Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2

Ripley - Scene from Aliens
Warrant Officer Ripley aboard the Nostromo

I invoke Ridley Scott’s 1979 Sci-fi masterwork, the movie Alien. It was the first movie in that storied franchise, with the killer tag line, “in space no one can hear you scream” (40 years later, I still love that line!).

I set final scene. Warrant Officer Ellen Louise Ripley (played by the indomitable Sigourney Weaver) is the last surviving member of the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo. In the final scene we find Ripley on the Nostromo’s shuttle craft; she has just destroyed the Nostromo itself and – so she thinks – with it, the Alien on board (a.k.a. the Xenomorph or Internecivus raptus [meaning “murderous thief”], a endoparasitoid extraterrestrial lifeform, for those of you like me who must know).

But the alien, of course, is not dead; it has managed to wedge itself into a small crevise on the shuttle. Having stripped down to her skivvies Ripley discovers the Alien, and in a manner most satisfying manages to finally destroy it. As she lowers herself (and her cat Jonesy, a.k.a. “Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7”) into her suspended animation/stasis pod for her trip back to earth and the closing credits roll, we hear a three minute-long musical passage: gorgeous; mysterious; and as it concludes, profoundly and ethereally peaceful. For this passage, the film composer Jerry Goldsmith chose wisely, employing not his own music but the final three minutes of the first movement of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 of 1930. 

Speaking of aliens…

Scene from E.T.
Scene from E.T.

Just a personal opinion, but anyone who is not enchanted by Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T. (1982) has a heart of basalt. My favorite scene in the movie is and will always be the so-called “bicycle chase”, when young Elliott, his older brother Michael, and three friends attempt to outrun pretty much all the police and black-suited authorities in the San Fernando Valley on their bicycles (the sequence was shot at Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley). E.T. is huddled in the basket of Elliott’s bike, and just when it looks like the jig is up and the boys are about to be corralled, the bikes lift off the ground and fly, an act of telekinesis on E.T.’s part. I don’t mind telling you I sob every time I see that scene. You see, when my younger brother Steve and I rode our bikes, we always fantasized that if we could only go fast enough, we would fly. Seeing those bikes lift off and fly in E.T. brings me right back to the innocence and purity and the magic-is-always-possible mind-set of childhood, and as such the impact of those flying bikes is as visceral to me as a punch in the gut.

Credit where credit is due. One of the principal reasons the bicycle chase is so viscerally exciting is its music, by the great (by any standard) American composer John Williams. And the principal reason why John Williams’ music for the bicycle chase is so viscerally exciting is that in composing it, he had the good sense to be inspired by the opening of the third movement of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, of 1930.

Howard Hanson

Howard Hanson
Howard Hanson, circa 1930

There was a time, not all that long ago, when everybody knew who Howard Hanson was and Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 was considered a concert staple and an American classic. Well, it’s still an American classic though it is no longer a concert staple, and dang it, I’m thinking the symphony needs a little love. In fact, I’m thinking that a there’s whole bunch of mid-century American composers whose music requires some love as well. Thus, I’ve decided to dedicate the next couple of months’ worth of Dr. Bob Prescribe posts to a bevy of mid-century American populists, whose music enthralls, enlightens and entertains; by such composers as Howard Hanson (today), Walter Piston (next week), Samuel Barber, Irving Fine, David Diamond, Peter Mennin, William Schuman, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and others. This will be fun!

Read more about Howard Hanson, and see the recommended recording on Patreon!

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