From Mountain Climbing to Composing:
An Interview with Alan Hovhaness
Choral Journal, October 1993, pp. 29–36
In the early 1990s Dr Vance D Wolverton interviewed Hovhaness for Choral Journal, the official publication of the American Choral Directors Association. At the time of this interview's publication, October 1993, Vance D Wolverton was Associate Professor of Music at California State University, Fullerton, California
Photo: John Goldsmith / Unicorn Records
Alan Hovhaness was born March 8, 1911 in Somerville, Massachusetts, of Scottish and Armenian parents. He studied composition with Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory and with Bohuslav Martinů at Tanglewood. From 1948 to 1951 he taught on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory, and in 1967 the Seattle Symphony appointed him composer in residence. He has studied the music of his ancient Armenian heritage as well as the musics of India and the Far East.
You have composed a very large body of music and are arguably best known as a composer of symphonic and chamber music. Would you tell me about the role of choral music in your life's work?
It has been quite important. Some of my main works have been choral, and I have been connected with choral music as an organist for ten years or more in the Armenian church in Massachusetts, and other churches before that as choral director and organist. So I have had choral thoughts many times in my life.
Am I correct that you have been composing for more than seventy years?
Let me see, that's hard to tell. I guess I started when I was seven, and I'm eighty-one now, so that's quite a while.
Tell me about your musical education.
I had very strict training with Leo Rich Lewis and, later, at the New England Conservatory, where I had a scholarship to study with Frederick Converse. I studied counterpoint with him.
Do you feel that both those teachers were important influences on your compositional style?
I think they were in the sense of strictness of writing. After a certain time, I was given a small present of twenty-five cents a week from my parents to do what I wanted to, and what I did was buy the whole collection of Handel's works. I studied all of his works throughout my teens. I especially loved Handel – and Bach, too, of course.
Would you say that the works of Handel and Bach were equally important influences on your compositional style?
I think so, at least in influencing my understanding of the techniques of music and the use of music for sacred purposes. I believe in melody rather than cleverness. I think one should know all the techniques of music, but I was never interested in going to Europe to study. I could have had a scholarship, but I refused it. I felt that I would be too far away from the mountains that I loved to climb.
Could you outline the influence, if any, of your ethnic lineage, which I believe is Armenian and Scottish, on your compositional style?
Yes, my maternal grandfather was the Reverend Walter Scott. In the summertime in New Hampshire, I used to play for the Scott family – mostly hymns and a few other things – and they would sing. My Armenian heritage had very little influence on me in childhood. My main inspiration always came from mountain climbing and nature.
Would you tell me more about those influences – nature and mountain climbing – or other influences, such as mystics like Hermon DiGiovanni [sic]?
DiGiovanni [sic] came up later and was very important. But the childhood influences included long walks with my father and sometimes by myself, and I climbed Mt. Washington many times in all kinds of weather – much to my family's horror. I felt a very religious feeling every time I climbed that mountain. I found that the Indian name means "the abode of the Great Spirit". I felt that religious feeling very strongly on that mountain. That's why I'm here, in Seattle, because of the mountains. We have a wonderful view right from this house, so I get great inspiration from nature.
Later on were there other influences?
Yes. The philosophies of Francis Bacon and the Greeks and, later, Japanese philosophers. I studied ancient Japanese music – orchestral music – and played their instruments. I had a wonderful teacher named Masatoro Togi, who played all the ancient instruments wonderfully. I felt that direction would be closer to the Armenian side of me, even though it is very different from Armenian music. It came from India originally, through China, and then to Japan. They had orchestras of hundreds and played outdoors. This was two thousand years ago. Many modern composers have gone there since to study it.
What about Armenian chant?
There is a relationship between Armenian chant and Indian music. The latter has played quite a role in my life, especially as I learned fro many of the science students from India who brought their instruments to Boston when they came to study at M.I.T. Artist friends, Hermon DiGiovanni [sic], and I would study with them in the evenings and invite them to play for us.
Are there specific formulas that you have utilized in your music?
Not directly, no. I have composed really from inspiration. But I have used mainly the lowered seventh. I seldom use the raised seventh in choral melody. The raised seventh is associated with European music, whereas the lowered seventh is associated more with the music of Asia.
Have you utilized any other specific melodic formulas? Is Armenian chant formulaic in the way that you use it?
Armenian music is not so formulaic. It is mostly folk tunes and melodies of the church. They have several scales.
Are these scales different from the Gregorian modes?
Yes, they are. I wrote an exact explanation – published by C. F. Peters in manuscript – a treatise on ancient orchestrations and ancient counterpoint.
In many of your compositions, you have authored the text, and in other cases you have employed the works of other poets. Which comes first for you, text or music, or is it sometimes one and sometimes the other?
I think the text has to come first and then the music, as far as my experience is concerned. The text is something I had a reason for writing about, something somebody wanted, or a psalm text in the Bible (I like very much the King James translation). For some choral works, I have reset the words of old hymns – for example, Watchman Tell Us of the Night, op. 34a. The text, which I like very much, is by John Bowring (1792-1872). First, I composed the anthem, and later I used the theme as the basis for my Symphony No. 49 (Christmas Symphony)
Are you making any kind of theological statement with the texts of your choral music?
Not especially, no. I think there is truth in all religions. Some I like better than others, but the main thing is the Deity and the feeling of God. It can be found in India and ancient countries, and there is the sincere feeling among Christians, too.
Of your many choral compositions, do you consider any to be most important; if so, which ones, and could you explain what makes them especially significant?
Yes. The Magnificat has had many performances, and I like that work very much. It seems to have been successful in moving audiences. The Way of Jesus is another; that uses partly my own text and partly Biblical ones.
What about your Missa brevis?
Oh, I like that; that is the old Latin text. I sent a copy of it to Sibelius, whom I like very much. He said "you expressed your warm feelings in the language of severity," so I guess he didn't like it.
Did you have a long correspondence with Sibelius?
Yes, and I have always loved his music. When I first heard the Fourth Symphony as a child, I remember feeling that this man has said it all – he hasn't left anything for me to say.
Are there any other choral works that you want to highlight?
The Transfiguration [1956 cantata], for chorus without accompaniment, is one which I especially like. The text is about Christ on the mountaintop where he talked to Moses and other spirits. The piece came naturally from the kind of philosophy I had learned from Hermon DiGiovanni [sic].
Regarding the choral psalm settings, did you compose most of those when you were active as a church choir director?
Not necessarily. Many of them were commissioned by my principal publisher [C. F. Peters] and others. I think during the time I was actually doing choir work I may have been too busy – too involved with orchestral and other kinds of music – but I thought a lot about it. Since then I have been doing all kinds of music, including choral music.
Has your compositional style changed in recent years, and, if so, how?
It's hard to say about that. I never think about changing my style; if I want to do something, then I do it. But my main wish is to improve my style, make it more beautiful and grander. I don't want to write like other people, and I realize now my influences have gotten into all kinds of trouble. I hear my music in the movies and things like that, and I don't like that very well. I know Howard Hanson had that trouble. One famous movie composer insisted on sitting beside me and looking at the score when one of my pieces was played by the New York Philharmonic. Then he wanted me to give him the score; I knew it had a lot of effects he wanted to use. I told him he could get it from the publisher.
Are there compositional schools of thought that have had special meaning for you?
Not especially. I have always stayed away from other composers. I've been too busy with my own work. I don't want to be influenced either.
There are some who have described the twelve-tone technique as "an illness that had to be endured". What are your feelings about serialism?
Well, that's a good statement. I don't bother to endure it, but it has opened up a field, and I think it has its purpose. It can be combined with other things, but it is too artificial for me. I want the melody to be natural, and I like music to be connected with the voice, whether it is for the voice or not. I've never used serialism except as an experiment with some of my students.
Do you have any advice for young composers of choral music?
Well, I think they should stick to their own feelings about it. They should write with respect for the words or religious feelings, if it is a religious text, and write vocally – naturally and beautifully. I think it is good if they get into the spirit of different kinds of music and see what techniques evolve from them – Asian and others. They must also be well acquainted with the history of choral music and the old masters.
Do you have any advice for choral conductors regarding how best to approach performing your choral compositions?
Well, everything is a little different, but some conductors go too fast and thereby lose some of the beauty of the music. Take a tempo that allows the music to speak.
What are your present and future goals?
I'm trying to decide about certain possibilities and commissions, and am finishing a concerto for oboe and orchestra. I have some pending commissions – lately it has been symphonies, but I would welcome choral commissions.
Go to Interviews Index Back to top