It is difficult to think of another twentieth-century composer whose name triggers such feelings of reverence and at the same time stands in such crying need of rehabilitation, as that of Howard Hanson. The indisputable dean of American music, like other deans, saviors and crusaders in art history, did not come through his long career (as composer, author, conductor, educator, administrator, and diplomat) unaimed-at by the barbs of dissent. Few who accomplish so much do. But opinionated self-interest in some musical quarters over the years has made coming to grips with the complexity of his place in musical history a problem.
Hanson's early years truly read like a musical Horatio Alger story. ''You don't have to be a musician: you have brains,'' was what he was told by his high school principal, upon graduation in Wahoo, Nebraska in 1913. But being a musician with brains was what carried him where it did.
Numerous performances by major orchestras, a professorship and deanship at a college, and three years in Europe on a Prix de Rome, all came his way by age twenty five.
In 1924 he began a forty year directorship of the new Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. His reputation grew, year by year, as the benevolent but all-powerful head of one of the world's leading music conservatories, and his gifts as an inspiring teacher, an eloquent orator, a shrewd administrator, and a charismatic conductor seemed to attain legendary status almost overnight. His personal charm was such that someone once remarked, ''You came away from an appointment positively elated, and only fifteen minutes later realized that your request had been denied.''
As one of the founders and presidents of the National Association of Schools of Music, he was vitally interested, not only in music teaching at the university/conservatory level, but in public schools down to their youngest pupils as well. School bands, glee clubs, music courses - his was a crusade, from the 1920s to the 40s, to improve the quality of parochial, dated music teaching that had prevailed throughout the country up to that time. Music departments sprang up in colleges and universities all over America. Young composers, as a result of the improved training available here, no longer felt the pressure to travel to Europe for adequate finishing studies. Students in public schools and in colleges have benefitted for generations, in fact, from his efforts at raising the standards of music education and improving public and legislative attitudes toward it.
Probably Hanson's crowning achievement -- and certainly the one for which his name is most generally recognized -- was what he did for the status of the American composer and for the public's cultivated relationship with the music of its time. His early concern for composers less fortunate than he in securing performances of their music manifested itself in Rochester from the start. He began his first innovation in 1925, with the American Composers' Concerts, where good readings and performances of orchestral scores from all over America were given, the composers invited to be in attendance. These continued until 1935, when the Festivals of American Music began, continuing until 1971, seven years beyond Dr. Hanson's retirement as the Eastman School's director. These probably gave more impetus than anything else to the nurturing of American musical worth, and to bringing a view of its artistic potential into focus.
The school was long distinctive for its symposia of readings of students' orchestra compositions, which started at the same time as the Festivals, and continues to the present day. Both were ideas which, by 1950, had spread, with American music festivals proliferating in many centers in the United States and Canada. The Institute of American Music, which is still in existence, was set up with Dr. Hanson as its head following his retirement, and was yet another force in rewarding and purveying the music of composers who, out of need or stature, deserved this attention. The Eastman-Rochester Orchestra was the core group, formed from the Rochester Philharmonic, which played most of the thousand-plus compositions which Dr. Hanson conducted over the years, and with that group he also recorded music by around seventy composers, for three successive record labels. The value of those records, along with Hanson's many radio broadcasts, strengthened beyond measure, the relationship of the modern composer to the listening public.
Howard Hanson the composer was very much a bridge figure between the older European influences still prevalent in American composition during his formative years, and the just-flowering period (30s, 40s), which I have referred to as America's Golden Age of music. This latter ''school'' was one which Hanson did much to promote, and it developed a distinctively American aural ideal. Things nineteenth-century and German were, however, the hallmarks of great music in the United States when he began his studies, and the residue of American ''Wagnermania'' is clearly audible in his early music. The First symphony is definitely a bridge piece -- still bearing the European stamp.
Much is made of the fact that the young Hanson, being of Swedish extraction, was told, ''You must do for the Swedes what Grieg did for Norway.'' Sibelius, the Finn, moreover, has been a standard comparison point in most commentary on his symphonies and choral works. But there is much, especially in the early music, that is more clearly Wagner than Finnish, Swedish or otherwise Nordic. His symphonic technique was always more transparent than Sibelius' ever was, and his predeliction for motivic devices was positively grounded in Wagner's example of signature motifs returned to repeatedly and intertwined in the course of a composition. It is certainly no failure on Hanson's part, that his music comes across as Swedish principally in what is said about it, for it is also plainly evocative of America in its distinctive use of triads with added tones, its orchestral chord spacing, and melodic lines that range more freely than do the European.
Much jealousy attached itself to Hanson, because, in his position, he had the resources and full control to play and play his music -- all of it -- for forty years. The ill-feeling as well as the adulation have made an accurate assessment difficult. But his seven symphonies, the cornerstone of his output, as works of art, are truly symphonic in their treatment of ideas and themes. One really can't fail to get the point in his symphonic going-over and motivic development -- as clear and stark as in Beethoven. In fact, things are at times rather overstated and repetitious - even dulling -- rather than abundantly developed which was clearly the intention. And his total output is indeed spotty, with the sense of urgency and ardence, so present in the earlier works, perhaps less evident in later ones like the Piano Concerto of 1948.
Hanson stood behind tonality and the conservative musical ideal to the end. But the best of his works, such as the third and fourth symphonies (1938 and '43 ), are more than merely indulgently appealing tonal music. The coincidence of Hanson's aural and dramatic sensibilities made for very effective pieces, and when his conveying of conviction did join forces with his masterful sense of orchestral depth and tonal beauty, the results were memorable and compelling. The Fourth symphony (an elegy to his father) is probably his best work.
It has been said by some that the current searching and delving in tonal materials by some of today's composers is possibly a form of vindication of what Howard Hanson stood for during his whole career. Tonality is something composers today, if not returning to it with open arms, are toying around with -- after the long, twenty-five year reign of atonality and twelve-tone serialism.
It is clear with Hanson, that no matter what one thinks of his music, it is going to be impossible to consider it apart from the rest of his prodigious accomplishments -- and from the integrity and wholeness of an especially multitalented man, who exerted such a telling influence. Few musicians in the Western hemisphere, since World War I, have not in some way been touched by the quality of his vision and the breadth of his love.