Howard Hanson

Symphony No. 2 ("Romantic"), Op. 30

    Description by Jeremy Grimshaw

    The frequent classification of Howard Hanson as a neo-Romantic composer is certainly not without merit, though the case is perhaps disproportionately affected by the overwhelming success of his Second Symphony, which has maintained a stronger foothold in the canon than any of his other works. Still, the composer himself lists as his greatest influence -- even above Respighi, with whom Hanson studied at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome -- the last great romantic symphonist, Jean Sibelius. Indeed, the melodic warmth and accessibility of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony (which itself seemed to revert to a more traditional style than had been reached in the Fourth) can certainly be heard in the more tranquil moments of Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony, though it is often interrupted by the sort of endearingly melodramatic "plot-thickenings" of Grieg.

    The development of Hanson's music materials in the Second Symphony proceeds in a very direct manner, which is perhaps why the work has been so well-received by audiences. Take for example, the opening of the first movement (marked Adagio; Allegro Moderato): a simple stepwise ascent of a minor third is reiterated in different instrumental guises, gradually amassing volume and strength before being carried by the crash of cymbals into the next episode. Such buildups of orchestral weight and dramatic tension are set in contrast with passages of rhapsodic lyricism, in which long, arching lines float above ebbing accompanimental textures. These same characteristics are found in the subsequent two movements as well.

    The second (Andante con tenerezza) begins with a simple melody doubled in harmonious thirds; this is eventually joined by a countermelody in the horn, then a high descant in the strings. Here we find Hanson employing a few harmonic surprises, albeit in an extremely conservative fashion: suspensions remain dissonant just a bit longer than we expect them to before resolving; the horn line occasionally leaps beyond its melodic mark before settling into consonance with the flutes. It is often in transitions between sections that we find Hanson stepping furthest outside of traditional tonality: as this idyllic flute episode ends, a menacing, polytonal dissonance in the bass emerges, leading to a recollection of the haunting minor third descent that began the entire work.

    These opposing forces gradually find reconciliation over the course of the middle movement, though not without considerable difficulty (and a few heart-wrenching harmonic deceptions). As the third and final movement opens, a carnival-esque, Petrushka-like fanfare build and breaks into a subdued and pensive string passage, which itself cedes to an even more explicit allusion to Stravinsky: the insistent ostinati and heavy-handed drums that follow underscore a brass line that owes an unmistakable debt to Rite of Spring. This initiates yet another orchestrational snowball, which gathers thunder before finally exhausting itself and languishing in a return to the lush melody that sought repose in both the previous movements. The ease with which the ear makes these large-scale, structural connections, adds to the accessibility as well as the emotional engagement of this work.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Adagio - Allegro moderato
    2. Andante con tenerezza
    3. Allegro con brio

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2013
    Decca / Mercury
    4785092
    2011
    Naxos
    8559701
    2008
    Delos
    DE6012
    2008
    EMI Classics / Warner Classics
    5099920661
    2008
    EMI Classics
    2005
    Mercury
    4756867
    2005
    Telarc Distribution
    80649
    2005
    Telarc Distribution
    60649
    2005
    Arte Nova
    433060
    2004
    Mercury
    000339436
    1998
    Delos
    DE3705
    1997
    Arte Nova
    74321 43306-2
    1996
    Gallo
    890
    1996
    Biddulph Recordings
    WHL038
    1995
    Citadel Records
    88110
    1992
    Delos
    DE3150
    1990
    Mercury
    432008
    1990
    Delos
    DE3073
    1990
    EMI Music Distribution
    47850
    Angel Records
    64304
    Citadel Records
    88116
    Interlochen
    20021