May. 12th, 2017

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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

This week is a bit of a walk down memory lane for me. It's a piece I didn't originally realize was obscure, because it's also the first symphony I ever heard in its entirety. I started listening to a lot of classical music in middle school, shortly after returning to Houston from nine years in Dubai. Dubai in 1995 was a different place from the Dubai we know today. The luxury hotels hadn't been built yet and the waves of tourists hadn't started going there; 1995 was the year the old Chicago Beach Hotel was demolished to make room for the first of those beach resorts. Likewise, while there are now two professional orchestras, a community orchestra, and three youth orchestras based in Dubai, none of those existed until about some time after we left. In 1995, the entire presence of classical music there consisted of occasional touring opera and ballet performances, one community choir, and the American School of Dubai concert band. A few months after moving to Houston, I got my first own CD player and radio for the first time -- CDs had only arrived in Dubai a few years earlier, so I only started buying them in the US -- and discovered the local classical radio station. I heard the last few bars of Beethoven's 3rd, and then the next piece was tonight's piece, Howard Hanson's 1st ("Nordic") Symphony.

It's funny that I ended up going to law school at the University of the Pacific, because Howard Hanson (1986-1981) first made his name as a composer while on the faculty of the University of the Pacific. In 1920, while he was in California, he won the American Prix de Rome for his ballet The California Forest Play and his symphonic poem Before the Dawn. Thanks to that award, Hanson spent three years living in Rome, and free to compose without the distractions of teaching, had the most productive period of his career as a composer. Upon his return from Rome, he was recruited to be director of the newly founded Eastman School of Music, a post he held for 40 years. He was best known for his work as conductor of the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, where he regularly commissioned new music from American composers, but continued to compose his own music as well and became one of America's leading symphonists.

Many of you reading this may already have heard parts of his 2nd ("Romantic") Symphony, his best-known piece. Some excerpts were used, uncredited and without Hanson's permission, in the soundtrack to the film Alien; Hanson was reportedly displeased but ultimately decided not to sue for copyright infringement. Another excerpt, known as the "Interlochen Theme," is still played at the conclusion of every concert at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Hanson's 2nd Symphony itself is performed more frequently than his other six symphonies combined.

Hanson's 1st ("Nordic") Symphony was the most important piece from his years in Rome, and premiered in Italy in 1923 and in the United States in 1924. It was this symphony that drew George Eastman's attention and led him to offer Hanson his position at the Eastman School of Music. Not surprisingly, this symphony is somewhat reminiscent of Sibelius, one of Hanson's greatest influences. Its first movement is one of the few symphonic movements in quintuple meter. Also interestingly, Hanson condenses the usual scherzo and rondo movements into a single final movement, alternating between scherzo-like and march-like passages and a parade of themes from the first two movements. (A personal note here: I modeled the last movement of my own piano quartet loosely on the form of this symphony's finale.)

I. Andante solenne - Allegro con forza
II. Andante teneramente, con semplicità (begins 13:38)
III. Allegro con fuoco (begins 20:08)


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