The Curiously Cinematic Case of Howard Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony

May 23, 2019

Howard Hanson was an American composer, educator, conductor, author, orchestrator, band leader and arts advocate. Outside his hometown of Wahoo, Nebraska, there's a faded billboard. Five notable people -- claims the billboard -- hailed from Wahoo. Hanson's name is included as one of the five.

In 1930, he completed his Second Symphony, subtitled the "Romantic" Symphony. Hanson presented this symphony numerous times in concert; he also acted as conductor for two commerical recordings -- one in the 1930s, one in the 1950s.

Fast forward to 1979, now. The new science-fiction film "Alien" is released. And, amidst Jerry Goldsmith's score, at the very end of the movie, as Ripley blasts the creature out of the airlock, and then incinerates the beast with the ship's engines... something... familiar is heard in the background. Unbeknownst to Goldsmith -- and to Hanson -- the director, Ridley Scott, had decided to replace Goldsmith's score with an entire passage from Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony during that sequence.

Goldsmith wasn't pleased. To put it mildly, Hanson wasn't pleased, either. In fact, he was almost litigious, until word spread anew about his "Romantic" Symphony, garnering fresh interest in his music.

It's now 1982. John Williams is working on the score for the new Spielberg film, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial". Spielberg is amazed at the final, 15-minute suite of music that Williams has created for the: Escape, Bicycle Chase, Saying Goodbye & Finale. Williams, during interviews, explains that Howard Hanson's music, and, especially, the "Romantic" Symphony, provided a strong guide for his new score. (Hanson passed away in 1981.) In fact, several of Williams' passages are strikingly similarĀ  -- in rhythm, melody and orchestration -- to Hanson's original symphony.

And now, all the way into the 21st century, the composing team of Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro has rediscovered Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony for cinematic purposes. The 2017 animated film "The Boss Baby" relies on several classical music cues throughout the score. But, during one of the final scenes, when love finally triumphs over the cold, heartless world of Baby Corp, the team of Zimmer & Mazzaro goes straight for evocations of the second movement of Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony to fully tug viewers' heartstrings.

James Arey | Classical 104.9 FM | New Orleans Public Radio