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Howard Hanson

Howard Harold Hanson (October 28, 1896 – February 26, 1981) was an American composer, conductor, educator, music theorist, and champion of American classical music. As director for 40 years of the Eastman School of Music, he built a high-quality school and provided opportunities for commissioning and performing American music. He won a Pulitzer Prize (in 1944 for his Symphony no. 4) and received numerous other awards.[1]


  • Early life and education 1
  • Career 2
  • Marriage 3
  • Legacy and honors 4
  • Former students 5
  • Popular culture 6
  • Works 7
    • Opera 7.1
    • Orchestral 7.2
    • Choral 7.3
    • Band 7.4
    • Concertante 7.5
    • Chamber 7.6
    • Keyboard 7.7
    • Music theory 7.8
  • Discography 8
  • References 9
  • Other sources 10
  • External links 11

Early life and education

Two-story Queen Anne house
Hanson's boyhood home in Wahoo, Nebraska is on the National Register of Historic Places

Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, to Swedish immigrant 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, the forerunner of the Juilliard School, in New York City, where he studied with the composer and music theorist Percy Goetschius in 1914. Afterward he attended Northwestern University, 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 in 1916, where he began his teaching career as a teacher's assistant.[2]


In 1916, Hanson was hired for his first full-time position as a music theory and composition teacher at the College of the Pacific 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.[3]

In 1921 Hanson was the first winner of the Prix de Rome in Music (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 Italy 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. The three years Hanson spent on his Fellowship at the American Academy were, he considered, the formative years of his life, as he was free to compose, conduct without the distraction of teaching—he could devote himself solely to his art.

(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 expanded. He made his premiere conducting the George Eastman.

In 1924, Eastman chose Hanson to be director of the Eastman School of Music. Eastman, inventor of the Kodak camera and roll film, was also a major philanthropist, and used some of his great wealth to endow the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.

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 Arts. 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.[4] It is also widely known for its use in the final scene and end credits of the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien.[5]

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.

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 (UNESCO). UNESCO commissioned Hanson's Pastorale for Oboe and Piano, and Pastorale for Oboe, Strings, and Harp, for the 1949 Paris 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.

In 1960 he published a book Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (1960). Though not an example of integral music theory, it contained fruitful ideas and analytic algorithms which were incorporated in later theories such as set theory of Allen Forte. The idea of 'modal modulation' (Hanson's term) echoed in the Yuri Kholopov's 'variable mode' doctrine.

From 1961 to 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.[6]


Hanson met Margaret Elizabeth Nelson at her parents' summer home on Lake Chautauqua at 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 at Chautauqua Institution.

Legacy and honors

  • Hanson was an initiate of two chapters of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity: the Iota Chapter at Northwestern University in 1916, and the Alpha Nu Chapter at Eastman in 1928. He was recognized as a national honorary member in 1930, and presented with the Charles E. Lutton Man of Music Award at the national convention in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1954.
  • After he composed the Hymn of the Pioneers to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first Swedish settlement in Delaware, 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 1959, Hanson won the first Lancaster Symphony Orchestra Composer's Award, which is the oldest award of its kind in America and is awarded annually to a contemporary composer by the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, Lancaster, Pennsylvania (established in 1947). Hanson was a friend and colleague of the Founding Conductor of the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, the late Louis Vyner.
  • 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.
  • Hanson was a Distinguished Nebraskans Award Recipient in 1976.[7]

Former students

Hanson's students include Frank Bencriscutto, Clifton Williams, David Borden, Will Gay Bottje, John Davison, Emma Lou Diemer, Kenneth Gaburo, Joseph Willcox Jenkins, Donald O. Johnston, Samuel Jones, Homer Keller, Martin Mailman, John La Montaine, Richard Lane, Walter Mourant, Ron Nelson, Jeb Ohkubo, Bill Pursell, H. Owen Reed, John D. Ricca, Gloria Wilson Swisher, Robert Washburn, and John White.

Popular culture

Excerpts from Hanson's second symphony were used to accompany several exterior sequences and the end credits in the released versions of Ridley Scott's 1979 horror movie Alien[8] without his permission, but the composer decided not to fight it in court[9]—they replaced certain sections of the late Jerry Goldsmith's original score at the behest of 20th Century Fox. This highlighted music can still be found on most DVD versions of Alien.




  • Symphony No. 1 in E Minor Op.22, "Nordic" (1922)
  • Lux aeterna, Symphonic Poem for Orchestra with Viola Obligato, Op.24 (1923–1926)
  • Symphony No. 2 in D-Flat Major Op.30, "Romantic" (1930)
  • Suite from the Opera "Merry Mount" (1938)
  • Symphony No. 3 Op.33 (1941)
  • Symphony No. 4 Op.34, "Requiem" (1943; won Pulitzer Prize)
  • Fantasy-Variations On A Theme Of Youth " (1951)
  • Symphony No. 5 Op.43, "Sinfonia Sacra" (1955)
  • Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky Op.44 (1956)
  • Mosaics (1957)
  • Bold Island Suite (1961)
  • Symphony No. 6 (1967)
  • Dies Natalis (1967)
  • Symphony No. 7, "A Sea Symphony" (1977)


  • A Prayer for the Middle Ages
  • The Lament for Beowulf (1925)
  • Three Songs from Drum Taps (1935)
  • Song of Democracy (1957) for wind ensemble, string orchestra and SATB Choir
  • Song of Human Rights (1963) (text from the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
  • The One Hundred Fiftieth Psalm (1968)


  • Centennial March (1966)
  • Chorale and Alleluia (1954)
  • Dies Natalis II (1972)
  • Laude
  • Variations on an Ancient Hymn


  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G Major, Op. 36
  • Concerto for organ, harp & strings in C, Op 22/3
  • Summer Seascape No.2 for Viola and String Orchestra (1965)


  • Concerto da Camera in C Minor for Piano and String Quartet (1917), Op. 7
  • String Quartet (1923), Op. 23
  • Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings (1946), Op. 35
  • Pastorale for Oboe and Piano (1949), reorchestrated as alternative Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1950), both Op. 38
  • Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth (1951)
  • Elegy for Viola and String Quartet (1966)


  • 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 Arts 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.


  1. ^ Swedes In America (Adolph B. Benson; Naboth Hedin. New York: Haskel House Publishers. 1969)
  2. ^ (Modern Classical, Inc.)Howard Hanson
  3. ^ (HighBeam Research, Inc.)Howard Hanson
  4. ^ The New Criterion; July 2002. "Perfect Moments at Interlochen," by Jay Nordlinger. Retrieved October 28, 2015.
  5. ^ (Naxos Digital Services Ltd.)About this Recording: Howard Hanson (1896–1981), Symphony No. 2 ‘Romantic’
  6. ^ (Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary Composer Biographies)Howard Hanson
  7. ^ (The Nebraska Society of Washington, D.C., Inc.)1976 Distinguished Nebraskans Award Recipient
  8. ^  
  9. ^ Cohen, Allen Howard Hanson in Theory and Practice pp. 24–25 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004)

Other sources

  • Autry, Philip Earl The Published Solo Piano Music Of Howard Hanson: An Analysis For Teaching And Performing (U. M. I. 1996)
  • 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)
  • 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, The Beast Within: The Making of Alien (2004)

External links

  • Howard Hanson's page at Carl Fischer
  • Harmonic Materials of Modern Music: Resources of the Tempered Scale by Howard Hanson (1960), now available free in various electronic formats on
  • Harmonic Materials of Modern Music: Resources of the Tempered Scale by Howard Hanson (1960), now available free in various electronic formats on
  • Classical Composers Database
  • Clog Dance sheet music Nebraska Memories
  • Howard Hanson: An American Romantic
Preceded by
Alf Klingenberg
Director of the Eastman School of Music
Succeeded by
Walter Hendl
Preceded by
Raymond Wilson (Acting Director)
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