A Look at Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, ‘Romantic’

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In the relative scope of Western music history, composer Howard Hanson is a bit of an unknown, a throwback to a bygone era. His music represents a school of American composition whose roots were tied to the 19th century European traditions of melody and harmony. A true neo-Romanticist at heart, Hanson spent his student years in Europe and his musical language never veered far from these European Romantic roots.

In my own opinion, Hanson’s greatest contribution to the American classical music tradition was not his composition but rather his leadership at the Eastman School of Music. For 40 years, Hanson was that school’s director, having been appointed to the position by the school’s founder George Eastman, a philanthropist and founder of the (now-bankrupt) Eastman Kodak company.

Symphony No. 2

Probably his most known work is the Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”). The work was premiered on November 28, 1930 as a commission to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

It is a work that is not often performed in the United States and I imagine that outside of the United States it is rarely, if not not ever, performed. The score and music is only available as a rental through the Theodore Presser Company.

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One of its main themes is regularly performed to this day at the conclusion of all concerts at a summer camp in Northern Michigan, the Interlochen National Music Camp. This theme has become known as the “Interlochen Theme” and it is traditionally conducted by the concertmaster after the featured conductor has left the stage.

At its conclusion, there is no applause.

The theme

This theme is comprised of a simple string melody and a prominent horn counter-melody. On its first iteration it is a lento horn solo line – the length of which rivals even the Mendelssohn Nocturne and Tchiakovsky 5th solos in its duration.

(This theme also appears in the end credits of the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien, just as the monster gets blasted away into outer space.)

It returns several times throughout the three movements of the composition – both as solos and section tuttis. In a sense, it functions as sort of a “thematic glue” that holds the entire piece together.

Star Wars, ca. 1930?

To my own eyes and ears, this composition looks forward to the Hollywood sound that we are accustomed to hearing at the movies today. If a young John Williams had been mistakenly transported back in time to this era, he might have written very similar passages.

Splashes of heroic, swashbuckling melodies are present throughout.

The melody below is for a unison horn section – from rehearsal letter G to rehearsal letter I.

Horn I part, complete

All-in-all, the style of writing feels almost more like a band composition than one for orchestra. To a certain degree, the winds and brass take precedence over the strings as the center of attention. There is plenty for the principal horn to do and if you are ever engaged to perform this piece, it would be a good idea to get the part ahead of time and to be prepared.

Under the auspices of fair, educational use and that offering a single part for download does not affect the performance rights and profits of this composition as a whole, here is a complete PDF of the Horn I part for study purposes.

Vandalism of rental music

As a final note – a comment on excessive pencil markings in regards to rental music.

When my own part arrived, it was in miserable shape. An extraordinary amount of vertical hashes, fingerings and repetitive, dark circles made the part very difficult to read. My first task in preparing this part then, was to erase everything and start over with a clean part.

This is a strong pet peeve of mine. If one must make marks in rental music:

  • Use a standard #2 pencil. Ink and red pencil do not erase.
  • If you make a mistake in rehearsal, try not to take it out on the music by repeatedly circling that passage.
  • Use fingering indications modestly and sparingly.
  • Avoid the use of large-letter warnings with multiple exclamation points (such as WATCH THE CONDUCTOR! or SING HERE!! or EMPTY SLIDES HERE!!!).

Over-marking a part in rehearsal only draws attention to your mistakes and poor preparation.

Play nice

Vandalizing a part is highly disrespectful to the music and it may adversely affect the next person that will be performing from the same part. That person may not appreciate the personal dramas that might have been played out and inflicted upon the page.

Please be kind – use a pencil on rental music sparingly and when finished, erase your markings!


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