Howard Hanson

Active - 20th Century  |   Born - Oct 28, 1896 in Wahoo, NE  |   Died - Feb 26, 1981 in Rochester, NY  |   Genres - Science Fiction

Share on

Composer/conductor Howard Hanson never made a career in Hollywood or scored a movie, but during the final two years of his life, he found one of his works exposed to a vast new public, all thanks to the movie Alien (1979). The event was little more than a footnote to a very busy career of more than 50 years as a musician and educator, but it raised his profile dramatically. Born in Wahoo, NE (also the birthplace of Darryl F. Zanuck) in 1896 to a Swedish-American family, Hanson studied at Luther College in Wahoo before attending the Institute of Musical Art in New York City, and finally at Northwestern University. He taught at the College (later University) of the Pacific and began emerging as a composer at the start of the 1920s, with his prize-winning piece "The California Forest Play." By the mid-'20s he'd also begun making a name for himself as a conductor, and in 1924 was appointed director of the Eastman-Rochester School of Music, in Rochester, NY. He held the post for four decades, and was a major influence on the education of several generations of musicians, as well as founding the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra and writing a huge amount of concert music. Hanson had a kind of split personality where music was concerned -- as a teacher and conductor, he did his best to encourage, perform, and (when possible) record modern, distinctly 20th century works; but as a composer, he wrote in a very clearly romantic style that recalled the late 19th century. During the late '20s and the 1930s, he was regarded as America's most important native-born composer and conductor, with invitations to conduct from the Berlin Philharmonic, among other European orchestras.

Hanson was busy enough throughout his life, between teaching, composing, conducting, and recording, and also so rooted on the East Coast that movie-related work never entered into his career. In 1979, however, his name recognition and music received a big boost from one film -- coincidentally, from a movie produced by 20th Century Fox, the studio co-founded 45 years earlier by his fellow Wahoo native Darryl F. Zanuck. The makers of the sci-fi thriller Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, were unhappy with part of the score authored by Jerry Goldsmith -- specifically, they didn't like the music he'd written for the finale and the end credits, after the title creature has been dispatched, which was also the most peaceful part of the movie. In its place in the finished film (but not on the soundtrack LP), they used the slow movement from Hanson's "Symphony No. 2," subtitled "Romantic" -- it was a hauntingly beautiful piece of music, lyrical and melodic, and luckily for Hanson, difficult to forget. Officially, in the opening credits, the score for Alien was the work of Goldsmith; there was a credit to Hanson for "incidental music" that was much smaller and less prominent. When people bought the soundtrack LP, many were disappointed that Hanson's music wasn't represented on it (the LP and subsequent CD contained the original Goldsmith music) and started to ask around about what it was and where they could get it. The answer got out, first through the music and cineaste communities and later by way of classical radio stations (there were a fair number of them in those days). And suddenly, in 1979 and 1980, there was a spike -- even a boom -- in sales of Hanson's own Mercury recording of the symphony, which remained in high demand for years after. That, in turn, boosted interest in all of Hanson's music, which sold in higher numbers than it had since the 1950s.

The composer passed away in 1981, even as his audience was growing as a result of the movie; ironically enough, all of this took place at a time when his romantic style of composition had largely been relegated to the past by the same academic community that he served. Right into the first decade of the 21st century, people who knew little about contemporary classical music or Howard Hanson, or the Eastman-Rochester School, continued to find their way to his work through Alien, in its many incarnations on television and home video. It was also no accident in 2004 that the Hanson "Symphony No. 2" was among the first wave of Mercury classical recordings to find their way onto the audiophile Super-Audio CD format.