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CD cover of recordings featuring Hanson conducting his own works.

Howard Harold Hanson (October 28, 1896February 26, 1981) was an Americanmarker composer, conductor, educator, music theorist, and champion of American classical music. Director for 40 years of the Eastman School of Musicmarker, he built a high quality school and provided opportunities for commissioning and performing American music. He won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his works and received numerous other awards.

Life and work

Early life and education

Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraskamarker to Swedishmarker parents, Hans and Hilma (Eckstrom) Hanson. In his youth he studied music with his mother. Later, he studied at Luther College in Wahoo, receiving a diploma in 1911, then at the Institute of Musical Art in New York Citymarker, where he studied with the composer and music theorist Percy Goetschius in 1914. Afterwards he attended Northwestern Universitymarker, where he studied composition with church music expert Peter Lutkin and Arne Oldberg in Chicago. Throughout his education, Hanson studied piano, cello and trombone. Hanson earned his BA degree in music from Northwestern University in 1916, where he began his teaching career as a teacher's assistant.


In 1916, Hanson was hired for his first full-time position as a music theory and composition teacher at the College of the Pacificmarker in California. Only three years later, the college appointed him Dean of the Conservatory of Fine Arts in 1919. In 1920, Hanson composed The California Forest Play, his earliest work to receive national attention. Hanson also wrote a number of orchestral and chamber works during his years in California, including Concerto da Camera, Symphonic Legend, Symphonic Rhapsody, various solo piano works, such as Two Yuletide Pieces, and the Scandinavian Suite, which celebrated his Lutheran and Scandinavian heritage.

In 1921 Hanson was the first recipient (along with Leo Sowerby) of the American Academy's Rome Prize, awarded for both The California Forest Play and his symphonic poem Before the Dawn. Thanks to the award, Hanson lived in Italymarker for three years. During his time in Italy, Hanson wrote a Quartet in One Movement, Lux aeterna, The Lament for Beowulf (orchestration Bernhard Kaun), and his Symphony No. 1, "Nordic", the premiere of which he conducted with the Augusteo Orchestra on May 30, 1923.

(It has been incorrectly stated that Hanson studied composition and/or orchestration with Ottorino Respighi, who studied orchestration with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Hanson's unpublished autobiography refutes the statement, attributed to Ruth Watanabe, that he had studied with Respighi.)

Upon returning from Rome, Hanson's conducting career exspanded. He made his premiere conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra in his tone poem North and West. In Rochestermarker, New Yorkmarker in 1924, he conducted his Symphony No. 1. This performance brought him to the attention of George Eastman.

Eastman chose Hanson to be director of the Eastman School of Musicmarker. Inventor of the Kodak camera and roll film, and business master, Eastman had become a major philanthropist. He used some of his great wealth to endow the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochestermarker.

Hanson held the position of director for forty years, during which he created one of the most prestigious music schools in America. He accomplished this by improving the curriculum, bringing in better teachers, and refining the school's orchestras. Also, he balanced the school's faculty between American and European teachers, even when this meant passing up composer Béla Bartók. Hanson offered a position to Bartók teaching composition at Eastman, but Bartók declined as he did not believe that one could teach composition. Instead, Bartók wanted to teach piano at the Eastman School, but Hanson already had a full staff of piano instructors.

In 1925, Hanson established the American Composers Orchestral Concerts. Later, he founded the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, which consisted of first chair players from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and selected students from the Eastman School. He followed that by establishing the Festivals of American Music. Hanson made many recordings (mostly for Mercury Records) with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, not only of his own works, but also those of other American composers such as John Alden Carpenter, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, John Knowles Paine, Walter Piston, and William Grant Still. Hanson estimated that more than 2000 works by over 500 American composers were premiered during his tenure at the Eastman School.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Hanson's Symphony No. 2, the "Romantic", and premiered it on November 28, 1930. This work was to become Hanson's best known. One of its themes is performed at the conclusion of all concerts at the Interlochen Center for the Artsmarker. Now known as the "Interlochen Theme", it is conducted by a student concertmaster after the featured conductor has left the stage. Traditionally, no applause follows its performance. It is also best known for its use in the end credits of the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien.

In some ways Hanson's opera Merry Mount (1934) may be considered the first fully American opera. It was written by an American composer and an American librettist on an American story, and was premiered with a mostly American cast at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1934. The Opera received fifty curtain calls at its Met premiere, a record that still stands. In 1935 Hanson wrote "Three Songs from Drum Taps", based on the poem by Walt Whitman.

The opening theme of his Third Symphony's second movement is one of the most haunting and memorable passages in American music. The Third was written 1936-38 and first played by the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Hanson was elected as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1935, President of the Music Teachers' National Association from 1929 to 1930, and President of the National Association of Schools of Music from 1935 to 1939.

From 1946 to 1962 Hanson was active in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCOmarker). UNESCO commissioned Hanson's Pastorale for Oboe and Piano, and Pastorale for Oboe, Strings, and Harp, for the 1949 Parismarker conference of the world body.

Frederick Fennell, conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, described Hanson's first band composition, the 1954 Chorale and Alleluia as "the most awaited piece of music to be written for the wind band in my twenty years as a conductor in this field". Chorale and Alleluia is still a required competition piece for high school bands in the New York State School Music Association's repertoire list. It is one of Hanson's most frequently recorded works.

From 1961-1962, Hanson took the Eastman Philharmonia, a student ensemble, on a European tour which passed through Paris, Cairo, Moscow, and Vienna, among other cities. The tour showcased the growth of serious American music for Europe and the Middle East.


Hanson met Margaret Elizabeth Nelson at her parents' summer home on Lake Chautauqua in the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Hanson dedicated the Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings, to her; the piece was his musical marriage proposal, as he could not find the spoken words to propose to her. They married on July 24, 1946 at her parents' summer home in Chautauqua Institution.

Legacy and honors

  • Hanson was an initiate of two chapters of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity: the Iota Chapter at Northwestern Universitymarker in 1916, and the Alpha Nu Chapter at Eastman in 1928. He was recognized as a national honorary member in 1930.
  • After he composed the Hymn of the Pioneers to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first Swedish settlement in Delawaremarker, Hanson was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy in 1938.
  • In 1944, Hanson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Symphony No. 4, subtitled Requiem.
  • In 1945, he became the first recipient of the Ditson Conductor's Award for his commitment to American music.
  • In 1946, Hanson was awarded the George Foster Peabody Award "for outstanding entertainment programming" for a series he presented on the Rochester, New York radio station WHAM in 1945.
  • In 1953, Hanson helped to establish the Edward B. Benjamin Prize "for calming and uplifting music" written by Eastman students. Each submitted score was read by Hanson and the Eastman Orchestra. Winners of the Benjamin Prize appeared on Hanson's recording Music for Quiet Listening.
  • In 1960, Hanson published Harmonic Materials of Modern Music: Resources of the Tempered Scale, a book that would lay the foundation for musical set theory. Among the many notions considered was what Hanson called the isomeric relationship, now usually termed Z-relationship.
  • Hanson was on the Board of Directors of the Music Educators National Conference from 1960 to 1964.
  • Hanson's Song of Democracy, on a Walt Whitman text, was performed at the inaugural concert for incoming U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1969. Hanson proudly noted this was the first inaugural concert to feature only American music.
  • In recognition of Hanson's achievements, the Eastman Kodak company donated $100,000 worth of stock to the Eastman School of Music in 1976. Hanson stipulated that the gift be used to fund the Institute of American Music.

Former Students

Hanson's students include John Davison, John La Montaine, Samuel Jones, H. Owen Reed, Kenneth Gaburo, Donald O. Johnston, Martin Mailman, Gloria Wilson Swisher, Robert Washburn, Homer Keller, John White, and David Borden, Emma Lou Diemer.

Popular culture

Excerpts from his Symphony #2 were used to accompany several exterior sequences and the end credits in the original 1979 release of the movie Alien. They were removed from the DVD versions published later.




  • Symphony No. 1, "Nordic" (1922)
  • Lux aeterna, Symphonic Poem for Orchestra with Viola Obligato, Op.24 (1923–1926)
  • Symphony No. 2, "Romantic" (1930)
  • Suite from the Opera "Merry Mount" (1938)
  • Symphony No. 3 (1941)
  • Symphony No. 4, "Requiem" (1943; won Pulitzer Prize)
  • Fantasy-Variations On A Theme Of Youth " (1951)
  • Symphony No. 5, "Sinfonia Sacra" (1955)
  • Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky (1956)
  • Mosaics (1957)
  • Bold Island Suite (1961)
  • Symphony No. 6 (1967)
  • Symphony No. 7, "A Sea Symphony" (1977)


  • The Lament for Beowulf (1925)
  • Three Songs from Drum Taps (1935)
  • Song of Democracy (1957) for wind ensemble, string orchestra and SATB Choir


  • Centennial March (1966)
  • Chorale and Alleluia (1954)
  • Dies Natalis (1967)
  • Laude
  • Variations on an Ancient Hymn


  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 36
  • Organ Concerto
  • Summer Seascape No.2 for Viola and String Orchestra (1965)


  • Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings (1946), Op. 35
  • Pastorale for Oboe and Piano (1949), reorchestrated as alternative Pastorale for Harp and Strings (1950), both Op. 38
  • Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth (1951)


  • Poèmes Érotiques, Op. 9
  • Sonata in A Major, Op. 11 (unfinished)
  • Three Miniatures for Piano, Op. 12
  • Three Etudes, Op. 18
  • Two Yuletide Pieces, Op. 19

Music theory

  • Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (1960), Irvington.


  • A boxed set of Howard Hanson conducting the Eastman Philharmonia in his symphonies, piano concerto, etc., is available on the Mercury label. A companion set from Mercury, a compilation of Hanson conducting lesser known American works, is also available.
  • His Symphony No. 2 is probably his most recorded work. In addition to the composer's own recording, those by Erich Kunzel and Gerard Schwarz are also popular. Also, the Interlochen Center for the Artsmarker uses part of this symphony as its theme (see detailed explanation above).
  • Naxos Records released a recording of the 1934 world premiere performance of Merry Mount in 1999. For copyright reasons it was not made available in the USA.


  • Autry, Philip Earl The Published Solo Piano Music Of Howard Hanson: An Analysis For Teaching And Performing (U. M. I. 1996)
  • Cohen, Allen Howard Hanson in Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004)
  • Goss, Madeleine Modern Music-Makers: Contemporary American Composers (Greenwood Press, Publishers. 1952)
  • Perone, James Howard Hanson: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993)
  • Machlis, Joseph American Composers of Our Time (Thomas Y. Crowell. 1963)
  • Simmons, Walter Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2006)
  • Shetler, Donald J. In Memoriam Howard Hanson (Music Educators Natl. 1984)
  • Williams, David Russell Conversations with Howard Hanson (Arkadelphia, Arkansas: Delta Publications, 1988)

External links

  1. Short Feature
  2. Comprehensive Catalog & More
  3. Works
  4. Highbeam
  5. Biography
  6. Howard Hanson: listen track Symphony n.2 op.30 - Romantic on Magazzini-Sonori

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