When I was a young fellow growing up in a suburb of Boston, I picked up an interest in classical music from my father. Since the composer Alan Hovhaness lived in another of Boston’s suburbs, I would hear his name mentioned from time to time, but I don’t recall hearing any of his music.
A few weeks ago, I stopped into a music store called Atelier Grigorian in Toronto where I now live. While browsing through the classical section, I noticed that they had the largest collection of Hovhaness’s music I’d ever seen in one place. It wasn’t hard to figure out that like Hovhaness Mr.Grigorian was of Armenian heritage. When I paid for a CD I bought, I asked him about Alan Hovhaness. He said he’d spoken to him a few times on the phone and had a good collection of his pieces at home. I asked where I should begin. He said that any of his pieces was interesting and that his second symphony called “Mysterious Mountain” is the most well-known.
Here are some things I’ve learned about Hovhaness since that conversation:
1. He lived from 1911-2000, about the same years as Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)..
2. His father was Armenian, but his mother was of Scottish ancestry. His father taught chemistry at Tufts University.
3. Although I’ve never heard his music in concert or on the radio or on Internet broadcasts, he wrote some 500 works, including 67 symphonies.
4. He studied music from different time periods and from all over the world. Some of his pieces have the flavor of Asian music.
5. The so-called musical establishment has never accepted him. He welcomed his status as an outsider and persisted.in spite of his critics.
6. He said: “My purpose is to create music, not for snobs, but for all people — music which is beautiful and healing, to attempt what old Chinese painters called ‘spirit resonance’ in melody and sound.” (Quote from a liner note in a Naxos CD).
7. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony promoted his music in the US. Naxos has recorded many of his pieces. University and community orchestras throughout the US continue to play his music.
Instead of attempting to unravel the complexities of the world of classical music to see if I could figure out why mainstream media neglected him, I decided to explore what Hovhaness wanted to do. I did a bit of reading and listened to a score of his pieces, which is scarcely a drop in the bucket, considering his vast output.
He became aware of his gift for melody when he was four years old and melody was a mainstay throughout his life. The formal aspects of music didn’t interest him so much as sound.
Nature was important to him — bird calls, whales, stars, and above all mountains. Of the twenty-two pieces of his I now have in my collection, five are symphonies based on the spiritual influence of mountains.
My hunch is that he wanted to create a mystical-spiritual picture of the world, the universe, of all life that the listener may enter and say: “how intriguing” or “that part is beautiful or noble” or “what an atmospheric combination of instruments” or “he has shown me something I’ve never seen or heard before. I feel at peace with myself and the world around me, so that I can take in his unique sound environment.” The world we know is full of conflict and many composers organize it and give us an interpretation of it. Hovhaness wants us to see the beauty of life from his unique perspective.
According to liner notes to another CD, which would naturally take his side, he was a pioneer who set the stage for other composers like Arvo Part, Rautavaara, and the American minimalists. Maybe so.
Unlike many pieces I’ve heard that were written in the last fifty or sixty years, I found Hovhaness’s music mostly pleasant to listen, as he intended, with some quite beautiful moments, not saccharine so that I wanted to hear it only once. One weakness I found was that he often relied on waves of orchestral sound that sometimes seemed almost the same as one I’d just heard in another piece. Nevertheless, he worked very hard to bring his listeners insights into creation that they will find nowhere else.
Even Leonard Bernstein, a titan of the musical establishment, said around 1960 that some of his music was “very, very good.” Hovhaness lived another forty years after that and wrote music until his last years when poor health forced him to stop. A day may come when some of his pieces will reach a wide audience.