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Hanson, Raymond Charles (1913–1976)

by Peter John Tregear

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Raymond Charles Hanson (1913-1976), composer and teacher, was born on 23 November 1913 at Burwood, Sydney, youngest of five children of William Hanson, an Australian-born railway engineer, and his wife Lilian, née Bennett, from England. The marriage broke up when Raymond was quite young. At his mother's insistence, he was raised as a Baptist; he was to remain a spiritual person, but his faith later wavered. A sickly child, he suffered from a bronchial complaint and a recurring infection left him almost deaf in his right ear. He listened to his eldest sister practising the piano and began composing at the age of 8. Educated at Burwood Public and Fort Street Boys' High schools, Hanson had to leave high school in third year. Because he was too poor to pay for piano lessons, he was taught gratis by Ann Spillane, and in 1930 gained the licentiate (piano) of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. Until 1939 he scraped together a living from teaching the piano or working in menial occupations. He was gifted with a fine improvisatory ability and usually composed at the keyboard.

Having presented several recitals of his own works in the late 1930s, Hanson was awarded the Gordon Vickers scholarship in composition at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, but World War II interrupted his studies after only two months. He served in the Australian Military Forces in 1941-46 and rose to sergeant while with the Army Education Service in Tasmania. Through his army service he developed a lasting interest in jazz: he met a number of jazz musicians in the American forces when he formed and arranged a concert party. After the war he resumed his scholarship, studying under Alexander Burnard and receiving encouragement from (Sir) Eugene Goossens.

In 1948 Hanson was awarded a fellowship of the conservatorium and began teaching aural training, a subject that would hold a particular fascination for him. In the early 1950s, with Leonard Teale, Roland Robinson and others, he formed the short-lived Australian Cultural Defence Movement which aimed at protecting Australian art from the perceived inroads being made by other cultures, particularly American. The movement eventually faltered under the weight of anti-communist criticism. Hanson recalled that 'culture' was then considered a dirty word, 'associated principally with strong left ideas and more principally with communism'. He believed that his association with the A.C.D.M. and his later involvement with the Australian-Soviet Friendship Society were detrimental to his professional career and the attainment of a salaried position at the conservatorium.

Nevertheless, Hanson had much success as a teacher of aural training, and later harmony, orchestration, and composition. His teaching was influenced by the treatises of Paul Hindemith. Jazz and classical musicians alike respected his ability and dedication, and many sought private lessons from him, among them Don Burrows and Larry Sitsky. Lessons often ended in long discussions of philosophy or politics.

At St Matthew's Anglican Church, Manly, on 15 September 1956 Hanson married Moira Winifred Young (d.1975), a 23-year-old student at the conservatorium. The marriage proved difficult. They moved in turn to five different northern suburbs; he was troubled by failing health as his domestic situation deteriorated. In May 1967, while examining in Canberra, he suffered a heart attack. In September he was appointed senior lecturer in composition at the conservatorium.

An unpretentious man, Hanson was respected by his colleagues. In his prime he was also active in politics and sport, especially cricket. Towards the end of his life, however, he was increasingly depressive in outlook and uncomfortable with people in authority. Whereas in the 1940s his compositions were considered too radical to be popular, by the 1960s he was considered too conservative, a perception he did not resist, though it sorely troubled him. Disenchanted with the avant-garde, he remained committed to an empirical and craftsman-like approach to music, revealing traces of English pastoralism as well as the influence of Hindemith. Hanson preferred to explore the freedom, not the stricture, of the twelve-note scale and was fascinated by the consequent possibilities for harmony and linear development.

In 1973 he received a $9000 fellowship from the Federal government to support him while he composed Jane Greer, an opera about the Rum Rebellion; James Thomson wrote the libretto; the work was never staged. Hanson was appointed A.M. in 1976. Survived by his three daughters, he died of myocardial infarction on 6 December that year at his Thornleigh home and was cremated.

Hanson's surviving works include several operas, a symphony, and four concerti, of which the trumpet concerto (1948) is best known and was released worldwide by RCA of Australia Pty Ltd in 1969. His impressive Piano Sonata (op. 12), composed between 1938 and 1941, reflects the composer's feelings about the fall of Paris in World War II. Massive and technically difficult, in 1968 it was reworked with the encouragement of the Sydney pianist Igor Hmelnitsky who later recorded it. An oratorio in two parts, The Immortal Touch (1976), based on the words of the Indian poet-philosopher Sir Rabindranath Tagore, is the most striking example of Hanson's preoccupation with the metaphysical. He also wrote scores for film, television and radio, and jazz music and arrangements. His failure to attract lasting recognition as a composer resulted from inadequate self-promotion, and from the official and public attitude towards Australian composers which he and others of his generation had to endure.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Callaway and D. Tunley (eds), Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century (Melb, 1978)
  • Australian Journal of Music Education, 20, 1977, p 29
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1, 5 Oct 1970, 11 Dec 1973, 8 Dec 1976
  • H. de Berg, interview with Raymond Hanson (transcript, 1973, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter John Tregear, 'Hanson, Raymond Charles (1913–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hanson-raymond-charles-10421/text18471, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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