Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 6


Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a popular American composer and conductor. Over his long career he won numerous prizes including a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his Fourth Symphony and the George Foster Peabody Award for ‘Outstanding Entertainment in Music in 1946. Hanson’s music is often described as playing an integral part in the Neo-Romantic music movement. Hanson has often been praised for his utilisation of different compositional techniques used and developed in the Renaissance era right through to the Romantic era.

His experimentation with modes and extended chords and tonality made his music some of the most thrilling within American classical repertoire. Hanson’s music is often likened to composers such as Jean Sibelius and Antonín Dvořák. Critics and musicologist have hallmarked Hanson as a developmental composer who had a great breadth of knowledge about music.

His advanced orchestration skill set made him a master as producing compelling music. Hanson’s music spans many different genres including orchestral, choral, opera and chamber music. His most popular work is his Second Symphony, which has been dubbed his ‘Romantic’ symphony. It has been quoted in American TV ads and continues to be one of his most ground-breaking works.


The Music

Hanson’s Sixth Symphony was composed in 1967, and came about from a commission from the New York Philharmonic to celebrate their 125th anniversary. The premiere of the symphony happened in early 1968, conducted by the composer. Out of Hanson’s seven-cycle symphony roll, his sixth is perhaps the least atypical of his compositional style. In fact critics have written reviews of this work saying that it contains “passages that are uncharacteristically dissonant and ‘demonic’”.

Although he never wrote any pure atonal music, the Sixth Symphony is certainly the closest in its overall tonal structure. The Sixth Symphony is in six small movements that are played through to creative one smooth narrative of music. The work is based entirely on the opening idea which uses the pitches C/G/A. This very straightforward idea can be taken in a number of ways to create a rich tonal balance throughout the symphony, making it rich in texture, timbre and tonality.


I. Andante

The opening movement begins with the note sequence mentioned above. It starts in the upper woodwind parts and slowly makes its way around the orchestra. The open octaves that the winds play in give it the mysterious atmosphere at the start, making the music slightly uneasy. The phrase is then completed by a timpani and tuba strike on the root note C. This movement is slow in tempo and is ever-developing, with the strings and winds continuing a musical dialogue throughout. There is a feeling of sadness during the middle sections of this movement, which makes Hanson’s quick mood changes between movements even more dramatic.


II. Allegro scherzando

The faster-paced second movement utilises a triplet movement sequence. Opening with a snare drum and then the upper woodwinds, this movement is much more playful than the first. The driving triplet sequence persists throughout the whole movement, with the percussion playing a particularly prominent part here. Once again Hanson puts the woodwind at the forefront of this movement and their consistent triplet movement makes the unifying of the orchestra even more intense. The brass crash the party at various times with their dramatic fanfares and low drones from the heavy bass end. This movement has been rightly described as both playful and malevolent, with both of these two opposites unifying to create an intense movement of music.


III. Adagio

The luscious romantic third movement is quintessential Hanson. With sweeping melodies in true Romantic style, this movement is another big change in mood from the first two movements. This Adagio is perhaps the most emotionally driven of all six movements. The melody is particularly pertinent in the clarinets, upper strings and trumpets. The rich textures created by the strings adds to the mood of the movement. The climax near the end of the movement is heightened by the high register in the strings and the ever growing stabs from the brass. The movement closes quietly and mirrors the opening in this respect.


IV. Allegro assai

Another fast paced movement proceeds to sing out after the luscious Adagio third movement. The whirling and bouncing strings are decorated by fast moving scalic patterns from the winds. The brass are used for their fanfaring talents, and the movement as a whole is playful. The cellos do lead the orchestra into a more Romantic sequence, with the rich timbre from the lower strings singing out against the piccolo flute. The trumpets lead the music into turmoil, with the orchestra all playing staggered downward motifs lead by the marimba. The quick finish at the end of this movement gives no obvious indication of what’s to come in movement five.


V. Adagio

The third Adagio of this symphony and it is perhaps the most haunting and uneasy of the three. The pulsating winds throughout create tension that is in competition with unified string section and lower brass. The timpani plays a vital role in this movement as the repeated hits give a sense of a march, perhaps even a funeral march with how the mood of this movement has changed since the last. The music grows and swells into an almighty climax and ends on an interrupted cadence.


VI. Allegro

Certainly the most famous movement of the six, the finale movement bursts into energy with a repeated motif lead by the lower strings. This intense and thrilling motif drives through and is interrupted by the heavy brass and strings, which ultimately fail to completely penetrate the sheer driving force of the lower strings. The strings unite and continue to drive the music forwards. The timpani keeps time with repeated hits, which leads into a demonic feature for the brass section.

The trumpets, trombones and tuba play an important role here, as they lead the orchestra into battle. The mood intensifies as the percussion take over, with the brass stabbing in on offbeats. This movement is very powerful in its orchestration, musical content and use of a creative amount of dynamics. The movement ends with a blast of the opening C-G-A motif, creating a full circle idea within the music.

The power in this movement is unrivalled by other movements, and it’s in this defiance that pushes Hanson’s music to the front of many American classical catalogues and concert halls.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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