A Symphonic Requiem
(Variations on a Theme of Howard Hanson)
Samuel Jones was born in Inverness, Mississippi, in 1935, and now lives near Seattle. The first performance of A Symphonic Requiem (Variations on a Theme of Howard Hanson) was given on April 17, 1983 by the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its music director, Thomas Lewis. The composer scored this work for 3 flutes (the third player doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets (the third doubling on bass clarinet), 2 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, percussion; harp; and strings.

Howard Hanson was an important and influential presence in American musical life during the middle decades of the twentieth century. As a conductor, he performed an inestimable service to our nation’s composers, leading hundreds of performances of new American pieces. His own compositions upheld a Romantic ethos in an age of ascendant Modernism. And as a teacher of composition at the Eastman School of Music, he instructed and was mentor to several generations of aspiring American composers. Among those who benefited from his guidance was Samuel Jones, now the Seattle Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence, who studied composition with Hanson and who later found the older musician an inspiring friend and mentor during the years Mr. Jones conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Around the time of Hanson’s death, in 1981, Mr. Jones was commissioned by the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra to compose a new work. Hanson’s recent passing prompted the composer to create the commissioned piece as a tribute to his former teacher. Specifically, he cast it as a set of variations on Hanson’s best-known symphonic theme. A Symphonic Requiem (Variations on a Theme of Howard Hanson) was performed by the Sioux City Symphony in 1983. In the spring of 2002 Mr. Jones revisited the work, making major revisions in orchestration and some in compositional detail. The premiere of this revised edition was given by the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Gerard Schwarz, on October 3, 2002. The composer has dedicated the new version of the piece to Maestro Schwarz, in recognition of the major role he has played in re-establishing Hanson’s music in the orchestral repertory.

Mr. Jones has supplied the following note about his work:

The theme on which the variations are based is perhaps Hanson’s most celebrated theme, the principal theme of his Second Symphony (the “Romantic”). Hanson’s original theme is in ABB form, consisting of three phrases of six and one-half bars each. He closed each phrase with a characteristic cadence, distinctive in its rhythm (three against two) as well as its melodic and harmonic properties. I have utilized this cadence as a primary motivic catalyst for the creation of the entire work.

There are twelve variations and a finale. I have reversed the usual procedure of presenting the theme at the beginning, followed by variations. Instead, I have isolated the three basic elements of Hanson’s theme (its harmony, melody, and a strong counter-subject) and featured them separately in early variations. Succeeding variations treat different structural aspects of this material until the finale brings all the individual elements together into a culminating statement of the theme.

The mood of the variations closely parallels the emotional curve of the Requiem Mass: i.e., sadness and grief, rent by anger and struggle, are followed by resignation, comfort, and finally, acceptance. This progression of feelings seems to be universal in expressing the reaction people have in coming to terms with the death of close friends or loved ones. Variations four through seven correspond to the Dies Irae section of the liturgy, and clues to the character of each variation can be discerned from the Latin text selected as titles.

For decades Hanson’s theme has been played at the conclusion of every concert at the famous summer music camp at Interlochen. With its appearance at the end of these variations, the theme thus serves the same function as it has for generations of young musicians: that of a unifying, benedictory musical gesture.

Program Notes © Paul Schiavo,
used by permission.