Neo-romantic American composer, Howard Hanson, was one of the first twentieth-century composers who gained widespread attention. His most notable works involved his seven symphonies, including his most famous Romantic Symphony, Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major. Symphony No. 2 is a three-movement piece that was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on November 28, 1930. The slow and haunting theme in the first movement is easily one of the most iconic themes in all of music history. It might sound familiar as it is mostly known as the main theme for the Interlochen Center for the Arts played at the end of every performance, the Eastman School of Music, and the ending credits of the sci-fi film Alien. This same theme keeps reoccurring but with greater importance in the next two movements, making the third and final movement having the most energy. While there are great passion and sentimentality in this piece, it was very ahead of its time.
Around the time before this piece was composed (after World War I), musical trends were all about repetition and relying on musical forms, which sounded limiting for Hanson. In response, he composed this Symphony to contrast with the many harsh influenced styles of Americana music and of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky that took over the American concert music genre, since it contained many Romantic music elements with a more lyrical and traditional style. Hanson stated that he saw this Symphony as a “protest” of the evolving styles inspired by the Austrian composer, Arnold Schoenberg, with his strange sounding notes and lack of melody and how Hanson described it, cold. During this time prior to World War II, this was a very different musical style compared to all these genres mentioned above and stood out like a sore thumb, but that’s how it became so impactful and well-known still to this day.
The purpose of this piece was “to create a work young in spirit, Romantic in temperament, and simple and direct in the expression”, stated Hanson. He stated that this Symphony, or when making music in general, should always be from the emotions and not how intellectual a composer can be. He complained about how, during that time in the 1930s, contemporary music was too “cerebral” and that creating this Symphony was the best way for him to escape the “bitter type of modern musical realism”.
Today, this Symphony is mostly played by youth orchestras, but there is something else more than younger amateurs playing a professional piece like this. There is a sense of innocence and emotion manifested into this Romantic Symphony, and its birth in one of the dreadful and coldest eras in history brings back youth and color into the same time period while doing the same for the modern generation. It gives the younger, and even older, individuals a sense of nostalgia and is being reminded of that tiny shine of light in a time of need.
By Esther Kim / University of Michigan, School of Music