Howard Hanson & Gunther Schuller

Listened to two recorded symphonies by American composers this afternoon. Putative Abstract music by the Partch definition. Let’s see how they held up to that classification.

The first, Symphony No. 6, by Howard Hanson is a broad romantic symphony very much in the tradition of Sibelius. Echoes particularly of Sibelius’s 4th and 6th symphonies were very evident, as was the influence of Stravinsky’s pre-WWI ballets. This piece seemed very European in origin and style. Yet there were elements of percussive playfulness and a surging energy that I associate with American music. But little that could be really Corporeal. This was a fine abstract piece, derivative perhaps, but satisfying.

The same could be said about Schuller’s Symphony 1965, except that the European influences were not Sibelian but Schoenbergian. Schuller’s work also showed the same playfulness that was found with the Hanson. It’s almost as both composers respect and admire yet don’t imbue the European elements in their composing with the same gravitas as one might find with a European composer. The second movement of Schuller’s work sounds very much like Webern’s Symphony, almost to the point of pastiche, but enjoyably so. Again there is lightness to this composing that reduces the overall seriousness of the music. There’s also a more pronounced rhythmic verve than I hear in Webern, giving the work that nervous energy that may be the closest this piece gets to the Corporeal. Otherwise this is Abstract through and through.

Interesting, though, that both composers, to my ears at least, arrive at rather similar emotional results even though the formal and harmonic compositional styles are radically different. There is an American sensibility to these pieces.

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