All About Mysterious Mountain

Background | The Music | Hovhaness Speaks | CD Recordings

Mysterious Mountain is the title of Hovhaness's Symphony No.2, the composer's most celebrated and enduring work, remaining in the repertoire of many major American orchestras for over half a century. Composed in 1955 and premiered by world-renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski, it was first recorded in 1958 for the RCA Victor label by the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner. Eight commercial recordings have been made to date, making it the composer's most recorded symphonic work. Below are discussed the work's origins, early critical responses to it and the composer's own rather surprising comments on Mysterious Mountain. We also survey the available recordings on CD.

Background to Mysterious Mountain

In 1955, Leopold Stokowski, who had already conducted the 1942 US premiere of Hovhaness's Symphony No.1, requested a new work from the composer for his debut appearance with the Houston Symphony — indicating that amongst contemporary composers, Stokowski had a particularly high regard for Hovhaness. Initially Hovhaness provided an opening fanfare entitled To A Mysterious Mountain but Stokowski asked for something more substantial. Hovhaness later despatched the full-blown, three-movement "Symphony No.2", though it remains unclear just how much of it was already composed. The premiere, broadcast nationwide over NBC radio in October 1955, was an outstanding success for composer and conductor alike.

Consequently, the work was soon taken up by other conductors, appearing on programs of the Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Boston Symphony Orchestras. Stokowski also took the work on tour to Europe and Russia in 1958, where it was heard in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. Mysterious Mountain gained a permanent place on the American symphonic map with its 1958 recording made by the Chicago Symphony under renowned conductor Fritz Reiner. This recording, on the RCA Victor label, consolidated Hovhaness's stature amongst American composers, more so than any other recording of his work.

Despite coming near the beginning of the composer's canon of 67 symphonies, Symphony No.2 appeared some 19 years after No.1. Following the success of Mysterious Mountain, intervening orchestral works from the 1940s were retitled 'symphony' by Hovhaness and submitted as such to his new publisher CF Peters, but No.2 really does follow No.1 in terms of works originally conceived as symphonies, excluding a discarded symphony from 1942.

Symphony No.2's sub-title does not portray any specific mountain, but "the whole idea of mountains" according to the composer. However, as with many of the composer's evocative titles, it was appended after the music was written, here on the suggestion by Stokowski to "give it a name". This was one of the best pieces of advice Hovhaness ever took, given the work's overwhelming success — possibly attributable in part to its evocative title.

The Music of Mysterious Mountain

Symphony No.2's title, afterthought or not, seems rather apt, as the crescendos, decrescendos, and giant melodic arcs certainly work as musical metaphors for mountain skylines, although the natural world served as inspiration for much of Hovhaness's work. Even the central double fugue movement, despite its whirlwind contrapuntal writing, exhudes an aura of New England Transcendentalism.

Critical Responses to Mysterious Mountain

The Symphony was welcomed by nearly all critics, with some reviews extremely laudatory. In attendance at the premiere, Houston Post critic Hubert Roussel wrote:

Hovhaness produces a texture of the utmost beauty, gentleness, distinction and expressive potential. The real mystery of Mysterious Mountain is that it should be so simply, sweetly, innocently lovely in an age that has tried so terribly hard to avoid those impressions in music.

In December 1957 when the Cleveland Orchestra performed the work, the Cleveland News appeared taken aback by the accessibility of a contemporary symphonic work, acknowledging Hovhaness's stoic-like aloofness from the atonal and serial musical vogues of the time:

Found: A Composer Who Writes Music
Rarely does this department venture to risk comment in such a highly specialized field as music, leaving it to critics and reviewers to pass on the fine points. But we can't resist the temptation to commend Robert Shaw of the Cleveland Orchestra for choosing such a lovely piece by a modern American composer — Mysterious Mountain by Alan Hovhaness ... Surprise, surprise, here was a modern piece full of melody and pleasant to the ear. No dissonance, no noise, no discord - just beautiful, sweeping harmony. The composer better watch out, he's breaking the rules. He'll probably be drummed out of the lodge.

Cleveland News, December 30, 1957

Mysterious Mountain certainly appeals with its lush scoring and attractive melodies, but was also singled out for its metaphysical undercurrents, an aspect hard to overlook in the turbulent musical climate of 1950s America, as commented upon by Herbert Elwell:

It is pleasing to come across a composer who, in these turgid times, dares to write consonant harmony and fairly diatonic melody. It is also commendable to be able to do this without sounding in the least commonplace. The work has an impressive sonorous impact, is masterfully constructed and evokes an atmosphere of spirituality not often heard in contemporary music.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 27, 1957

The directness and transparency of Hovhaness's music was sometimes cited by more conservatively-minded critics to take a swipe at, as they saw it, the comparatively academic and impenetrable musical indulgences of other American composers:

The composer is unique in his generation. His strivings are in the direction of spiritual perfection in musical creation rather than the astonishment of his contemporaries.

His use of the large orchestra is unique in itself. With it he conveys a musical message that is intensely personal, but at the same time having a general esthetic appeal.

Detroit Free Press, December 30, 1957

Musical Overview of Mysterious Mountain

In this richly-melodic work Hovhaness employs modal scales throughout, with harmony often serving a largely functional role and orchestation highly colorful. In the first movement, after an opening hymn in 10/4, long and beautiful vocal-like lines glide effortlessly from one instrument to another, punctuated by celesta arabesques and harp ripples. The predominant mode is Phrygian.

The second movement is a skillful double fugue. The first fugue's pentatonic subject is lyrical and has the quality of 16th century vocal music. The fast and frenetic second fugue, scored for strings, is effectively a transcription of the final fugue from the String Quartet No.1 of 1936 (Hovhaness made a thorough study of counterpoint in his mid-20s). The first subject then reappears above the strings in the brass, and the movement builds to a truly dizzying climax, one which many a composer might have saved for the end of a work. Hovhaness, however, chooses contemplation over exhilaration for his ending. The third movement starts with a brief hymn. Next, a 13-beat Indian raga-like chant (or "giant wave") emerges from the depths, builds to a climax and then subsides to make way for a final hymnal section.

Mysterious Mountain is by no means Hovhaness's only work able to transport a listener into other-worldly planes, but it was one of his finest orchestral triumphs, which may be why he launched himself into his next symphony almost immediately. There is a certain irony that for his best known work Hovhaness never got paid.

Alan Hovhaness on Mysterious Mountain

In spite of Mysterious Mountain's success, Hovhaness did not consider it a particularly representative work, nor one dear to his heart. This may be due in part to the fact that he came to be widely known by this single symphony, while others remained rarely performed, if at all. Also Mysterious Mountain is uncharacteristic of 1950s Hovhaness in its restrained usage of musical exotica, and the work's central double fugue is, by its very nature, an essay in an established Western form.

In his student days, the musicologist Walter Simmons (who went on to specialize in American composers) maintained a correspondence with Hovhaness, and a 1961 letter he received included the following observation on Mysterious Mountain by its composer just a few years after it had established his reputation:

As to my Mysterious Mountain my feelings are mixed — I am happy it is popular but I have written much better music and it is a very impersonal work, in which I omit my deeper searching.

A few years later in an interview conducted by Jackie Abramian, Hovhaness claimed he had difficulty even in listening to the work, because of a particular passage:

I remember hearing celestial ballet in my head as I lay down to rest from writing the work. Later I transcribed what I heard in my sleep. After I wrote it, then heard it again in my sleep, certain versions were wrong. So I corrected it. Now I cannot bear to hear it ... it’s just certain parts move me. I go out of the hall whenever the piece is performed.

In a 1981 interview he gave at that year's Cabrillo Festival, Hovhaness was asked by interviewer Charles Amirkhanian to explain about the rather unconventional way in which Mysterious Mountain obtained its opus number:

Well actually, he [Stokowski] picked it out of the air ... he called me up many times and talked to me about various things he wanted me to write and he said, “Does it have an opus number? People like opus numbers. You know how dumb they are.” So I said, “No, it doesn’t have an opus number. I haven’t catalogued my work.” “Well how would 132” — or something like that, I think — ”how would that be, do you think that gives you enough room for the [earlier] things you’ve written?” And I said, “Sure, that’s okay. I’ll start making a catalogue.” And he said, “I like your titles, give it a title.” And so I gave it the title Mysterious Mountain, which I felt was mysterious enough.

Recordings of Mysterious Mountain


There are eight distinct recordings of Mysterious Mountain commercially available, 7 studio recordings and a live Stokowski performance released in 2008 as an historical document. Fritz Reiner's 1958 recording was not only an exceptionally fine reading but the only one available for 3 decades, two facts inevitably contributing to its status amongst Hovhanophiles as the Mysterious Mountain benchmark recording. This impression has remained despite the 1990s seeing top-notch orchestras, such as the Dallas Symphony and London Symphony Orchestra, recording the work with all the benefits of digital audio. The main consideration here is musical rather than technological - specifically that of tempo. Even though the moniker Hovhaness gave his symphony was an afterthought, it was presumably no arbitrary choice. Capturing the essence of this work lies, as in so much of Hovhaness's music, beyond mere accurate execution of the notes as they appear in the score. Hovhaness wrote of mountains as "symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds". Thus, if a conductor is to convey the true essence of Mysterious Mountain, an aura of mystery and transcendence must effuse from Hovhaness's score. Modern recordings of the work almost invariably take the outer movements too fast to be able to achieve this easily. This does not mean that they are technically wrong, for Hovhaness provides somewhat ambiguous tempo markings of "Andante" or "Andante espressivo" rather than exact beats per minute, but their hurriedness extinguishes any real prospect of otherworldly candescence that the work holds within. Nevertheless many are fine performances, with the added bonus of appearing on all-Hovhaness discs (which RCA's Reiner recording never could) as well as offering the sonic depth which only a digitally realised recording can offer.

It is worth mentioning that in September 1957 Stokowski submitted a shortlist of recording projects to Capitol Records, which included an all-American disc coupling Hovhaness's Mysterious Mountain with Charles Griffes The White Peacock. This project was likely aborted following Fritz Reiner's RCA premiere recording in April 1958. Thus for all his numerous Hovhaness commissions, live broadcasts and concert performances, Stokowski never went into the studio to commercially record any works of Hovhaness, despite being his most visible champion.

The recording industry seems to have properly discovered Mysterious Mountain only in the mid-1990s. Following a 1994 Delos label recording, a spate of recordings followed, comprising an RCA Reiner reissue in 1995, Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony in 1996, and two further recordings in 1997 (John Williams with the London Symphony and Jesus López-Cobos with the Cincinnati Symphony).

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Fritz Reiner

According to many Hovhanophiles, the first recording of the work is its finest. From his Chicago players, Reiner conjures up a majestic peak, glistening water streams and a real sense of serenity. Although he takes a few liberties with the score (such as a daringly fast second fugue), his lush and effervescent reading works magnificently and has efectively become the work's definitive recording; one Amazon reviewer put it thus: "This recording is transcendent ... the title of the piece is MYSTERIOUS Mountain, and on this recording that is precisely what we get".

Hovhaness was relatively little-known until this high profile recording appeared, almost certainly as a result of consistently laudatory concert reviews, such as those in Cleveland just 4 months previously, which probably added to the initial buzz begun by Stokowski's performances. Hovhaness apparently knew nothing of this release until its appearance in record stores, coupled with Stravinsky's ballet The Fairy's Kiss, which was programmed on the B-side. Thus RCA saw the Hovhaness work as the main attraction, even commissioning special mountain cover artwork from Robert M. Jones.

RCA made a faithful transfer to CD for the re-issue. Re-mastering was apparently handled by John Pfeiffer, the engineer on the original 1958 recording, and the tape master was transferred from the original analog recording equipment, which had to be somewhat rebuilt. Tape hiss remains audible on the digital reissue, no doubt a decision to avoid all 'post-transfer' noise reduction so as to preserve as much of the original performance detail as possible. But such is the strength of Reiner's 1958 reading that it has held its own against all later digital-era recordings.

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American Composers Orchestra / Dennis Russell Davies

This was Mysterious Mountain's second commercial recording, and is a re-issue of a 1989 MusicMasters disc notable at the time for featuring jazz pianist Keith Jarrett performing Hovhaness's 1944 piano concerto Lousadzak. This Mysterious Mountain falls short of Reiner's 1958 reading in conveying the work's more expressive qualities. This is due mainly to upbeat tempos in the outer movements, inevitably jettisoning some of the mysteriousness alluded to in the work's title. The first movement alone clocks in at just over 5 minutes, shaving over two minutes off Reiner's timing. That said, the playing of the American Composers Orchestra is admirable throughout the disc.

Aside from the Hovhaness Lousadzak piano concerto (one of his best works and a greatly original contribution to the American piano literature), the disc includes the Elegiac Symphony No.2 of Lou Harrison, a lifelong friend and associate of Hovhaness. Like the Hovhaness, Harrison's 34-minute symphony is a deeply-felt amalgam of the technical and spiritual, and so makes for an especially appropriate coupling.

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Seattle Symphony / Gerard Schwarz

In 1993 the Delos label, a champion of American music, released its first Hovhaness disc, coupling the composer's 22nd and 50th symphonies. This became something of a 'hit' due mainly to No. 50's riotous evocation of 1980's Mount St. Helens volcano eruption in Washington State, a force of nature Hovhaness was able to witness from his Seattle home. In 1994 followed Delos's second release of Hovhaness works, although none featured as premiere recordings. Mysterious Mountain is the disc's opener.

Schwarz takes the first movement at a vigorous pace (5:58), although not as fast as others (cf. Davies above), and manages to draw out some nice climaxes from his Seattle Symphony players in the second and third movements, but ultimately this 'brisk ascent and descent' of the mountain does not entirely draw out the work's innate spirituality through discerning phrasing and nuances of tempo, an undertaking handled more successfully in Schwarz's 2002 recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (see below).

Other Hovhaness works here include And God Created Great Whales (featuring actual whalesong recordings), Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Alleluia and Fugue and Celestial Fantasy, and the oft-recorded miniature Prayer of St. Gregory. For newcomers to Hovhaness this is a splendid and highly recommended selection of mostly early works to introduce the composer, if not the best acquisition for Mysterious Mountain or quantity of music (the disc lasts just under an hour). The Delos engineering is very good, with a particularly rich-sounding string section.

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Seattle Symphony / Gerard Schwarz / 2-CD

The above Schwarz/Seattle Symphony recording reappeared in 1999 in this better valued "Delos Double" 2-CD set entitled Hovhaness Collection Volume 2, bringing together various Delos recordings of Hovhaness from the 1990s.

One still gets And God Created Great Whales, Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Alleluia and Fugue and Celestial Fantasy, but additionally five other recordings issued by Delos on other all-Hovhaness discs, including two string quartets (Nos. 2 and 3 performed by the Shanghai Quartet), two symphonies (No.50 Mount st. Helens, and No.53 Star Dawn for band) plus the symphonic poem Meditation on Orpheus.

This collection's competitive price makes it a much better-value Hovhaness survey than the above single Schwarz/Delos disc, so although the recording of Mysterious Mountain is obviously the same, our above rating of three stars increases to four here.

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Dallas Symphony / Andrew Litton

Released in April 1996, Litton's admirable reading of Mysterious Mountain is part of an anthology entitled An American Tapestry, comprising favourite pieces by American composers that don't include the usual suspects (Barber, Bernstein and Copland). The Dorian label's recording, made with the Dallas Symphony, is especially fine.

Litton is brisker and less dreamy than Reiner in the outer movements, clocking in at 17 minutes in total, versus Reiner's 19. In the central movement's tornado-like fugue, Litton's reading is at times indistinguishable from Reiner's, so for those seeking an equally exhilarating performance but with added digital clarity, this movement should not disappoint.

Other works featured are each American classics in their own right: William Schuman's New England Triptych, Ives's Three Places in New England, Walter Piston's The Incredible Flutist and Charles Tomlinson Griffes' The White Peacock. Needless to say, this disc is crammed from start to finish with American 'evergreens'.

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London Symphony Orchestra / John Williams

This disc is named The Five Sacred Trees, after the NYPO-commissioned bassoon concerto of composer John Williams — the same John Williams renowned worldwide for countless film scores, including those for Star Wars and Indiana jones. Williams also conducts the London Symphony Orchestra throughout.

This appearance of Mysterious Mountain marked its third recording of the 1990s, and became the fifth one available in the catalog. Gramophone Magazine's reviewer appreciated "the easy flow of Williams's conception, not to mention the tenderness and warmth of the LSO's polished response". Williams's "easy flow" makes for some rather brisk tempi, with the symphony's total timing coming in at 16½ minutes.

Williams's own Five Sacred Trees — inspired by the five sacred trees of Celtic mythology — is what one would expect of a master film scorer: accessible, well orchestrated and instantly communicable. The theme of nature continues in Takemitsu's Tree Line, a characteristic Takemitsu essay in delicately hued orchestral sonorities. Sony's nature anthology ends with Tobias Picker's 1986 miniature Old and Lost Rivers.

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Cincinatti Symphony / Jesus López-Cobos

Into the Light — Symphonic Expressions of the Spirit programs Mysterious Mountain with Strauss's Death and Transfiguration and three attractive but obscure works by Thomas Canning, Steve Rouse and Dave Brubeck (here in classical mode).

This is a straightforward reading of Mysterious Mountain with López-Cobos taking the outer movements faster than anyone else, but not so the central Double Fugue. In fact here the performance is in its element. Helped by good microphone placement, a not-too-hasty pace and probably Telarc's "proprietary 20-Bit digital Surround Sound", the frenetic second fugue radiates a contrapuntal lucidity that has never been bettered. In other recordings, lower strings are too distant or muffled to be heard on an equal footing with the violins and violas — this fugue was conceived for string quartet — but finally the cellos and basses are beautifully captured by Telarc, bringing into sharp focus the "four-voice canonic episodes and triple counterpoint episodes" of which Hovhaness tells us.

The disc's title is taken from Steve Rouse's Into the Light, an attractive, contemplative work whose material is derived from fish singing to him in a dream; not many pieces can claim that. Thomas Canning's Fantasy on a Hymn by Justin Morgan is just that — and will be appreciated by fans of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia and Hovhaness's own Armenian Rhapsodies. Least spiritual on this disc, the Brubeck recording comprises three instrumental movements from his 1991 Joy in the Morning, a sort of oratorio showcasing a multi-faceted talent outside of his jazzman pigeon-holing — he was of course a pupil of Milhaud for 3 years.

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Royal Liverpool Philharmonic / Gerard Schwarz

During his tenure at England's Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz made a second recording of Mysterious Mountain for a disc titled 'Mysterious Mountains' comprising three of Hovhaness's mountain-themed symphonies. Compared with his 1993 reading on Delos, this 2003 Telarc recording is at a more relaxed pace (19½ minutes versus 17) making it slightly longer than even Reiner's reading. The RLPO players thus have more opportunity than their Seattle counterparts to make the piece breathe. The first movement here is the orchestra's read-through of music with which they had no prior familiarity — there was no second take! This is overall a credit to the calibre of this orchestra but does result in some minor slips.

Telarc's state-of-the-art Direct Stream Digital recording here makes its debut. Beautifully defined colours come to the fore (as in the first movement's celesta arabesques) and yet the rapid contrapuntal writing of the central movement sounds surprisingly muddy for "new and improved 2.8224 MHz digital sampling". Yet Telarc succeeded magnificently here with López-Cobos.

Continuing this trinity of mountain-themed Hovhaness symphonies are the much later No.50 Mount St. Helens and No.66 Hymn to Glacier Peak, the latter being the aging composer's penultimate symphony and the least memorable of these three. Schwarz's earlier reading of No.50 (on the "Delos Double" listed above) has the edge over this one sonically and musically.

Hovhaness's symphonic odyssey spanned some 7 decades, and situated at the opposite end of his career to the very late Glacier Peak is the disc's closing work, the attractive miniature Storm on Mt. Wildcat. This is the composer's earliest acknowledged orchestral work, written in 1931 when he was 20. Programmatically it is essentially a truncated Night on the Bare Mountain, but the nod is to Sibelius, whose home in Fianland the young Hovhaness andhis wife would make a pilgrimage to some five years later.

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Leopold Stokowski and His Orchestra

This live historical release comes from Cala Records and will be of great interest to Stokowski, Hovhaness and Vaughan Williams fans alike. Issued in association with The Leopold Stokowski Society, the concert commemorated the great man's 50th anniversary as a conductor and took place on 25th September 1958. It was typical of the enterprising Stokowski to program contemporary rather than standard repertoire for such an event.

The Stokowski performance of Mysterious Mountain is a treasure for Hovhaness aficionados, although other Hovhaness works conducted by Stokowski happily survive as radio broadcasts. Due to microphone positioning and the acoustic space there are moments in this performance, particularly in the second movement, when the brass rather drown out what the strings are up to, though overall this is a commendable performance by an orchestra comprising players no doubt hand-picked by Stokowski himself. As musicologist Walter Simmons has written, in Mysterious Mountain Stokowski "warrants respect as an authority", considering his long association with Hovhaness. He too takes the outer movements brisker than Reiner, but hardly violates the marking of Andante. Unfortunately no interview with Hovhaness survives clarifying his views on tempi for this work.

The programming of the Ninth Symphony of Vaughan Williams came about when Stokowski had learned of the composer's death. This especially fine performance of the work was also its US premiere. Of the disc's two remaining works, Paul Creston's attractive Toccata displays great rhythmic vitality, handled marvellously by Stokowski's band, but the similarly energetic New Dance of Wallingford Riegger gets a none-too-polished outing.

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