Howard Harold Hanson (October 28, 1896 – February 26, 1981) was an American composer, conductor, educator, music theorist, and champion of American classical music. Hanson was born in the very heartland of the United States at Wahoo, NE, to Swedish immigrant parents, Hans and Hilma (Eckstrom) Hanson. In his youth he studied music with his mother. Later, he studied at Luther College in Wahoo, receiving a diploma in 1911, then at the Institute of Musical Art, the forerunner of the Juilliard School, in New York City, where he studied with the composer and music theorist Percy Goetschius in 1914. Afterward he attended Northwestern University, where he studied composition with church music expert Peter Lutkin and Arne Oldberg in Chicago. Throughout his education, Hanson studied piano, cello and trombone. Hanson earned his BA degree in music from Northwestern in 1916, where he began his teaching career as a teacher’s assistant.
In 1916, Hanson was hired for his first full-time position as a music theory and composition teacher at the College of the Pacific in California. Only three years later, the college appointed him Dean of the Conservatory of Fine Arts in 1919. In 1920, Hanson composed The California Forest Play for solo voices, chorus, dancers, and orchestra, his earliest work to receive national attention. Hanson also wrote a number of orchestral and chamber works during his years in California, including Concerto da Camera, Symphonic Legend, Symphonic Rhapsody, various solo piano works, such as Two Yuletide Pieces, and the Scandinavian Suite, which celebrated his Lutheran and Scandinavian heritage.
In 1921 Hanson was the first winner of the American Academy’s Prix de Rome (Rome Prize) in Music awarded for both The California Forest Play and his symphonic poem Before the Dawn. Thanks to the award, Hanson lived in Italy for three years. During his time in Italy, Hanson wrote a Quartet in One Movement, Lux Aeterna, The Lament for Beowulf, and his Symphony No. 1, “Nordic”, the premiere of which he conducted with the Augusteo Orchestra on May 30, 1923. The three years Hanson spent on his Fellowship at the American Academy were, he considered, the formative years of his life, as he was free to compose, conduct without the distraction of teaching.
Upon returning from Rome, Hanson’s conducting career expanded. He made his premiere conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra in his tone poem North and West. In Rochester, NY, in 1924, he conducted his Symphony No. 1. This performance brought him to the attention of George Eastman, inventor of the Kodak camera and roll film, who was also a major philanthropist, and used some of his great wealth to endow the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. In 1924, Eastman chose Hanson at the age of 28 to be director of the Eastman School of Music. Hanson held the position of director for forty years, during which he created one of the most prestigious music schools in America. In 1925, Hanson established the American Composers Orchestral Concerts to serve as a major showcase for the music of American composers, especially those associated with the Eastman School of Music such as Ronald Lo Presti, Bernard Rogers, Peter Mennin, Gardner Read, David Diamond, Kent Kennan, and John La Montaine. Later, he founded the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, which consisted of first chair players from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and selected students from the Eastman School. He followed that by establishing the Festivals of American Music. He was President of the Music Teachers’ National Association from 1929 to 1930. He was also a founder and President for many years of the National Music Council.
Hanson made many recordings (mostly for Mercury Records) with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, not only of his own works, but also those of other American composers such as John Alden Carpenter, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, John Knowles Paine, Walter Piston, and William Grant Still. Hanson estimated that more than 2000 works by over 500 American composers were premiered during his tenure at the Eastman School. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, the “Romantic”, and premiered it on November 28, 1930. This work was to become Hanson’s best known. In some ways Hanson’s opera Merry Mount (1934), based on Nathaniel Hawthorne and concerning the early English settlers in America, may be considered the first fully American opera. It was written by an American composer and an American librettist on an American story, and was premiered with a mostly American cast at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1934. In 1935 Hanson wrote “Three Songs from Drum Taps”, based on the poem by Walt Whitman.
Hanson was elected as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1935, and served as President of the National Association of Schools of Music from 1935 to 1939. In 1938, he became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in Sweden. From 1946 to 1962 Hanson was active in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). His Symphony No. 4 of 1943 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Hanson met Margaret Elizabeth Nelson at her parents’ summer home on Lake Chautauqua in the Chautauqua Institution in New York and dedicated the Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings, Op. 35, to her. The piece was his musical marriage proposal, as he could not find the spoken words to propose to her. They married on July 24, 1946 at her parents’ summer home in Chautauqua Institution. UNESCO commissioned Hanson’s Pastorale for Oboe, Strings, and Harp for the 1949 Paris conference of the world body. Hanson’s first band composition was the 1954 Chorale and Alleluia. In 1961 and 1962, Hanson took the Eastman Philharmonia, a student ensemble, on a European tour which passed through Paris, Cairo, Moscow, and Vienna, among other cities. The tour showcased the growth of serious American music for Europe and the Middle East. Hanson died on February 26, 1981 in Rochester, NY.
In contrast to the angular sounds that dominated American concert music prior to World War II, Hanson wrote in an unabashedly neo-Romantic idiom influenced by his Nordic roots. . As a composer his musical language is akin to that of Sibelius or Rachmaninov. Hanson’s most characteristic works are undoubtedly his seven symphonies. He also composed a variety of other chamber, vocal, and orchestral works, including concertos for organ and for piano and a Chamber Concerto for piano and strings, as well as ballet suites. His choral music enriched that repertoire with several of the most popular works for chorus and orchestra. Hanson’s influence as a composer, conductor, educator and administrator is a considerable and abiding testament to his greatness and his importance to every area of American musical life.
My collection includes the following works by Hanson.
(Piano) Concerto in GM for Piano and Orchestra, op. 36 (1948).
Elegy to the Memory of my friend Serge Koussevitsky, op. 44.
Merry Mount (1933): Suite (1938).
Pan and the Priest, Symphonic Poem, op. 26 (1926).
Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns.
Symphony No. 1 in em, Nordic. op. 21 (1922).
Symphony No. 2, Romantic, op. 30.
Symphony No. 4, Requiem in memory of my beloved father, op. 34 (1943).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources