It was in 1930 that Howard Hanson (b. Wahoo, Nebraska, 1896) composed his Romantic Symphony (Symphony No. 2), a score which remains after 25 years the oldest symphony by an American composer still in the active concert repertoire. For all his immense activity as Director of the Eastman School of Music (since 1924), as founder-conductor of the American Composers' Concerts and American Music Festivals held at the Eastman School since 1925, and as guest conductor in heavy demand by symphony orchestras throughout the country, Dr. Hanson has not only continued his own creative work, but he has, achieved since the 1940's a singular distinctiveness, eloquence and refinement in his musical utterance.
With the Fourth Symphony (Requiem) (Mercury MG50077), the Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings, the Pastorale for Oboe and Strings (both on Mercury MG50076) and the two major works offered on this disc, it can be said that the very cream of Howard Hanson's mature composition is to be had on Mercury Living Presence recordings.
The traditional materials of music as handed down from the classic and romantic symphonic masters, a keen awareness of Scandinavian heritage from his Swedish parents, childhood memories of the chorales heard at the Swedish Lutheran Church during his Nebraska boyhood, a passionate and vital nature of his own—these are the elements which have gone into the making of Howard Hanson's musical language. Experience, maturity and the passage of time have seen the untrammelled "nordicism" of the choral-orchestral Lament for Beowulf (1925) and the lyrical heroics of the Romantic Symphony (1930) become transmuted into a music more refined and at the same time more intense and truly personal, beginning with the Fourth Symphony (1943) and continuing through the intimate Serenade (1946) and Pastorale (1949), as well as the larger-scaled and more brilliant Cherubic Hymn (1949), Chorale and Alleluia for Band (1953) (recorded on Mercury MG50084, and Sinfonia Sacra. A particular musical "trademark" common to all these later scores from Howard Hanson's pen is his superbly effective use of passing dissonance as an element of contrast in prevailingly diatonic and modal harmonic texture. Characteristic also is the element of brevity in terms of actual performance time and concision in the use of thematic material.
Completed on August 8, 1594, Howard Hanson's Sinfonia Sacra is so titled because of its inspiration by the story of the Resurrection as recounted in the Gospel according to St. John. On the occasion of its world premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra early in 1955, Eugene Ormandy conducting, Dr. Hanson wrote: "The Sinfonia Sacra does not attempt programmatically to tell the story of the first Easter, but does attempt to invoke some of the atmosphere of tragedy and triumph, mysticism and affirmation of this story which is the essential symbol of the Christian faith. . . . The Sinfonia Sacra follows three other works, all concerned with the same general theme: my Fourth or 'Requiem' Symphony, and two choral works, The Cherubic Hymn and How Excellent Thy Name." The music falls into three broad divisions played as a single uninterrupted movement. There is a foreboding and suspenseful Introduction, itself in three sections. There follows a division in which three sharply defined themes are set forth—an intense and declamatory Theme 1, a calm but sustained Gregorian-style melody for strings as Theme 2, and a Pastorale of distinctly Scandinavian flavor introduced by English horn as Theme 3. The development of this last leads to the third main division of the Sinfonia Sacra, wherein we hear a climactic return of the declamatory Theme 1, the introduction and development of a new and highly agitated Theme 4, then a catharsis which finds eloquent expression in a chorale treatment of Theme 2. The music ends with a brief and utterly serene codetta scored for woodwinds and muted strings.
Howard Hanson's setting of The Cherubic Hymn was composed in 1949 and dedicated to his mother. Its text forms part of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), a basis of much of the ritual of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Greece, Russia and old Byzantium. The atmosphere of mystery and exaltation so characteristic of the Byzantine rite has inspired a number of other colorful and impressive musical works, among them Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture (Mercury MG50028 or MG50039) and Gustav Hoist's The Hymn of Jesus.
