Howard Hanson

Now listening to Howard Hanson’s 1st Symphony, the well-named “Nordic”, for in atmosphere and style it resembles much of Sibelius’s writing. Which is no bad thing, for Sibelius is as good a symphonic model as any and he also happens to be one of my favorite composers. Richard Whitehouse, in his notes to this wonderful performance by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Schermerhorn[1], also alludes to similarities with Arnold Bax’s work. This seems perfectly natural considering Bax, like many English composers of the time, was also influenced by Sibelius.

Despite the clear influence of Sibelius, Hanson has his own voice. It seems most evident through an edgy and intense rhythmic thrust, the characteristic that seems most typically American here. There are also folk music-like elements in the melodies, nothing that unusual at the time (1922) as many symphonic composers were doing much the same, but there is a slight American tinge to these even if they are not as clearly delineated as others (such as Copland or Thomson) would make them. Hanson makes full use of the size and dynamic range of a Late Romantic-period orchestra, indeed in much the way that Arnold Bax (who drew heavily on Celtic folk melody) does with his seven symphonies and many tone poems. This is big music. A very enjoyable symphony, and if it does lean closely on the North European model, is that necessarily a bad thing? Abstract music once again, Corporeal only in the implied sense of a dramatic program (a characteristic of many Late-Romantic symphonies).

Once again, this is a Naxos recording – more kudos to them.


[1] Hanson, Howard Orchestral Works Vol. 1 Nashville Symphony Orchestra cond. Schermerhorn Naxos 8.559072

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