Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Neo-Romantic Minority Report - Hanson's 6th

Middle America has given us two great musical Hansons. We're still waiting for a symphony to come from the Oklahoma-born Hanson clan who left us MMMBop. That means Wahoo Nebraska's own Howard Hanson (1896-1981) gets the spotlight to himself today. Hanson was a major figure in the institutional history of American music, a member of the generation that included Copland, Sessions, and Wally Piston. His 40 year (!) tenure as director of the Eastman School of Music and his co-founding/presidency of the National Association of Schools of Music testify to his reputation for life-long advocacy for composers, conductors, and performers. He's not called the "Dean of American Music" for nothing.

If I were asked to sum up the idea of Neo-Romanticism in music for someone, I'd probably hand them a recording of Hanson's symphonies (perhaps this one) and then something rather different from roughly the same time (perhaps this one!). The allegiance to tonality, the eschewing of bizarre or overtly novel orchestral effects, the generally harmonious and positive outlook on humanity -- it's all there! Reactionary is an ugly word, but it does capture the conscious rebellion Hanson undertook against the serial/neo-classical establishment in his own music (not in his teaching, however). His most famous work, the Second Symphony "Romantic" was written, he attests, as "a genuine expression of romanticism and a protest against the growing Schoenbergianism of the time -- the cold music -- and I wanted to write something that was warm and young, vigorous and youthful."1

Hanson was a conservative, no doubt, politically as well as musically. That's basically a death knell for one's hopes of entering the ~Classical Canon~. Well, our blog's motto is to hell with the canon! So let's take a nice, unabashed neo-Romantic bubble bath.

Actually, the member of Hanson's cycle of seven symphonies I've chosen to discuss is not his most sentimental, consonant, or accessible. In fact, the Symphony No. 6 (1967) contains passages that commentators point out as being uncharacteristically dissonant or "demonic." I believe this may be the best manifestation of a certain tension I've always felt about Hanson the composer and Hanson the thinker. For this peddler of symphonic romanticism that would make Rachmaninoff blush was also an indisputable pioneer in the realm of advanced music theory for atonal music! More than a decade before Allen Forte's The Structure of Atonal Music, Hanson published his Harmonic Materials of Modern Music, a textbook that lays out a system for describing (and exercises for composing with) any combination of chromatic pitches. His system is idiosyncratic but thorough, introducing many of the concepts that were supposedly "big finds" in Fortean set-theory. On a couple of occasions, I've noted severe condescension towards Hanson's system from music theorists who deride it for not being as "systematic" or versed in mathematical set theory as Forte's. I think this is outrageously unfair towards Hanson (who was, after-all, neither career mathematician or music theorist) and his innovative theory.

Hanson's basic idea is to represent the interval content of a group of pitches by listing off the occurrences of (inversionally equivalent) intervals within it. For example, the succession of C to G to A has one perfect fifth/fourth (C-G), one minor third (A-C), and one major second (G-A). Hanson labels this group pns (no, not that). Descriptions for bigger groups can get a lot more complicated (the major scale, for example, is an inelegant p6m3n44s5d2t...), but the basic idea of capturing interval distribution is the same, and is a huge conceptual step towards modern atonal music theory.

But he didn't write atonal music.

At all.

Can this weird facility with atonal pitch sets be reconciled with his consistently conservative harmonic idiom? I think it is in the Sixth Symphony. Hanson attested that the work was based entirely on the opening idea, the pitches C-G-A (pns strikes back).2 This is not a particularly dissonant idea, but it can be manipulated in a number of ways similar to what atonal composers were doing mid-century. For example, one can invert (or, "involute" as Hanson would say) it, preserving the intervals in mirror image form. C-G-A, flipped around C, becomes C-F-Eb. Still pns, still pretty tonal sounding.

That flip is the very first thing to happen in the symphony. Winds in octaves state C-G-A-F-Eb, and the phrase is completed by a timpani+tuba strike on C. A little conversation subsequently grows out of the motif, and this sort of tentative dialog within orchestral choirs is typical of the whole first movement.

Hanson alternates between slow/emotional and fast/demonic moods from movement to movement. Though C-G-A does not literally appear at every point, pns or some slight variation or derivation of it ostensibly does, resulting in an breathtakingly tight, integrated work. Case in point the second "Allegro scherzando" movement -- two snares introduce a driving triplet rhythm that persists to the end. Winds enter, stating C-G-A-Eb-F (pns x2!) in a case of motivic shrinkage, soon to be incorporated into a playful, slightly malevolent scherzo.

A totally different mood is created in the third movement. Here the composer lets a lush adagio develop out of that little interval configuration. Vintage Hanson neo-romanticism, but with a formalist twist!

I was introduced to the sixth movement finale prior to my exposure to the whole symphony -- it's the first track on this -pretty awesome- CD. This is rollicking chase-scene music3, barreling down a track laid by a rotated, transposed pns (C-Eb-Bb) ostinato. Near its conclusion, you can hear a slightly more lyrical idea played by the brass (an octave leap from Bb followed by a stepwise descent) -- this is the last, cumulative appearance of a secondary theme that makes its first appearance towards the end of the second movement. Unrelated to pns (I think it'd be called p1mnsd2), it's something of the symphony's defiant minority opinion. Yet pns is ultimately in charge here, and the whole work concludes on a blast of the initial C-G-A-F-Eb-C. Heck, here's the whole Earquakin' movement.

I think the symphony should serve as a reminder that sophistication of composition or theory does not need to equal "difficult" or "abstract" music. If this work is successful, it is because Hanson is able to translate a tiny mote of musical data into a succession of vividly different symphonic moods. Their brevity insures that the Sixth Symphony is never heard to be heavy, tasting more like a well thought out menu of little dishes that together make for a satisfying meal.
Frank Lehman

1. Quoted in Liner notes to Delos Box Set of Hanson Symphonies, DE 3150 1990.
2. In his book Howard Hanson in Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2004), Allen Laurence Cohen analyzes Hanson's music according to the composer's own theoretical ideas.
There is a lengthy discussion of the 6th Symphony within for the curious.
3. Compare the movement's beginning to this chase scene at 5:50. Also, sort of, this. Hanson's effect on certain film composers is considerable.


  1. The orchestration is really fantastic -- I'm loving the way he takes those motives you're pointing it around and passing them around to solo instruments. This seems to help give it a crisp and decidedly not-heavy feel.

  2. Wonderful article about a truly unsung symphony! Oh yes, and the influences on modern MOVIE composition is unmistakable - which reminds me that Bernstein once said that the future of classical music was in the MOVIES. mmmm eerie kind of truth-ism there...


  3. CubanBach, you're absolutely right. If you're ever interested in hearing Hanson's effect on film music in a specific way, I recommend listening to his 2nd Symphony and then Rozsa's "Spellbound" and Williams' "E.T."! Both great scores, but they sure don't disguise their indebtedness to Hanson!

  4. This blog is a gem! i would love to see and/or contribute to a revivification of it! I have a couple of unsung symphonies on my shelf I'd sing the praises of.