Alan Hovhaness ~ A Brief Biography
Amongst the many and varied contributions to America's classical music heritage, that of Alan Hovhaness represents some of the most distinctive work. Crossing boundaries of time, geography, race, and culture, Hovhaness's body of work has found its place firmly amongst the more widely recorded and accessible art of the post-war American musical landscape, even though he spent the better part of his long career firmly on America's musical fringe.
Alan Hovhaness was born in 1911 as Alan Scott Vaness Chakmakjian, of Armenian and Scottish bloodlines. He belongs to the generation of American composers that included Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Elliott Carter and John Cage. Stylistically he was more diverse than most, but still a maverick who pursued his own unfashionable path. He rarely shunned his love of traditional Western counterpoint (such as fugue form) yet in an age when many American composers drew from a limited range of musical streams outside of classical Western forms, namely folk and jazz, Hovhaness cast his net much wider and further back in time, pursuing a fascination with Indian, Japanese, and Near Eastern musical styles, with a thoroughness that musical opinion of the day might, and often did, pour scorn upon. In this respect he was a pioneer in the vein of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison and helped "open the gates" to eastern esthetic impulses for a younger generation of American composers.
Hovhaness's first five or so years were spent in the Boston suburb of Somerville, after which the family moved a few miles further north to Arlington. Records from Arlington's schools show the boy was already avidly absorbed in serious composition by his teenage years. At 14 his opera Daniel was performed in Junior High West school, and at 18 another opera Lotus Blossom appeared at Arlington High School. Following high school graduation in 1929, two years were spent at Tufts University before his first formal composition lessons at the New England Conservatory with Frederick Converse. 1936 was the year Hovhaness witnessed a performance of Indian music and dance given in Boston by the travelling dance troupe of Uday Shankar. At this time, through his piano playing at social gatherings for Boston's immigrant communities, Hovhaness became well versed in Indian, Greek and Arabic musical styles. During the mid to late 1930s Hovhaness's early works were achieving publication, including a cello concerto and his first symphony. Unlike most American composers back then, Hovhaness opted not to take the usual path of compositional study in Europe, later stating that he had been "more interested in Oriental music".
Hovhaness lived most of the 1940s in a cramped apartment in Boston, where his main regular income was as organist at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown. In 1942 he earned a place at Berkshire's prestigious Tanglewood Summer Music School, a brief experience which led to a major musical re-evaluation. Despite some early successes for a young composer (his Symphony No.1 had been performed at England's BBC and later in America by Stokowski in 1942) Hovhaness discarded maybe hundreds of compositions upon deciding to shift musical direction. Guided by a mystic painter friend named Hermon DiGiovanno who suggested he follow his own inner voice, he reworked the incantatory melodic styles of Indian music and Armenian liturgical music into new chamber pieces written for his amateur musical ensemble in Boston. Thus a second phase of creativity was ushered in with a 1944 work for piano and string orchestra entitled Lousadzak ("Dawn of Light"). This introduced a quasi-aleatoric senza misura technique (he called it "spirit murmur") to unsuspecting audiences in Boston and New York. Here, performers are instructed to repeat over a melodic cycle without temporal reference to other players. This subsequently common Hovhaness technique enthralled audiences throughout the 1940s and 50s, as Hovhaness was possibly the first to use it. Composer critic and subsequent friend Lou Harrison claimed later that the New York premiere of Lousadzak "... was the closest I've ever been to one of those renowned artistic riots .... in the lobby, the Chromaticists and the Americanists were carrying on at high decibels. What had touched it off, of course, was the fact that here came a man from Boston whose obviously beautiful and fine music had nothing to do with either camp". Subsequent work of the ensuing decades was similarly individual in style and coloration, but would draw upon the musical traditions of more distant cultures.
Beginning in 1948 Hovhaness spent three years teaching at the Boston Conservatory of Music. In 1951 he moved to New York, where he probably needed to be to establish himself as a composer. He took a post composing and preparing music for the Near East and Trans-Caucasian section of Voice of America from 1951 to 1953. This proved to be his last proper job before supporting himself through composing. Greater professional recognition did slowly come, his composing helped by two successive Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and a growing number of prestigious commissions, such as from the Martha Graham Dance Company. The 1950s was arguably the decade of Hovhaness's biggest musical successes. His second symphony of 1955, which remains to this day on the programs of America's leading orchestras, is universally regarded as vintage Hovhaness. Titled Mysterious Mountain, it was quickly recorded by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony for the RCA label, elevating him to the spotlight of America's music landscape. Shortly afterwards came his 1958 Magnificat, another work that has proved enduring with American audiences, and exemplifying the composer's skill at bringing together olden and modern musical styles. Magnificat was one of the first Hovhaness works put out by his new publisher CF Peters Corporation, who would become the largest single publisher of his work.
Many live Hovhaness performances were broadcast nationwide on the NBC and CBS radio networks, as were the LP recordings of Hovhaness's music that began to appear on major record labels such as Mercury and MGM. These recordings inevitably found their way into European and Asian record stores, so spreading the composer's name globally amongst the contemporary music fraternity.
Travels to the East
In 1959, Hovhaness commenced a new and rewarding phase of his career. A Fulbright Research scholarship enabled him to study Karnatic music in India, a country whose music he had greatly admired since the 1930s. This visit included local Hovhaness performances and commissions of new works. Returning to the US he stopped off in Japan for more concerts, returning in 1962/63 to study that country's ancient Gagaku music. Hovhaness then spent six months of 1962 in Hawaii as visiting composer at the University in Honolulu, where more Gagaku studies followed. Following opportunities taken up to study and play with Japanese musicians in a traditional Gagaku group, this ancient music and the Buddhist philosophy from which it came, greatly influenced Hovhaness's writing, informing both his orchestral and stage works.
In the mid-1960s the composer spent much time in Europe, where he drew compositional inspiration from living in the Swiss Alps. Hovhaness often said that nothing inspired his composing as much as nature and that in nature he saw "the clothing of God". More mountains awaited him in Seattle, Washington State, where he relocated to become the Seattle Symphony's composer in residence in 1966. It was here that he would settle in the early 1970s, and remain for the last three decades of his life, composing with as much fluency as he had in younger years.
A 1970 work inspired by nature and which acquired some fame was his orchestral work And God Created Great Whales where pre-recorded whale songs were fitted within an impressionistic-sounding orchestral tone poem. This was a commission for the New York Philharmonic promenade concerts, and whilst it caught the mood of the age and apparently brought in good royalties for the publisher, some bad press emanated too in the wake of its popularity. Hovhaness's music often polarized critics and audiences, but by this time in his life he was less concerned about naysaying critics than he had been when a young, struggling composer.
Despite brief periods spent as a teacher of composition (as well as his Boston Conservatory stint he taught at Rochester's Eastman School of Music during the summers of 1956 to 1959), Hovhaness preferred to live off his work so he could pursue his love of composing. And love it he evidently did, penning some 67 symphonies - according to the official catalog - as well as over 300 other works. Most of his symphonies were written during his later Seattle years when he was far more settled in his domestic life than before.
Hovhaness's absorbtion of diverse ethnic styles provide contrasting and complementary musical strands one would expect to find in a much-travelled composer. His work is generally regarded as falling into five broad stylistic periods: up to about 1944 (sparse and contrapuntally conceived works), 1944-1951 (non-harmonic, decorative linear elements predominate), 1950s (a return to more harmonic and contrapuntally conceived works with retention of Indian rhythmic concepts), 1960s (strong influences of Japanese, Indian and Korean music), 1970s onwards (a more Western neo-Romantic chromaticism with a retreat from Eastern exotica). In truth there is an accumulation of techniques rather than a series of sharp divisions, and any shadows cast by specific influences never fully obscured the composer's trademark musical fingerprints, transparent vocal like melody, uncluttered scoring and an inherent transcendentalism, the latter having led commentators to refer to Hovhaness as a mystic or "new age" composer ahead of his time.
Hovhaness's music is generally, and probably intentionally, easy to play, in sharp contrast to the "difficult" music that avant garde composers were churning out in the 1950s and '60s. He maintained that he wrote for "ordinary people not snobs", and although engaging in atonal and 12-tone experimentations, he remained a staunch tonalist at heart, declaring "To me, atonality is against nature. There is a center to everything that exists. The planets have the sun, the moon, the earth".
Champions and Accolades
Within the United States, Hovhaness's career as a modern-day classical composer can be considered successful by any measure. He enjoyed many commissions, high profile performances and an acceptance of his work by large audiences generally hostile to new music. In the concert hall his list of champions reads like a veritable who's who of conductors, including Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Reiner, Howard Hanson, Andre Kostelanetz, John Barbirolli and Seiji Ozawa. On disc the composer was especially well represented, recorded generously by the Mercury and MGM labels in the 1950s, and in the 1960 and '70s by his own recording label, Poseidon Society, which produced some 20 long-player discs under his direct supervision. Recent years have seen the widespread availability of new recordings of his music on CD, particularly on the Crystal, Delos and Naxos labels. The composer enjoyed long lasting patronage from his chief music publishers, Peer Classical and CF Peters Corporation. Although a maverick figure, recognition even came from academia, with a plethora of awards, honorary degrees and, in 1977, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The upcoming Hovhaness birth centennial will be celebrated in Seattle, New York, and no doubt around the world by many local orchestras, chamber ensembles, soloists and radio stations.