Howard Hanson (1896-1981): Piano Music
Though perhaps best known for his choral and orchestral works, the piano played a central role in the development of Howard Hanson as a composer. The instrument is heard, with few exceptions, in virtually everything he composed prior to winning the prestigious Prix de Rome at the age of twenty five. Under the influence of Respighi (his teacher in Rome) he succumbed to the rich tonal vocabulary of the orchestra, and wrote ever fewer works for the piano. Indeed, his last published solo piano work, For The First Time, is an arrangement of a suite originally composed for orchestra. Nonetheless, it was through the medium of the piano that the composer"s distinctive idiom found its first expression in the works of an early maturity: the four Poemes erotiques, Op. 9, the Sonata in A Minor, Op 11 (1918), and the Three Miniatures, Op 12 (1918-1919). Here we find already the essence of Hanson"s style: the bold outlines, the soaring melodies, the layered climaxes, the penchant for unpredictability, the subtle northern flavor (that does not escape even his most "American" compositions) - all exuding sincerity and imbued with personality.
This recording brings together much of Hanson"s solo piano oeuvre, a great deal of which is as yet unpublished. All of the holograph scores are housed in the collection of the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music, the venerable institution where Hanson had served as director. A great many were presented by the composer to the library on 19th November, 1949, while others were gradually added prior to his retirement in 1964. After his death in 1981, the remainder were transferred from his office to the library.
The son of Swedish immigrants, Hanson grew up in the small Lutheran community of Wahoo, Nebraska. His earliest musical instruction came in the form of piano lessons, given by his mother. He left Wahoo at the age of fifteen to embark on an odyssey of remarkable success. He studied piano in New York with James Friskin, flirting briefly with the notion of pursuing a career as a concert artist. A teaching fellowship led him to Northwestern University, where he received his Bachelor of Music degree before he was twenty years old. Accepting an appointment to teach theory and composition at the College of the Pacific, just two years later he was named Dean.
It was at this time he composed those works that led to his being awarded the Prix de Rome in 1921, the first American to ever be so honored. Towards the end of his three-year fellowship in Rome, while in the United States to conduct a performance of his Nordic Symphony with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, he had a fateful encounter with George Eastman, founder of the Eastman School of Music. Not long thereafter came an invitation from Eastman to assume directorship of the school. From 1924 to 1964, Hanson would guide that institution through a remarkable era of growth, all the while serving as a tireless advocate in the cause of American music and composers. Such a record of accomplishment inevitably brought Hanson his fair share of detractors, none of which has caused the popular appeal of his music among audiences to diminish in any way.
The Two Yuletide Pieces, Op. 19, were first performed by Hanson in San Jose, California, in the spring of 1921. The first, Impromptu, is dedicated to his mother. The rich sonorities of March Carillon (dedicated to American composer Leo Sowerby) prompted Hanson to consider a symphonic treatment and an orchestrated version is found among the manuscripts in the Sibley Music Library.
Hanson articulated his inspiration for the Poemes erotiques in a handwritten postscript: "The Four "Poemes erotiques" [only three are extant in the manuscript book] are my first studied attempt at psychological" writing. Written during my first/second year at Pacific (1917/18) and performed here. The third and fourth have a slightly morbid tendency reflecting a perturbed state of mind." The composer gave the set a premiere performance at the College of the Pacific in 1918.
Hanson might well have had a program in mind when he composed the Sonata in A minor, Op. 11, as the front page bears descriptive titles for the work"s constituent sections: Andante espressivo, Elegie herbique, Triumphal Ode, though they are not placed in the score itself. These three sections are, in the manner of Liszt and Berg, drawn together to form a single movement. Although the manuscript is incomplete, it is clear from an annotation in the composer"s hand ("Written during summer of 1918. Performed April7, 1919") that the work was heard on at least one occasion. For reasons unknown, Hanson never bothered to bring the manuscript to completion, leaving instead a sort of musical shorthand. Never one to revise his earlier work (to "pour new wine into old bottles," as he put it), perhaps his attention had already turned to other compositions.
The Three Miniatures, Op 12, were given their first performance by the composer on 7th April, 1919. The score is dedicated to Rudolph Ganz. All are characterized by long, arching melodies, rich sonorities and harmonies that appear to consciously avoid resolution in an almost Wagnerian manner.
First performed by Hanson in San Jose in the Spring of 1921, the titles and movement headings for the Three Etudes, Op 18, appear in Italian on the manuscript, apparently for use during his fellowship in Italy. The title page bears the inscription "Omaggio della Accademia Americana in Roma. Omaggio a sua Maestil il Re Vittorio Emmanuele [sic] III." In spite of the specific movement titles (Studio ritmico, Studio melodico, Poema Idillico) all three appear, above all, to be most concerned with sound and color.
The delightful miniature Enchantment was composed in 1935, brought out by Carl Fischerin 1936, and is inscribed to "Tad and Baba." Hanson often cited Grieg as an early influence, and this piece, in both its simplicity and harmonic language, recalls the Grieg of the Lyric Pieces.
The orchestral suite For the First Time was composed in 1963 for a commission by the Music Teachers National Association. It was first performed by the Eastman Philharmonia with the composer yielding the baton on 16th May, 1963. The piano version dates from 1970 and bears a dedication to Claudette Sorel on the published score.
The quaint Slumber Song (undated) which brings this recording to a close, is the sole representative here out of a fair number of juvenile manuscripts in the Sibley Music Library collection. Simple and effective, the Slumber Song embraces the sort of sentimental melody characterized by Hanson"s biographer Burnet Tuthill as "a tune to be carried away and to haunt you."