Hanson's boyhood home in Wahoo, Nebraska is on the National Register of Historic Places
In his youth Howard Hanson studied music with his mother. Later, he studied at Luther College (now Midland University), receiving a diploma in 1911, then at the Institute of Musical Art, the forerunner of the Juilliard School, in New York City, where he studied with the composer and music theorist Percy Goetschius in 1914.
Afterward he attended Northwestern University, where he studied composition with church music expert Peter Lutkin and Arne Oldberg in Chicago. Throughout his education, Hanson studied piano, cello, and trombone. Howard Hanson earned his Bachelor of Arts in music from Northwestern in 1916, where he began his teaching career as a teacher's assistant.
After studying in New York, Hanson taught in San Jose, California, and spent three years in Italy (1921-1924) as winner of the American Prix de Rome. On his return to the United States he became director of the newly organized Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., a post he held until his retirement in 1964. Howard Hanson established annual festivals of American music and conducted more than 1,000 new works by young composers, many of them his own pupils. In 1958 he organized the Eastman Philharmonia, a student orchestra with which he toured Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East in 1961-1962.
Howard Hanson refers to his Swedish ancestry in his Symphony No. 1 (1923; Nordic). His Symphony No. 2 (1930; Romantic), commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on its 50th anniversary, proclaimed his faith in Romanticism. His Symphony No. 4 (1943; Requiem), dedicated to the memory of his father, won a Pulitzer Prize. Among his other works are the Symphony No. 5 (1955; Sinfonia Sacra); the Lux Aeterna for orchestra (1923); Songs from Drum Tap for voices and orchestra (1935; after Walt Whitman); an opera, Merry Mount (1934), commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera; and chamber music. Howard Hanson also published a textbook for advanced students, Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (1960).
Howard Hanson died at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York at the age of 84. He was survived by his wife Margaret Elizabeth Nelson.
Howard Hanson met Margaret Elizabeth Nelson at her parents' summer home on Lake Chautauqua at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. He dedicated the Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings, to her; the piece was his musical marriage proposal, as he could not find the spoken words to propose to her. They married on July 24, 1946 in the same house where they had first met.