Whatever happened to Howard Hanson?

Back in the late 70’s, when I was going through my post-Mahler phase, two LP’s were on my turntable a lot. They both featured works by composers who were then unknown in the UK. The first was ‘Chuck’ Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra (a crack session band comprising front desk players from the leading London orchestras) in Howard Hanson’s Symphony No 2 “the Romantic.” (See photo of Hanson to above). This is a wonderfully passionate account that is playing on vinyl as I write. It eclipses any subsequent recordings including the composer’s own interpretation on Mercury. The wonderful 12” RCA Gold Seal LP sleeve has a beautifully atmospheric black and white photo of Gerhardt by Christian Steiner (see footnote) on the cover smoking a politically incorrect cigarette. CD jewel cases certainly killed the art of record sleeve design stone dead!

The second LP was Rudolf Kempe’s world premiere recording of Erich Korngold’s F Sharp Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic (Photo of Korngold to right). Again an RCA record, this time with a superb colour photo of Alma Mahler’s bust of Korngold on the sleeve. I have put the LP on as I write, the Munich brass blazes in the scherzo with a sound that puts any of the subsequent digital recordings to shame.

Both symphonies are fine romantic works, but certainly not masterpieces. Today the Hanson is largely forgotten. But the Korngold is quite well known, and attracts the attention of conductors such as André Previn. Is the Korngold really that much better music, or is it just musical fashion? And whatever happened to Howard Hanson?

Steiner, after graduating from the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik, won several national competitions in Germany and it was one of these awards which first brought him to New York to further his piano studies. He comes from a long line of musicians. His father was a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and his brothers were members of the Berlin Philharmonic. Steiner made piano recording with RCA-Reader’s Digest, and was a guest soloist with orchestras in Berlin and New York; more recent engagements at the keyboard include performances with the Berkeley Symphony under Kent Nagano, and with the National Symphony or Mexico. He also performed chamber music with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet and recitals with his late brother Peter in Europe and the USA. Among the singers he has collaborated in recital are Jessye Norman and Carol Vaness. In addition, Steiner is the artistic director of The Tannery Pond Concerts, a summer chamber music festival in the Berkshires.

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to A direct line to Britten


Anonymous said…
Howard Hanson may have dropped off the radar in the UK, but in the US he is alive and well. The 'Romantic' Symphony of which you speak is his most popular work.

On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing of Korngold's performed.

But that is probably because we only get the "masterpieces" and the occasional American work here.
Pliable said…
The previous comment is an interesting one. I am sure someone will correct me, but I cannot recall a single instance of a work by Howard Hanson being programmed in a concert, or on a radio programme in the UK.I guess musical fashion has just treated the two composers very differently in the two countries.
Garth Trinkl said…
"On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing of Korngold's performed."

If this writer is writing from the U.S., this is untrue. Performances of Korngold's film music and his Violin Concerto have become more frequent, as has the occasional overture. I'd also guess that Korngold's beautiful Symphony in F Sharp, Opus 40 has been performed in the U.S. in the past few years. Yes, the Korngold is a bit long, but so are such comparably great sprawling symphonic works as Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Gliere's Symphony No. 3 in B Minor "Ilya Murometz". Audiences (including my mother) still love these works, when they are offered.

pliable, by chance, I happened to listen to one of my two Hanson CDs a couple of weeks ago --a disc under Gerard Schwarz featuring Lament of Beowolf, his Symphony #4, excerpts from his MET Opera commission Merry Mount, and two Serenades. I was very interested in relistening to the Symphony #4 because Hanson wrote the work in memory of his father, and I believe he considered it one of his strongest works. While I enjoyed the Hanson (as I also enjoyed David Diamond's lush Symphony #2, another forgotten American symphony), I can't say that I recall much of that Symphony or that disc two weeks later. I think that all three of the major works on the disc were written by the time that Hanson was 30 or 32, at which time he turned largely to conservatory administration (writing music only at night). I'd say the Hanson works are less great than the masterpieces by Rimsky-Korsakov and Gliere that I cited, while the Symphony of Korngold is almost as great as those Russian works.

On a completely different Path, do either of you know Virko Baley's Violin concerto No. 1, quasi una fantasia, which is shaped as a requiem? I think that it is a masterpiece deserving wider performance by violin soloists.
Pliable said…
Until a few minutes ago I knew nothing of Virko Baley's work. But now not only have I heard of him, but I have also heard from him.

Go to the composer's
excellent web site and open the sounds link to explore the music of this fascinating composer.

Thanks Garth, pointing up that kind of overgrown path, is why I started this blog
Pliable said…
The absence of Howard Hanson performances in the UK probably prompts the conclusion that some music just doesn't cross the Atlantic very well.

This was particularly true of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Violin Concerto which is being played at tomorrow's Prom (9th August). The original score was lost with the Titanic when it sunk in mid-Atlantic...
Anonymous said…
On the Classical Junk web stream, I program works of Howard Hanson quite often. I try to play the complete cycle of his symphonies at least twice a year. Hopefully a listener or two will take notice of this grossly underrated composer.

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