The text used by Dr. Hanson as translated by Stephen A. Hurlbut reads thus:
It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks unto Thee and to worship Thee in all places of Thy dominion- For Thy: God ineffable, inconceivable, incomprehensible, eternally existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine only begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit. For Thou out of nothingness didst call us into being, and when we had fallen away Thou didst raise us up again, and didst not cease doing all things for us until Thou broughtest us up to heaven, and didst bestow upon us Thy kingdom which is to come. For all these things we give thanks to Thee and to Thine only begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit, for all Thy benefits known, for all unknown, for Thine open and secret favors bestowed upon us. And we tender thanks unto Thee for this ministry of worship which Thou hast vouchsafed to accept at our hand, although there stand before Thee thousands of archangels and ten thousands of angels, the Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim full of eyes, soaring aloft on their wings, singing the triumphal hymn, crying, calling aloud, and saying:
Holy, Holy, Holy,
Heav'n and earth are full of Thy glory.
Samuel Barber (b. West Chester, Pa., 1910) has with his choral-orchestra Prayers of Kierkegaard composed in 1954 carried to new heights the fulfillment of that immense creative promise shown in his setting of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach and in his Overture to The School for Scandal (recorded on Mercury MG50075) which marked his graduation from the Curtis Institute of Music back in 1931. The First Symphony (1936) recorded here, together with the Adagio for Strings (1936) and Essay for Orchestra (1937) (also recorded on Mercury MG50075) comprise the very peak of Barber's first youthful creative -surge; and as such these have been the foundation stone of his worldwide fame as a true master among American composers. The lyrical and polyphonic achieve a remarkable synthesis throughout the whole of Barber's output, whether in terms of writing for solo voice and orchestra as in Knoxville: Summer of 1915; in terms of a rigorously intellectual chamber piece like the Capricorn Concerto; or the impassioned dramatics of the Symphony No. 1.
It was during the winter of 1935-36 that Barber composed his First Symphony and it was given its premiere in Rome under the direction of Bernardino Molinari with the Augusteo Orchestra. In 1937 Artur Rodzinski conducted the American premiere with The Cleveland Orchestra, then conducted the work again at Salzburg that summer. In 1942, during which period he had composed his Second Essay for Orchestra, Barber re-wrote the "scherzo" section of his First Symphony, and the revised version was heard for the first time on February 18, 1944 with Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra. It is the revised version which is recorded here.
Barber's own analysis is clear, concise and complete: "The form," he observes, "is a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony. It is based on three themes of the initial Allegro non troppo, which retain throughout the work their fundamental character. The Allegro opens with the usual exposition of a main theme, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme. After a brief development of the three themes. instead of the customary recapitulation, the first theme, in diminution, forms the basis of the scherzo section (Vivace). The second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears in augmentation, in an extended Andante tranquillo. An intense crescendo introduces the finale, which is a short passacaglia based on the first theme (introduced by violoncelli and contrabassi), over which, together with figures from other themes, the closing theme is -coven, thus serving as a recapitulation for the entire symphony."
The music on this disc was recorded with a single Telefunken microphone hung in the Eastman Theater adjacent to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N. Y. The Cherubic Hymn by Howard Hanson was recorded during May of 1953, while the symphonies by Dr. Hanson and Samuel Barber were taped one year later.
For this Mercury Living Presence recording of mixed chorus with orchestra, a single microphone was used, as in the case of the purely orchestral works here, with the position of the orchestra being only slightly altered to accommodate the nearly 200 voices of the Eastman School of Music Chorus. Those who listen to this disc will be able to judge for themselves how successfully Mercury's Living Presence recording technique has captured the massive sonorities of full chorus and orchestra in The Cherubic Hymn and the complex polyphonic textures of Samuel Barber's First Symphony.
Credits: Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra and Eastman School of Music Chorus conducted by Howard Hanson.Tracks:
- Symphony No. 5 (Sinfonia Sacra)
- The Cherubic Hymn
- Symphony No. 1 in One Movement, Op. 9
Other Recordings of these Works: