In a creative life that spanned over 60 years, the American composer Howard Hanson never wavered in his belief that music should be tonal in nature and fundamentally Romantic in style, with strong and clear melodic lines.
By the mid-1950s, many other European and American composers were espousing a far different approach to music, favoring an abstract and often densely complex style, more in harmony with the non-representational canvases of the painter Jackson Pollack than the meticulous realism of, say, Norman Rockwell.
On today’s date in 1955, this music, Hanson’s Symphony No. 5, had its premiere performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. It’s the most compact of Hanson’s seven symphonies, a single-movement work in three sections lasting just 15 minutes. Hanson titled the work “Sinfonia Sacra” or “A Sacred Symphony,” and suggested it was inspired by the account of Christ’s resurrection in the Gospel of St. John.
“The Sinfonia Sacra does not attempt programmatically to tell the story of the first Easter,” wrote Hanson, “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.”
For many decades Hanson, along with other “unfashionably traditional” symphonists like Walter Piston and David Diamond, were neglected by most American orchestras, but more recently are making something of a comeback in concert halls and on compact discs.