requiem” and Symphony No. 5 Opus 43 (1955), subtitled “Sinfonia Sacra,” lie more within the topic of Hanson’s music as an expression of a religious  experience and therefore as an example of Twentieth Century religious art.  The memory of Hanson’s deceased father occasioned the “Requiem” celebrated with due solemnity in Symphony No. 4.  Liturgical in its declared character, Symphony No. 4 would function to purge grief by reconciling personal loss with the dogma of transcendent continuation in the eternal realm.  Where the “Romantic” was all light, the “Requiem” is dark and brooding.  Its form is the four-movement pattern of the typical symphony, but the listener has the impression of continuous development, the separate movements notwithstanding.  The “Sinfonia Sacra” is an attempt to confront the sublimity of Nature, but also to sublimate the experience.  While neither work qualifies as a masterpiece, either one is more serious than the “Romantic” and less abstract than Symphony No. 3.

In the chapter entitled “Delius, Sibelius, and Nature” in the study of Romanticism and the Twentieth Century (1962), Mellers makes a point about the Finn that applies justly to the American.  Sibelius, in his artistic attempt “to commune with nature,” as Mellers argues, managed to achieve “self-obliteration” and a civilized “measure of detachment” from the frustrations of the ego.  Mellers cites Symphony No. 7 (1924) and the tone-poem Tapiola (1926) as the dual consummation of the Finn’s ego-purging progress.  Mellers adds that, “Perhaps this oneness in Nature is one of the few means whereby an artist may approach religious experience, in a non-religious and materialistic society.”  Hanson’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 exceed their precursors in his symphonic sequence by approaching the threshold of “self-obliteration” and release from the ego.  Hanson – who as a college administrator was rooted in the materialistic world – operates in these works at a lower level than does Sibelius, in his works, but in a way that aficionados may nonetheless appreciate and validate as significant.  The comparative lack of popular currency of the two scores belongs with their seriousness: This is not the vulgate, but a more esoteric doctrine that leaves little or no room for the ego.  Symphony No. 4 earned its composer a Pulitzer Prize.


Original LP Cover Art for Composer-Conducted Performance of Symphony No. 5

Hanson perhaps drew truer to his essential self in the late tone poems and in one or two of the late choral-orchestral compositions than he did in his final two symphonies, Nos. 6 (1968) and 7 (1974).  Lumen in Christo (1974) – in two parts, Largo and Andante – supplies a particularly fine example by being at once a tone-poem and a work uniting orchestra with chorus.  That the older name of Lux Aeterna finds an echo in the younger name of Lumen in Christo means something, undoubtedly.  The Supernal Light, which is at once the Pagan Logos and the Christian logos, the genius loci and the cosmic nous, the terror of mortality and the promise of redemption, dwells in the heart of Hanson’s oeuvre, bracketing it explicitly, as lux or lumen, at either end.  Hanson wrote Lumen in Christo at the behest of Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, to be played during festivities for its fiftieth anniversary.  Hanson takes his texts from Genesis, the Requiem service, and the Communion service.  Hanson divulged rather cryptically that Lumen in Christo consisted in intertwining variations on themes borrowed from George Frederick Handel and Joseph Haydn, but beyond naming names he refused to give details.  The music does not sound like either Handel or Haydn; it sounds like Hanson, complete with the somber Gregorian melodies – one of them given to the solo viola, another, recurrently, to the chorus – and the rhythmically asymmetrical dance passages.  The unexpectedly strident opening, with brass fanfares, suggests the Chaos that, in Genesis, the light subdues.  The “Lumen in Christo” refrain has the same relaxed quality as the languorous tune in Pan and the Priest, but with a Christian rather than a Pagan implication.

An earlier work by more than a decade makes a stronger impression than Lux Aeterna, the felicities of that score notwithstanding.  The Bold Island Suitein three movements: “Birds of the Sea,” “Summer Seascapes,” and “God in Nature” – for George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, who gave the premiere in 1961.  (As with Lumen in Christo, Bold Island Suite has no opus number.)  The title refers to the place in Maine where Hanson liked to spend part of his summer each year, to relax and compose.  In manner, the Suite reverts to the Romanticism of Symphony No. 2, but in a more disciplined way, with a degree of what Mellers would recognize as ego-suppression.  The Third Movement, “God in Nature,” begins with an impressive canon in the French horns, one of the rare moments of strict counterpoint in Hanson’s scores.  The melodies of the movement have, once again, a distinctly Gregorian outline – reflecting the influence of Respighi on his one-time student.  In its progress, the music achieves impressive intensity.  If Hanson only rarely arrived at sublimity, he would nevertheless always have understood that sublimity placed an incumbency on him to aim at it.  His musical struggle can be understood on the basis of his Emersonian convictions.

In the section of Nature entitled “Beauty,” Emerson writes how “the production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity”; and how, while “a work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world,” it also springs forth as “the result or expression of nature, in miniature.”  The artist in this respect must fill the roles of mediator and symbolist.  Nature both expresses itself absolutely in its phenomena, but nature also expresses itself through the artist, whose gifts of acute perception and profound sensibility fit him to aid nature by articulating her hidden side in other terms.  Whereas, in Emerson’s vision, “Nature is a sea of forms radically alike and even unique,” consciousness nevertheless cannot embrace all of those forms at once.  Taking things one at a time, which the artist teaches his pupils to do, the pupil can begin to discern the pervasive beauty, of which any beautiful thing is a lower hypostasis.  It is the pervasive beauty that is most real while being the most difficult to discern or accept.  Emerson writes: “A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace, such that, “the poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each in his several work to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to produce.”  Art, for Emerson, is “a nature passed through the alembic of man,” and so “in art, does nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works.”

It is good to remember that Hanson was both an artist – an American composer when that species was few in number – and a teacher.  It is likely that the second role limited him in the first, but he could not have been an artist without being a teacher, and as a teacher he wanted his pupils to know what he, as an artist, knew.  The memory of Hanson is receding, the last phase of real interest in him having come and gone back in the 1990s.  Those who still remember him should actively propagate that memory.  Hanson’s music is good instruction for the soul.

3 thoughts on “Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature

  1. Pingback: Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature | Reaction Times

  3. Pingback: Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony – The Orthosphere


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