Alan Hovhaness Symphonies - Part 2 : Symphonies 1 - 14
|Overview & List of Symphonies||
|Symphonies 15–30||Symphonies 31–45||Symphonies 46–67|
|Chronology of the 'Early' Symphonies|
|1947||8||Arjuna||179||Piano and orchestra|
|1949||9||Saint Vartan||180||Also catalogued as Op.80|
|1954||45||342||Originally designated a concerto|
|1959||6||Celestial Gate||173||Small orchestra|
|7||Nanga Parvat||178||Wind symphony orchestra|
|1960 rev.1969||11||All Men Are Brothers||186||1st movt. incorporates music from 1928/1932|
|1960||12||Choral||188||Choir, SATB, orchestra & tape|
Cast in various free-forms, none of Symphonies 5, 8 and 9 is structurally close to the more traditional Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. So what prompted Hovhaness's sudden loose usage of the term 'symphony'? One possibility is that Hovhaness felt the championing of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 by renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski could indicate that having works titled 'symphony' might help further elevate his growing stature. Another could be that his new publisher, C.F. Peters Corp., wanted to capitalise on the huge success of Mysterious Mountain/Symphony No.2 (actually published by AMP) by publishing "symphonies" from his considerable unpublished back-catalogue. In the case of Arjuna, this redesignation meant that an exotic piano concerto, not wholly disimilar to 1944's Lousadzak then became Symphony No.8. With hindsight this was an unfortunate designation, for the Lousadzak concerto has received half a dozen commercial recordings but the Arjuna "symphony" not one.
After Symphony No.10, the indexing is more or less chronologically correct apart from No.45, which was a 1954 concertante-like work (orchestra with 2 pianos) rediscovered some 30 years later.
|Early Discarded Symphonies (c.1933–1943)|
|Symphony No.1 Exile Symphony Op.17 No.2 (1936)|
The defiant tutti fanfares in the outer movements perhaps serve to illustrate tragedy and anger, or even the composer's solidarity with the persecuted. This recurring fanfare would reappear in the Saint Vartan Symphony of 1950 (another commemoration of Armenian persecution).
Exile's third movement has an epic quality, with battle-like music interrupted by a recurring patriotic
hymn, which eventually gets taken up as a dance-like fugue. The outer movements conclude identically
in a somewhat open-ended manner, with just clarinets playing a sparse second-inversion tonic chord.
This may suggest deliverance or hope for the persecuted, and is one of many original traits throughout
a harmonically restrained mostly modal symphony. Maybe this is why Heward added "he has guts … and does not
indulge in the chromaticisms of so many of our younger composers. He is a genius and will create even
|Symphony No.2 Mysterious Mountain Op.132 (1955)|
Symphony No.2's sub-title does not portray any specific mountain, but rather "the whole idea of mountains". In fact Hovhaness admitted a lack of any real connection between some of his exotic titles and musical content. In this case he was asked by Stokowski to "give it a name", advice well heeded in view of the work's subsequent success. Stokowski had also asked for an opus number, only to learn that Hovhaness's cataloguing was not up to date. The conductor apparently picked 132 as a good number, based on how much Hovhaness said he had composed thus far. This was a wild underestimate, and thus many earlier works now share opus numbers (for example Symphony No.1 is Opus 17 No.2), whilst others carry higher opus numbers.
The symphony's title, afterthought or not, serves the music well, and many commentators have remarked on this work's evocative, even metaphysical qualities — this despite it being one of Hovhaness's least exotic creations of the 1950s. Of the premiere, the Houston's Post reported:
This music is overtly melodic and colourful, modal rather than tonal throughout and employs traditional fugal counterpoint too. As with much Hovhaness, it is something of a melting pot of his musical tools. Passages in the rich string writing have reminded some commentators of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia.
For detailed information read our more exhaustive article on Mysterious Mountain, with discussion of the symphony's origins, critical responses, musical content and CD recordings of Mysterious Mountain.
Recordings available: BMG Music (Fritz Reiner cond.), Delos, Telarc and others
|Symphony No.3 Op.148 (1956)|
The evocative and alliterative title of 'Mysterious Mountain' was a somewhat accidental stroke of good marketing by Hovhaness for his Symphony No.2. In stark contrast, the untitled No.3 has suffered a life of near-total obscurity until its recent recording (at Hovhaness's suggestion) in 1996. The obscurity is unfortunate, as Hovhaness believed it was one of his better symphonies and remarked on it being a favourite. Like No.2, No.3 was premiered by Stokowski, this time conducting the Symphony of the Air at Carnegie Hall, in October 1956. The press reception was neutral, and after Hovhaness and the Denver Symphony gave the second performance in 1962, complete with enthusiastic reviews and standing ovation, the symphony disappeared for over 3 decades.
Certainly like Symphony No.2, No.3 is climactic and another one of Hovhaness's 'Western' symphonies, the composer referring to it as "a tribute to Mozartian classical sonata form." A central movement in "modified rondo form" is flanked by two outer movements in full sonata form with recapitulation. But Hovhaness's trademark preoccupations with old polyphony and prime-numbered meters again surface in the finale - here he pits measures of 5, 7, 11, and 13 against each other, and canonic counterpoint makes up the development section.
Two CD recordings: Guild Historic, Soundset
|Symphony No.4 Op.165 (1958)|
The outer movements start with solemn hymns which lead to a majestic fugue. The central movement is in dance-trio-dance form. The first dance is taken up by solo marimba (19/8 + 20/8). Two 'trio' sections follow (woodwind with harp, then woodwind with vibraphone). The second dance has the xylophone (20/8 + 9/8) taking the place of the opening marimba solo. The work contains superimposed meters as well as free rhythm sections and many passages which are in prime numbered meters like 7/4 and 11/4. One very noteworthy effect occurs in the last movement when a phrase in the lower trombones is accompanied by crossing glissandi in two upper trombones (first minor thirds, then major seconds). This makes for a very original effect, where two sliding notes momentarily merge into one before 'diverging' back out. In the 1960s glissandi became very prominent in Hovhaness's music, to the extent where they became large segments of musical phrases.
|Symphony No.5 Short Op.170 (1953)|
The first movement is characeristic of Hovhaness's early 1950s tendency to write polymodal movements with little hint of an overall home key.
Mysterious splashes of tuned percussion and string pizzicatos punctuate austere woodwind and trumpet lines, with occasional interjections
of menacing deep woodwind 'gongs'. Most of the accompanying material is stated within strict rhythmic cycles.
The second movement starts with a slow fugal introduction, unusually for Hovhaness, with muted strings. This leads to an idyllic flute
melody (with pizzicato strings and pentatonic harp strumming) undermined by threatening trombone
clusters. These clusters suggest a possible late 1950s revision, as the brass imitate the Japanese Sho, whereby note clusters 'resolve' by a few of the notes hanging after others are released (interestingly Hovhaness had not yet been to Japan).
The work ends with a resplendent canonic processional led by trumpets, recalling in mood and texture the
final processional of the Saint Vartan Symphony.
|Symphony No.6 Celestial Gate Op.173 (1959)|
When tributes were paid after Hovhaness's passing in June 2000, his long-time composer friend Lou Harrison remarked that Hovhaness "was one of the greatest melodists of the 20th century", and this symphony certainly exemplifies Hovhaness's adeptness for beautiful melodic writing. It is unsurprising then that after Mysterious Mountain, Celestial Gate is the symphony most widely recorded, with three versions currently available. Its enduring popularity, for it is one of his masterpieces, here merits a brief analysis.
Cast in a single movement (with some material dating from the early 1940s), the work begins darkly, with a narrow chromatic melody on bassoon stated above chattering pizzicato strings. The mood soon brightens to the beautiful and tranquil main theme of the work, a full 21-bar theme made up of 4+4+5+4+4 phrases. This is stated on clarinet above a viola countermelody; the string accompaniment includes scalic pizzicato motifs which come to the fore in a later dance-like section. After partial re-statements of the theme (including a typical Hovhaness fugal treatment of the first phrase) and brief interludes featuring the opening material as well as mysterious 'free-rhythm' passages on the strings, we arrive at a change in mood.
Throughout the next arresting section, the strings move in parallel, playing a shifting four-chord ostinato over which the trumpet plays a melancholy motif. This is punctuated by timpani strikes in a cycle of 23 (eighth-notes), and tubular bell strikes in a cycle of 7 (quarter-notes). Typically for Hovhaness, the periods of these cycles are prime-numbered, so that the pattern of combined strikes between them will not repeat itself until after many iterations. This section subsides and a pizzicato dance begins, using the scalic melody heard earlier in hushed double basses under the main theme. This is then taken up canonically, and throughout this section the music is punctuated by Timpani strikes, again in a cycle of 23 (eighth-notes).
A few seconds of 'free-rhythm' music return us to the opening material, but shortly a new hymnal theme appears in strings, using the familiar Hovhaness 7/4 meter of 3 quarter-notes plus two half-notes. Contemplative hymnal sections frequently end Hovhaness works, here with lyrical interjections from the winds. This harmonically static section again features hushed double basses playing the scalic 'pizzicato dance'. But the work, which began in the depths of lower strings and bassoon, ends with 'floating' high tessitura con sordini violin clusters, leaving the listener transported from our mundane world to an ethereal world of serenity, even bliss. It is as though a new dimension reveals itself before us as we finally pass through the Celestial Gate.
3 Recordings available: Crystal (cond. Hovhaness), Koch and Telarc
|Symphony No.7 Nanga Parvat Op.178 (1959)|
Composed in under a fortnight in November 1959, this symphony is a musical portrait of the inhospitable Kashmiri mountain Nanga Parvat, whose name means "without trees". The sonorities and material Hovhaness invents are not typical of those one would associate with Wind Symphony writing, which may explain the four commissions mentioned above. The three movements reflect the composer's description of the mountain as "Serene, majestic, aloof, terrible in storm, forever frozen in treeless snow", resulting in some of the composer's most violent music.
The opening Con ferocita is brutal, with loud drumming throughout, and represents "the tiger-like ferocity of the Himalayan Mountains". Multiple rhythmic strands meet and pass. In the second, rhythmically complex March movement, "the sounds suggest wild improvised village marches in raucous woodwinds and false brass unisons" [by false unisons, Hovhaness means parallel melodic motion resulting in bi-modality]. "These savage sounds are organized into severe forms including two polymodal isorhythmic canons in woodwinds. Percussion plays forward and retrograde rhythm; timpani plays contracting and expanding rhythm. The march is an isorhythmic structure."
After the passing of the storms, the third Sunset movement portrays the mountain's "serene, majestic, aloof" aspects mentioned above. There is a "noble and heroic processional with clashing bells in superimposed meters". The movement ends with a descending harp ostinato supporting shimmering woodwind tone clusters representing "shafts of light through craggy peaks".
Forthcoming recording available 2010: Naxos (with symphonies 14 & 23)
|Symphony No.8 Arjuna Op.179 (1947)|
The work's obscurity, compared to the better-known piano concerto Lousadzak, can be attributed
partially to the fact that
it was perhaps unwisely published as a 'Symphony' rather than the concertante piece it really is.
It is one of Hovhaness's most substantial Armenian-phase works, lasting around 30 minutes and scored for woodwind, horn, timpani, piano and
strings. Its radicalness is typical of late 1940s Hovhaness, huge spun-out melodies, with virtually no harmony or modulation.
The timpanist is used almost like a tabla accompanist, and as such may have more work to do than in any prior orchestral work.
Some aspects of the work can be seen as early minimalism on a symphonic scale. Composer and friend Lou Harrison once recommended Ardos (as it was still then called)
for a concert in Rome, calling it “20 minutes [sic] of the most shocking melodic adventure you can imagine, truly heroic and daring.”
|Symphony No.9 Saint Vartan Op.80/Op.180 (1950)|
Saint Vartan commemorates the 1500th anniversary of the heroic death of the Armenian warrior-saint Vartan Mamikonian, who in 451 AD bravely led an Armenian army to defeat against an invading Persian force of around four times in size. Armenia, the first Christian state, had refused to yield to the Zoroastrian faith of the conquering Persians. However, a few years after the battle, the Persians had to grant religious freedom in order to retain control of Armenia. Hovhaness's music serves somewhat loosely to poeticize the conflict and symbolise the spiritual (if not military) victory of the Armenians. The music is partially programmatic too - one movement is entitled 'Death of Vartan'. Interestingly, this movement reinstates the angry fanfares of the earlier Exile Symphony (which also portrays the persecution of Armenians) but this time played by the piano, which is in dialogue with a lamenting trombone.
Like much of Hovhaness's music from around 1949-52, a stylistic pigeon-holing would render the work neo-Archaic. It is a mosaic-like tapestry of short musical numbers that betray, in a single work, Hovhaness's unique and eclectic absorbtion of archaic genres. These include Tapor (Armenian processional), Yerk (Armenian song) and more familiar Middle Age forms like the French Estampie and the German Bar (medieval A-A-B verse structure). The small orchestra [0000, saxophone 1410, timp, perc, piano, strings] is treated in a chamber-like fashion until toward the end. For many 'steps' in the work, instruments are used soloistically above a string accompaniment, though the strings and timpani take up the dexterous dance movements. The carefully-constructed scheme is as follows:
The final Estampie double canon here merits a brief analysis to show how complex this music can be. The first canon is in one mode with four voices. A second canon follows in three modes with three voices. Finally, a double canon appears in 8 voices. Beneath this polyphony lies complex rhythmic punctuation provided by percussion, telescoping constantly in an expanding and contracting pulse. Thus all elements in the musical tapestry are functional, with none serving mere effect. The fascinating inter-relationships of the parts come about from the sheer tightness of the structure.
Such polymodal and unisonal canons as those employed in Saint Vartan show Hovhaness reworking simple archaic techniques to create music sounding just as fresh and radical as any by his atonal and serial-minded contemporaries. Perhaps it is more radical, by virtue of its disciplined embracement rather than anarchic expunction of the musical past.
Recording available: Crystal (conducted by Hovhaness).
|Symphony No.10 Vahaken Op.184 (1944, revised 1965)|
The noble and heroic outer movements exhibit, in true Indian style, an inextinguishable faith in seemingly endless melody, without recourse to harmony or modulation. Hovhaness generates his "giant melody" from myriad melodic variants, themselves built from a few basic motifs. As in the final jhala section of Indian classical music, there is no resolution of ideas; instead, melodic and rhythmic permutations create effects of stasis and cumulative tension. In the first movement this tension is dispersed, but the finale builds to a state of frenzy, then abruptly cuts off. Brief respite is provided by the central Intermezzo movement, a playful minuet quite distant in spirit and ethnicity from its more substantial neighbors, and probably composed (or derived from material) years earlier.
Until recently, Symphony No.10 was one of the few remaining early Hovhaness symphonies never released in a commercial recording, although in its first incarnation it was not labelled a symphony.
In early 2009 Centaur Records released an all-Hovhaness disc which included this work.
|Symphony No.11 All Men Are Brothers Op.186 (1960, revised 1969)|
Hovhaness must have been pleased with this piece, as it was the first work he recorded for his Poseidon record label, conducting the Royal Phiharmonic Orchestra. This recording was also the first Hovhaness release on Unicorn records.
However, this symphony clearly sounds very different to its chronological neighbours (Nos. 6, 12, 7, 14), being much more chromatic and developmental (at least in its revised version). The answer may lie with a 1994 interview in Gramophone magazine, where Hovhaness enigmatically remarks that "in the mid-1930s I already had music that indicated the way I'd go, including material I'd incorporate into All Men Are Brothers in 1930. No one could tell that I'd written it decades earlier." There are certainly many moments which recall much earlier Hovhaness music. The second movement's chromatic climax bears a resemblance to the climaxes of Prelude and Quadruple Fugue (1936, orch. 1954) and the Double Fugue section (1936, orch. 1955) of Mysterious Mountain. This movement's martial undercurrent also recalls that of the Exile symphony of 1936 and, more overtly, its opening is very close to the opening of 1944's Anahid, a fantasy for chamber orchestra.
Amongst the thick string writing, fugal expositions and battle music are typical 1960s Hovhaness devices (no doubt added in the revision of 1969) such as bell tolls, violin cluster pedals, harp glissandi and hymnal brass tuttis. Although occasionally exotic and epic in sound, it all adds up to a cohesive and very accessible Western-sounding symphony.
Recording available: Crystal (conducted by Hovhaness)
|Symphony No.12 Op.188 (1960)|
|Symphony No.13 Ardent Song Op.190 (1953)|
|Symphony No.14 Ararat Op.194 (1960)|
The music is often abrasive, the last movement being amongst the composer's most violent utterings. Hovhaness's programme note for this
work when it appeared for an LP about 1970, is in his characteristic writing style, dry and to the point:
Forthcoming recording available 2010: Naxos (with symphonies 7 & 23)
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