Another dose of Americana tonight, by way of the venerable Eastman-Rochester Symphony, conducted by none other than Howard Hanson. A recreation of a portion of the first concert given spotlighting new American composers which the Eastman-Rochester Symphony took part in on May 19, 1925.
Howard Hanson 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. In 1944, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 4, and received numerous other awards including the George Foster Peabody Award for Outstanding Entertainment in Music in 1946.
Hanson’s interest in educating the general public through innovative means became apparent as early as 1938. At this time he engaged the talents of student ensembles at the Eastman School to present Milestones in the History of Music on the radio. This weekly series of programs presented a sweeping survey of the history of Western music which was broadcast locally in Rochester, New York on WHAM and nationally on the NBC Red Network. In recognition of these efforts, the Peabody Award for outstanding service to music was awarded to Hanson, the Eastman School and WHAM in 1946. Hanson also engaged his student ensembles to present a similar series for the CBS radio network which he entitled Milestones in American Music. This series presented orchestral, choral and chamber music composed by eighty two American composers from the mid 19th century to modern times. As Hanson himself indicated this was “the first attempt at a rather complete presentation of the American picture in music.”
Later in 1939, he founded the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, which consisted of first chair players from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, faculty members from the Eastman School of Music and selected students from the Eastman School. For thirty years from 1939 to 1969 Hanson made over one hundred recordings for RCA Victor, Mercury Records and Columbia Records with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, not only of his own works, but also those of other American composers such as: Charles Ives, Wayne Barlow, John Alden Carpenter, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Alan Hovhaness, Homer Keller, John Knowles Paine, Burrill Phillips, Walter Piston, Bernard Rogers, Roger Sessions 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. It is also widely known for its use in the final scene and 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, he wrote “Three Songs from Drum Taps”, based on the poem by Walt Whitman.
This portion of that recreated concert from 1925 features works by Quincy Porter, Bernard Rogers and then-unknown Aron Copland. In the broadcast announcements it was noted that Howard Hanson and The Eastman-Rochester Symphony had been responsible (as of April 19, 1945 – the date of this broadcast) for premiering some 900 works by new American composers. I can’t think of another orchestra, except possibly the Louisville Symphony, responsible for that much dedication to new music.
The music on this program is as follows:
1. Quincy Porter – Ukrainian Suite
2. Bernard Rogers – Soliloquy for Flute and String Orchestra
3. Aron Copland – Cortege Macabre
I may be wrong, but I don’t believe I have seen commercial recordings of any of the above pieces – certainly not recently. And the Copland piece, an early composition, is totally unfamiliar.
All told – a fascinating concert of unfamiliar and enjoyable music.