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Alan Hovhaness and “Mysterious Mountain”


Alan Hovhaness (March 8, 1911 – June 21, 2000) was an American composer of Armenian descent and one of America’s most idiosyncratic musical pioneers who sought a musical reconciliation between East and West. He was born as Alan Scott Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville, MA, to Haroutioun Hovanes Chakmakjian, an Armenian chemistry professor at Tufts College who had been born in Adana, Turkey, and Madeleine Scott, an American woman of Scottish descent who had graduated from Wellesley College. When he was five, his family moved from Somerville to Arlington, MA. After his mother’s death on October 3, 1930, he began to use the surname “Hovaness” in honor of his paternal grandfather, and changed it to “Hovhaness” around 1944. Hovhaness was interested in music from a very early age, writing his first composition at the age of four after being inspired by hearing a song of Franz Schubert. His family was concerned after this first attempt at composition, a cantata in the early Italian style, for his late-night hours spent composing and possibly for his financial future as an artist. He decided for a short time to pursue astronomy, another of his early loves.

However, Hovhaness’s parents still supported their son’s precocious composing, and set up his first piano lessons with a neighborhood teacher. Hovhaness continued his piano studies with Adelaide Proctor and then Heinrich Gebhard. By age fourteenn he decided to devote himself to composition. Among his early musical experiences were Baptist hymns and recordings of Gomidas Vartabed, an eminent Armenian composer. He composed two operas, Daniel and Lotus Blossom, during his teenage years which were performed at Arlington High School, and the composer Roger Sessions took an interest in his music during this time. Following his graduation from high school in 1929, he studied with Leo Rich Lewis at Tufts and then under Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1932, he won the Conservatory’s Samuel Endicott prize for composition with a symphonic work entitled Sunset Symphony (elsewhere entitled Sunset Saga).

In July 1934, with his wife, Martha Mott Davis, Hovhaness traveled to Finland to meet the great composer, Jean Sibelius, whose music he had greatly admired since childhood. The two continued to correspond for the next twenty years. This marriage produced his only child, a daughter born in 1935 named Jean Christina Hovhaness after Jean Christian Sibelius, her godfather. In 1936, Hovhaness attended a performance in Boston by the Indian dance troupe of Uday Shankar with orchestra led by Vishnudas Shirali, which inspired his lifelong interest in the music of India. During the 1930s, until 1939, he worked in FDR’s federal WPA’s Federal Music Project. During the 1930s and 1940s, Hovhaness destroyed many of his early works, claiming to have burned anywhere from 500 to 1000 different pieces.

Hovhaness became interested in Armenian culture and music in 1940 as organist for the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, MA, remaining in this position for about ten years. In 1942, he won a scholarship at Tanglewood to study in Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s master class. During a seminar in composition, a recording of Hovhaness’s first symphony was being played. The next year he devoted himself to Armenian subject matter, in particular using modes distinctive to Armenian music, and continued in this vein for several years, achieving some renown and the support of other musicians, including radical experimentalist composer John Cage and choreographer Martha Graham, all the while continuing as church organist.

Beginning in the mid-1940s, Hovhaness and two artist friends, Hyman Bloom and Hermon di Giovanno, met frequently to discuss musical matters. All three had a strong interest in Indian classical music, and brought many well known Indian musicians to Boston to perform. During this period, Hovhaness learned to play the sitar, studying with amateur Indian musicians living in the Boston area. Around 1942, Bloom introduced Hovhaness to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a fine singer of Armenian and Kurdish troubadour songs, whose singing inspired Hovhaness. Lou Harrison reviewed a 1945 concert of Hovhaness’ music which included his 1944 concerto for piano and strings, entitled Lousadzak. In the mid-1940s, Hovhaness’ stature in New York was helped considerably by members of the immigrant Armenian community who sponsored several high-profile concerts of his music. This organization, the Friends of Armenian Music Committee, was led by Hovhaness’s friends Dr. Elizabeth A. Gregory, the Armenian American piano/violin duo Maro Ajemian and Anahid Ajemian, and later Anahid’s husband, pioneering record producer and subsequent Columbia Records executive George Avakian. Their help led directly to many recordings of Hovhaness’ music appearing in the 1950s on MGM and Mercury records, placing him firmly on the American musical landscape.

In May and June 1946, while staying with an Armenian family, Hovhaness composed Etchmiadzin, an opera on an Armenian theme. In 1948 he joined the faculty of the Boston Conservatory, teaching there until 1951. His students there included the jazz musicians Sam Rivers and Gigi Gryce. In 1951 Hovhaness moved to New York City, where he became a full-time composer. Also that year, starting on August 1, he worked for the Voice of America, first as a script writer for the Armenian section, then as director of music, composer, and musical consultant for the Near East and Transcaucasian sections, but lost his job in 1953. From this time on, he branched out from Armenian music, adopting styles and material from a wide variety of sources. In 1953 and again in1954, he received Guggenheim Fellowships in composition. He wrote the score for the Broadway play The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets in 1954, a ballet for Martha Graham (Ardent Song, also in 1954), and two scores for NBC documentaries on India and Southeast Asia (1955 and 1957). Also during the 1950s, he composed for productions at The Living Theatre.

