Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of. Post 4: Alan Hovhaness

Post 1: Kurt Atterberg
Post 2: Cornelis Dopper
Post 3: Joly Braga Santos

With this post, I may be stretching the meaning of the term "you've never heard of" and even the term "symphonist". But what I'm not stretching is "greatest". I'm including this composer because, like his predecessors in this series, he was a huge hit in the Sherwood Smith household.

For this post, we have Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000).
Possibly because he's American, Hovhaness is somewhat better known, at least in this country, than the foreigners I've discussed previously. But he's still not too far from obscure. And though this manically prolific composer - he could, and did, write scores on the backs of envelopes while waiting for the train - left 67 numbered symphonies (which makes him, so far as I know, the fourth most prolific symphonist of the last two centuries), whether most of them actually are symphonies is open to some doubt.

If the only definition of a symphony is "a piece of music with the word 'symphony' on it," then of course they qualify. But there's an argument that a work isn't really a symphony unless it employs the procedures crafted by the form's founders, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and carried on by their distinguished successors. These involve a weight of utterance, typical symphonic structures, and a dynamic, development-oriented treatment both of themes and tonality.

The problem is that this is an inherently teleological structure. A symphony is trying to get somewhere and is focused on its own ending. Think of Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth, both of which achieve their heroic endings after tremendous struggles and transformations of both themes and keys.

But Hovhaness was anything but a teleological composer. Intricate and subtle craftsmanship, elaboration and transformation, he could do, but he was absolutely uninterested in making his music go anywhere. It's already arrived at where it wants to be. He was a pioneer in the view of music later taken up by most of the minimalists. Other music does. Their music simply is. It doesn't tell a story; it stays there to be contemplated. Hovhaness believed in Oscar Wilde's dictum that "The artist is the maker of beautiful things," and this influenced both the way he wrote his music and the language he wrote it in.

Hovhaness, originally from Boston, was a member of the younger cohort of the great wave of American composers who swept into prominence in the 1930s and 1940s. Like some of the others, particularly Henry Cowell, he was interested both in the folk traditions of his own ancestry and in Middle Eastern music. Only in Hovhaness' case, they were the same thing, because he was of Armenian descent. Armenian liturgical music influenced a tremendous amount of his early work; this would later be joined as influence and inspiration by Indian and Korean musics, mystical visual art, and the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, where he settled in the 1970s.

Hovhaness was fairly popular and well-known in the later 1940s and 1950s, getting a fair share of performances and recordings, but the latter decade and the 1960s were hard on the surviving members of the greatest generation of American composers. The serialist hegemony had risen, and was trying to browbeat everyone else into following its lead. Some older composers, like Aaron Copland, always an experimentalist at heart, joined the bandwagon. Others, like Samuel Barber, were belittled into silence, or, like Roy Harris, shriveled into insignificance. Hovhaness, though, went on as he always had. The self-confidence which was expressed in the calm serenity of his music carried him through the dark years and on to the bright revival of the 1980s, when music such as his began to be popular again. In the meantime, he actually adapted some modernist techniques to his own purposes, notably aleatoric (random or unpredetermined) elements, as we'll hear.

Hovhaness' other secret was a talent at self-promotion. The story goes that he learned a key to this from Leopold Stokowski. In 1955, the flamboyant maestro, then music director in Houston, commissioned a large-scale orchestral work from Hovhaness, and got a suite in three big movements that the composer titled Mysterious Mountain. "It's a symphony," said Stokowski on seeing the score. "Is it?" asked the puzzled composer. Stokowski explained that audiences love symphonies, especially numbered ones, and that anything that can be passed off as a symphony, should be. Then he asked, "What's the opus number?" "I don't use opus numbers," said Hovhaness. "Audiences love opus numbers too," said Stokowski. "You should use them."

So, pulling numbers out of a hat - for besides being prolific Hovhaness was disorganized and didn't know all of what he had written - the composer redubbed his suite Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain", Op. 132, and everyone was happy. Hovhaness then spent several years trying to match up his existing output with the numbering pattern he had thus created, with only partial success. But from then on, everything he wrote had an opus number, and the symphony numbers started to pile up.

Besides enticing curious listeners - who were to include me - with all these symphonies with opus numbers, Hovhaness made his music easily available by starting his own record company. He recorded and pressed his orchestral music on the cheap, and distributed it to record stores. I first found Hovhaness in the Schwann record catalog in the early 1970s, at which point his symphonies numbered in the low twenties. Intrigued by the voluminous listings for this already unusually large number of symphonies, and encouraged by the fact that he went completely unmentioned in the books on contemporary music I was reading, which ordered me to genuflect at the shrines of Boulez and Stockhausen, I went to Tower and bought one of his records.

But though I tried Hovhaness because of his catalog listings, I stayed because I loved the music.

