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ClassicsOnline Home » HOVHANESS, A.: Symphonies Nos. 1, "Exile Symphony" and 50, "Mount St. Helen" (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
One of the most intriguing and individual of 20th-century American composers, Alan Hovhaness rejected the cosmopolitan modernism of other leading composers of the 1930s and ’40s. The connection Hovhaness felt with his Armenian heritage is evident in his Exile Symphony, which commemorates the flight forced upon those people by the Ottoman Turks after World War I. Delicacy, charm and vitality in the Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints evoke the composer’s love for Japan, and the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens inspired the Symphony No 50, with its remarkable evocation of the violent power and hauntingly mystic beauty of nature in “startlingly realistic engineering” (Gramophone).
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)
Symphony No 1 ‘Exile’, Op 17, No 2 • Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, Op 211 • Symphony No 50 ‘Mount Saint Helens’, Op 360
Alan Hovhaness was one of the most intriguing American composers of the twentieth century, one who went his own way, pursuing idiosyncratic interests and tastes to create a highly original body of music. Born in 1911, in Massachusetts, to an Armenian father and Scottish mother, Hovhaness began composing as a boy and created music prolifically throughout his adolescence. From the beginning of his career he rejected the cosmopolitan modernism of Stravinsky, Hindemith and other leading composers of the 1930s and 1940s. “I felt I didn’t want to be a part of ‘contemporary music’,” he recalled deciding as a young man. “I didn’t want to be a part of this very intellectual approach. A very cold approach, I felt.”
Instead, Hovhaness adopted a wide range of the world’s music as his artistic heritage. From an early interest in Armenian hymns and folk tunes, he expanded his horizons through study of Indian, Japanese, Korean and other ethnic musics, all of which influenced his own composing. As a result, his large output—well over four hundred compositions—reveals a style more archaic than modern, with chant-like melodies, Eastern scales and modal harmonies imparting an almost timeless quality to much of his work. At the same time, however, Hovhaness remained loyal to certain practices of Western composition, particularly the development of his themes through imitative counterpoint. No less important to Hovhaness’s output than these musical influences and proclivities are the larger sources of inspiration on which the composer drew. Three of these sources are especially notable, and each is evident in one of the three compositions that comprise this recording. The first is the connection Hovhaness felt with his Armenian heritage. The composer was familiar with both Armenian folk-music and with the rituals and music of the Armenian Apostolic Church. As a boy he was entranced by a recording, owned by his father, of choral music by the Armenian composer-priest Komitas Vartabed, and at one time he served as organist at St James Armenian Church in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Understandably, he was greatly distressed by the flight forced upon millions of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks following World War I. His sympathy for the refugees found expression in his First Symphony, composed in 1936 and subtitled ‘Exile’.
The first of the symphony’s three movements begins with a lamenting melody introduced by a clarinet. (Hovhaness’s use of non-Western scales, a consistent feature of his music, is evident here.) This plaintive melody, which passes among several wind instruments, is punctuated by a forceful fanfare motif, and this latter figure comes to dominate the central part of the movement, resulting in a brief musical tempest. The more pliant melodies, with their quasi-oriental arabesques, return to conclude the movement.
The second movement brings a gentle interlude, with modal melodies set forth by the woodwinds over delicate pizzicato accompaniments. Hovhaness opens the finale by returning to the musical rhetoric of the opening movement: rhapsodic woodwind melodies punctuated by powerful fanfares from the brass. This gives way to an energetic Allegro, where driving string figures alternate with a majestic chorale for the winds. Hovhaness then transforms the chorale melody into the subject for fugal counterpoint by the strings. A triumphant reprise of the chorale, in a full-throated statement by the winds, concludes the symphony.
Armenia is by no means the only distant locale to have drawn Hovhaness. The composer developed strong interests in the music and cultures of India and East Asia, and this became another important contributor to his development. Japan proved especially important to Hovhaness. He first visited the island nation in 1960, and he returned two years later on a Rockefeller Grant, spending six months studying traditional Japanese court and ceremonial music. In 1977 he married Hinako Fujihara, a Japanese singer and actress who remained his devoted companion until his death in June 2000.
Composed in 1965, Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints is one of a number of Hovhaness’ works engendered by his contact with Japan and its culture. This single-movement piece uses instruments of the modern symphony orchestra in unconventional ways to imitate the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments. The melodies may sound Japanese in character, but they are entirely of the composer’s invention. Hovhaness made no attempt to create musical equivalents of the woodblock prints referenced in the title, admitting only that the lively episode concluding the piece indicates “a wild festival scene.” But it is enough to hear the piece as a reflection of the delicacy, charm and vitality characteristic of Japanese pictorial art, and as an evocation of the composer’s love for Japan, as he himself described the work.
A third influence on Hovhaness’ life and work was his attraction to mountains. An avid climber during his youth, Hovhaness shared with many of the world’s spiritual traditions a reverence for high places. “Mountains,” he once wrote, “are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds.” That belief formed the premise for more than a few of Hovhaness’ compositions.
Hovhaness moved to the Pacific Northwest region of the United States in the 1970s, drawn largely by its mountain ranges, which are among the most majestic in America. In light of this and his fascination with powerful manifestations of nature, it is hardly surprising that the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens, in southern Washington state, would have fired the composer’s imagination. The result was his Symphony No 50 ‘Mount Saint Helens’, written in 1982. This work follows Hovhaness’ preferred symphonic format of three movements, but with a unique twist: a finale that gives a visceral sonic depiction of the great eruption that so dramatically altered the shape of Mount Saint Helens and the terrain around it.
In view of the event that inspired the symphony’s composition, the tranquil tone of its first movement might seem surprising. But Mount Saint Helens was a serene and lovely place before its most recent wrenching by geologic forces. The opening section is dominated by lush string sonorities, and the melodic statements given out in a series of wind solos have a bucolic air about them. (Hovhaness stated that the gracefully arching shapes of these phrases were inspired by the contours of the mountain before the eruption disfigured it.) The concluding portion of the movement brings fugal treatment of a flowing theme, yet another instance of Hovhaness’ fondness for echoic counterpoint.
Hovhaness wrote the symphony’s second movement as a musical picture of Spirit Lake, a body of water near the base of Mount Saint Helens in which the mountain’s peak often was brilliantly reflected, and which was obliterated by the 1980 eruption. The influence of the composer’s study of Asian music is apparent throughout this portion of the work.
The finale begins with hymn-like music for the strings, flecked with bell tones. A delicate phrase for flute alone hints at fragility, perhaps innocence, but it is cut off by the first sounds of what proves a great aural cataclysm. The eruption continues through wave after wave of orchestral violence until, finally, a reprise of the hymn that opened the movement restores a measure of calm.
Hovhaness might have ended the symphony with this music, but instead he goes on to a lively coda that again brings fugal counterpoint. This final development has symbolic significance. The bright fugue that concludes the piece, the composer explained, is a “hymn of praise to the youthful power and grandeur of the Cascades Mountains—the volcanic energy, renewing the vitality of our peaceful planet, the living earth, the life-giving force building the majestic Cascade Mountains[,] rising, piercing the clouds of heaven.”
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