Hovhaness’s biggest breakthrough to date came in 1955, when his Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain, was premiered by Leopold Stokowski in his debut with the Houston Symphony. That same year, MGM Records released recordings of a number of his works. Between 1956 and 1958, at the urging of Howard Hanson, an admirer of his music, he taught summer sessions at the Eastman School of Music long presided over by Hanson. From 1959 through 1963 Hovhaness conducted a series of research trips to India, Hawaii, Japan and South Korea, investigating the ancient traditional music of these nations and eventually integrating elements of these into his own compositions. His study of Carnatic music in Madras, India (1959–60), during which he collected over 300 ragas, was sponsored by a Fulbright fellowship. While in Madras, he learned to play the veena and composed a work for Carnatic orchestra entitled Nagooran, inspired by a visit to the dargah at Nagore, which was performed by the South Indian Orchestra of All India Radio Madras and broadcast on All-India Radio on February 3, 1960. He compiled a large amount of material on Carnatic ragas in preparation for a book on the subject, but never completed it.

Hovhaness then studied Japanese gagaku music (learning the wind instruments hichiriki, shō, and ryūteki) in the spring of 1962 with Masatoshi Shamoto in Hawaii, and a Rockefeller Foundation grant allowed him further gagaku studies with Masataro Togi in Japan (1962–63). Also while in Japan, he studied and played the nagauta (kabuki) shamisen and the jōruri (bunraku) shamisen. In recognition of the musical styles he studied in Japan, he wrote Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, Op. 211 (1965), a concerto for xylophone and orchestra. In 1963 he composed his second ballet score for Martha Graham, entitled Circe. He then set up a record label devoted to the release of his own works, Poseidon Society. Its first release was in 1963, with around 15 discs following over the next decade. In 1965, as part of a U.S. government-sponsored delegation, he visited Russia as well as Soviet-controlled Georgia and Armenia, the only time he visited his paternal ancestral homeland. While there, he donated his handwritten manuscripts of harmonized Armenian liturgical music to the Yeghishe Charents State Museum of Arts and Literature in Yerevan. In the mid-1960s he spent several summers touring Europe, living and working much of the time in Switzerland.

Hovhaness was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1951), and received honorary D.Mus. degrees from the University of Rochester (1958), Bates College (1959), and the Boston Conservatory (1987). He moved to Seattle in the early 1970s, where he lived for the rest of his life. A 1970 work inspired by nature and which acquired some fame was his orchestral work And God Created Great Whales where pre-recorded whale songs were fitted within an impressionistic-sounding orchestral tone poem. In 1973, he composed his third and final ballet score for Martha Graham, Myth of a Voyage, and over the next twenty years (between 1973 and 1992) he produced no fewer than 37 new symphonies. As a tribute to Hovhaness’ unswerving vision, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. Continuing his interest in composing for Asian instruments, in 1981, at the request of Lou Harrison, he composed two works for Indonesian gamelan orchestra which were premiered by the gamelan at Lewis and Clark College, under the direction of Vincent McDermott. In 1991, the American Composers Orchestra, in conjunction with the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, presented the Alan Hovhaness 80th Birthday Gala Celebration at Carnegie Hall. He died June 21, 2000, survived by his wife, the coloratura soprano Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness, who administers the Hovhaness-Fujihara music publishing company, as well as his daughter, harpsichordist Jean Nandi.

Alan Hovhaness, who was one of the twentith century’s most prolific composers, ranks among the most intrepid of musical explorers in twentieth century classical music. He spearheaded quasi-aleatoric textural music as early as the 1940s, a technique which became known as ‘ad libitum’ in the 1960s. During the 1940s and 50s he was firmly entrenched within that maverick group of American composers such as Henry Cowell, John Cage and Lou Harrison, who spearheaded one of the great shifts in twentieth century American music, that of looking to non-Western cultures for creative renewal in art music. He was a widely recorded and lauded American composer in the 1950s and 60s, and has, since the 1990s, enjoyed something of a revival on CD and radio. The composer’s huge output of more than 500-odd works, including more than 60 symphonies, over 20 concertos, numerous choral works, ballets, and operas, and all manner of chamber music, was unusually diverse.

The following works by Alan Hovhaness are included in my collection:

Alleluia and Fugue for String Orchestra, op. 40b (1941).
And God Created Great Whales (1970).
Celestial Fantasy (1935/1944).
Meditation on Orpheus, op. 155 (1958)/
The Prayer of St. Gregory.
Prelude and Quadruple Fugue (1936).
(Second) Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain (1955).
Symphony No. 50, Mt. St. Helens, op. 360 (1983).
Symphony No. 53, Star Dawn, op. 377.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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