August 2, 2012

Howard Hanson, A Brief Biography

The Composer's Childhood 

On 28 December 1896, Howard Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska.[1] There he grew up without siblings.[2] His parents, Hans and Hilma, were Lutherans from Skåne, Sweden.[3] Allen Cohen, musicologist and assistant professor of music at Fairleigh Dickson University in New York,[4] noted in his Hanson biography: “As a boy Hanson considered a career in the Lutheran ministry. . . . Religious ideals and images are prominent in his writings and speeches, as well as in his compositions.”[5] Recalling his childhood, Hanson once said, “The music of the [Lutheran] chorales is pretty serious material, and this impressed me very greatly.”[6]  As a child, Hanson was first taught to play the piano and cello by his mother and later played cello in the high school orchestra, which he occasionally conducted.[7]  He later took lessons at Wahoo’s Luther College with A. O. Peterson who taught him music theory in addition to cello and piano performance.[8]

An Ambitious Student

A diligent student, Hanson once confessed, “I didn’t want to be second or third in the class—I wanted to be the first in the class, and I always was.  I wanted to be the best pianist around [Luther College], not the next best.  That was a kind of an ambition that probably helped me in professional life later on—that I was driving myself a little bit, probably, all my life.”[9]  Hanson’s drive to perform better than his peers helped him to graduate at the top of his high school class.[10]

Hanson's College Years and Beyond

After spending the 1912-1913 academic year at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Hanson went to New York and studied at the Institute of Musical Art that would later become the Julliard School.[11]  There he studied with Percy Goetschius.[12] Hanson earned his Bachelor’s of Music from Northwestern University in 1916.[13] Later that year, Hanson became a professor of theory and composition at the Conservatory of Music and Art at the College of the Pacific in San Jose, California until 1919.[14]  Then, at age twenty-two, he became the dean.[15] However, in 1921, Hanson won the Prix de Rome, an award that Randall Thompson
would win the following year[16]and Samuel Barber would win in 1935.[17] Hanson won the award for his 1920 composition Forest Play.[18]  The award enabled him to compose in Europe for three years.[19] 

Hanson's First and Second

In Rome, Hanson studied with Ottorino Respighi and wrote the "Nordic" Symphony his First, which was premiered in Rome.[20] Hanson was invited to conduct a subsequent performance in Rochester, New York.[21]  There he met the president of the University of Rochester, Rush Rhees, accompanied by George Eastman.[22] After meeting with Hanson and hearing his ideas on music education, Eastman and Rhees invited Hanson to become the director of the Eastman School of Music.[23]  Hanson’s desire to support his aging parents compelled him to consent.[24] Then in April 1928, Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Hanson’s Second Symphony for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930.”[25] Hanson dedicated the symphony to Rush Rhees.[26]  

The Eastman School of Music

Hanson’s career at the Eastman School of Music was multifaceted.  In addition to administrative duties, Hanson conducted the Eastman Philharmonia and recorded many American symphonic works.[27]  In his book, American Composers on American Music, Henry Cowell acknowledged that Hanson did “more than almost any other person to foster productions of American composers of all tendencies.”[28]  Continuing to compose while at Eastman, Hanson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his Fourth Symphony, “Requiem.”[29] He retired from the Eastman School of Music in 1964[30] and died on 26 February 1981.[31]

[1] Graham Hardie, “Hanson, Howard,” vol. 10 of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Stanley Sadie, ed., (New York: Grove Dictionaries, 2001): 833.
[2] Allen Cohen, Howard Hanson in Theory and Practice (Westport: Praeger, 2004), 5.
[3] Burnet C. Tuthill, “Howard Hanson,” The Music Quarterly 22 (1936): 140.
[4] Cohen, 203.
[5] Cohen, 6.
[6] David Russel Williams, “Howard Hanson,” Perspectives of New Music 20 (1981): 21.
[7] Walter Simmons, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers, (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2004), 112.
[8] Tuthill, 141.
[9] Simmons, 112.
[10] Cohen, 6.
[11] Tuthill, 141.
[12] Hardie, 833.
[13] Simmons, 113.
[14] Hardie, 833.
[15] Tuthill, 141.
[16] Cohen, 8.
[17] “U. S. Composer Gets Toscanini’s Approval,” New York Times (27 Oct. 1938): 26.
[18] Hardie, 833.
[19] Cohen, 8.
[20] Joseph White, The Development of a Cosmopolitan Style in Twentieth Century American Symphonies and Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (D.M.A. diss., University of Washington, 1991), 38.
[21] Cohen, 10.
[22] Tuthill, 142.
[23] Cohen, 10.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Simmons, 116.
[26] Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2 Op. 30 “Romantic,” New York: Carl Fischer, 1932. 
[27] Horowitz, 449.
[28] Cowell, 9.
[29] Edith Borroff, Review: Symphony No. 2 by Howard Hanson, American Music 10 (1992): 387.
[30] Horowitz, 449.
[31] Williams, 21.

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