Around that time, Hovhaness lost control of the record company, and the works it issued, in a divorce. So, with the help of a new wife, he started up another company, and began composing even faster to provide it with repertoire. This is why he came to write another forty symphonies in the next twenty years. Unfortunately, this flogging of his genius was not good for his music, and much of his later output is excessively watery.

By this time, Hovhaness was living in Seattle. I saw him on the street once when I was living there too in the early 80s, his tall frame packed into the passenger seat of a small red car, his wife driving as they negotiated the traffic on the Ave. In later years, as respect for his music grew, he became a local institution. The Seattle Symphony played his works, and his death at a distinguished age was widely reported and mourned.

So where should you start with Hovhaness? There's so much of it. First, I'd suggest restricting yourself to works from between about 1944, when he found his voice, and the early 1970s. Then, unfortunately, avoid his own recordings. Those performances he made on the cheap for his own record company are mostly not very good. He wasn't a good conductor and tended to massacre his own masterpieces. Hovhaness is still a minority taste, and not very many musicians of talent have taken him up. The result is that the best recording of a Hovhaness work is not of one of his greatest pieces, but it's so brilliantly performed that it more than makes up for it.

It's Rudolf Werthen conducting I Fiamminghi in the Symphony No. 6, Op. 173 "Celestial Gate" (1959). It's brief, only 22 minutes in one movement, and it is, simply and unashamedly, the beautiful thing that Oscar Wilde expected an artist to make.

Celestial Gate could probably serve as the slow movement of a larger symphony by the traditional definition of "symphony", but even so it's of unusual form. There's a main theme, introduced by clarinet at 1:35, given a fugal treatment at 3:54 and a varied contrapuntal one by four solo violins at 6:00, then repeated at 9:50. Other themes are related or derived from it. Two other motives make repeated appearances: a rising-falling figure of increasing and lessening intensity (first heard at 1:19) and a chaotic rumble (first heard at 7:42) that's actually aleatoric, as the players are instructed to play fast figures at individual speeds without coordination. A variant of the rising-falling figure highlights the symphony's most intense passage, which begins with a hard horn theme at 11:16. The almost inaudible pizzicato double-bass accompaniment from the main theme's first appearance then takes a front of stage bow at 13:25.

For an even purer taste of Hovhaness, here is the St. Vartan Symphony (retroactively called No. 9, Op. 180, though it predates both Celestial Gate and Mysterious Mountain, having been written in 1950). It's one of his best, though most absolutely motionless, symphonies in, unfortunately, an intermittently wretched performance (not even conducted by the composer) in tinny antique sound quality. It's in the unusual form of a mosaic of 24 tiny movements, most of them solo songs or dances for a brass instrument with string accompaniment. Not one of the movements really does anything. It's the shape of the whole that forms the work.

In case you actually want to follow along and not just revel in the beauty, the movements, with solo instruments, are as follows. Rather revealingly, whoever ripped this copy from the LP didn't notice they'd put side 2 on first. With Hovhaness, it may not make much difference.
  1. Yerk (Song), trombone (15:22)
  2. Tapor (Processional), trumpets (16:59)
  3. Aria, horn (17:58)
  4. Aria, trumpet (21:00)
  5. Aria, horn (23:02)
  6. Bar (Canonic dance) (24:20)
  7. Tapor, trumpet (25:59)
  8. Bar (28:38)
  9. Bar (29:20)
  10. Estampie (Dance) (31:04)
  11. Bar (32:27)
  12. Bar (32:56)
  13. Aria, trumpet (34:03)
  14. Lament, trombone with piano (35:53)
  15. Estampie, trumpets (38:27)
  16. Yerk, saxophone (0:00)
  17. Aria, trombone (2:04)
  18. Estampie (4:54)
  19. Bar (5:53)
  20. Aria, trumpet (7:07)
  21. Bar (9:58)
  22. Bar (10:31)
  23. Bar (11:17)
  24. Finale Estampie, trumpets (11:51)
Some more Hovhaness symphonic work, if you want it:

He was one of the first modern classical composers to write many works for band. Here is the best of his several wind symphonies, the Fourth (1959)

The most truly unforgettable - and dissonant - moment in all of Hovhaness: the third and final movement of his Symphony No. 50 "Mount St. Helens" (1982), the part in which the mountain blows up. This is one of only two depictions of a volcano in action that I know of in the symphonic literature.

And one more atypical "just to prove that he could do it" moment, a folk dance scherzo. This is from his Symphony No. 22 "City of Light" (1970).

And I guess I can't leave you without Mysterious Mountain, can I? Of course not.

  1. Andante con moto
  2. Double Fugue
  3. Andante espressivo

1 comment:

  1. Hovhaness should become well known to fantasy and sf fans.

    Also, his music can be a good gateway into classical music for any music listeners who have known only some of the chestnuts, since Hovhaness is so accessible.