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ClassicsOnline Home » HOVHANESS: Symphonies Nos. 4, 20 and 53
Of Armenian and Scottish origins, the American composer Alan Hovhaness was a trend-setting pioneer who absorbed an eclectic variety of archaic and modern influences from East and West. At the heart of his huge output lies a vision of “music for all people … which is beautiful and healing” fuelled by a deep and reverent love for nature. Hovhaness wrote 67 symphonies, from the tonal wind Symphony No. 4, to his spacetravel- inspired Symphony No. 53 ‘Star Dawn’, both featured on this recording.
Imagined Armenia, Eden made audible. This CD programs Hovhaness's music for symphonic winds, including three symphonies. Hovhaness composed so many symphonies -- 67, I believe -- that one finds among them seven or eight for band. Some of these works, believe it or not, have appeared on record before. For example, A. Clyde Roller and the Eastman Winds gave a terrific performance of the Symphony No. 4, a classic LP of the stereo era. (available on Mercury Living Presence 434340). The only work actually new to me is the Symphony No. 53 "Star Dawn."
Hovhaness wrote quickly. Hovhaness wrote a lot. Not all of his music sticks with you. He is a composer with a manner, or rather several sharply-identifiable manners. You can identify a Hovhaness piece as quickly as you can recognize a van Gogh oil or an E. E. Cummings poem. Sometimes a Hovhaness piece will just lay there, like a beached whale, or an eccentric, garrulous uncle who has outstayed his welcome. You seem to have heard it all before. Yet when it works, it's powerful. Like Mahler, Hovhaness has his personal set of musical images: the chorale, the solo arioso against a chordal mass, the "spirit murmur" (an aleatoric device, usually reserved for strings plucking away at different tempi), the climactic modal fugue. The composer joins this to a visionary point of view, and the visions encompass universes and worlds, much as Hindu and Buddhist ones do. The composer helped pioneer assimilating Eastern musical devices into Western concert music, and indeed actually won a Guggenheim to study in Japan.
The fourth symphony is definitely one of those pieces that work, though if you looked at a score, you probably wouldn't see how. One looks (and listens) in vain for the normal variations on tiny musical cells. Instead, the andante first movement, for example, consists largely of sinuous solo melodies (punctuated by discreet percussion) giving way to sonorous brass chorales, and all capped by a big-breathed fugue. None of these things has much to do with the others, but the quality of inspiration reaches such a high level, the composer takes you along with him, whether or not you feel you should go. The second movement consists of a quick dance for marimba and then for xylophone, separated by a song-like section for solo winds, solo brass, and harp -- a very rough A-B-A structure, at least as orchestration goes. One can also view the structure as A-A'. The composer builds much of the piece on a pedal note (a note in the bass that doesn't change), with the primary lines skirting above it. The marimba skips over one drone (section A), the xylophone (more than halfway into the movement) on another (A'). This could easily step over the line into boring, but Hovhaness has mastered the art of variety. One's interest doesn't flag, despite the lack of harmonic movement. The "andante espressivo" finale serves almost as a mirror to the first movement. Instead of solo lines interrupted by chorales, we get mostly chorales connected via solos. However, the chorales are thematically akin. This back-and-forth lasts until two remarkable passages: a bass trombone soloing below sliding trombones and a glitter of percussion, like fireworks against a night sky. These serve as the bridge to a resonant fugue based on the main strain of the chorale, which caps off the symphony.
I dimly recall that Brion has recorded Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places, at one time also known as the trumpet concerto, before, with a young Gerard Schwarz as the soloist. John Wallace, first trumpet of the Philharmonia and head of the John Wallace Collection brass ensemble, does the honors here. The work is in two movements, which the composers characterizes as a short prelude and a hymn. He also likens the solo trumpet as the voice of Cassandra. Indeed, after the first statement of the trumpet, the orchestra seems to explode, a roar of doom leaving a desert in its wake. The last movement, about three times longer than its predecessor, begins with the trumpet singing gorgeously over a largely chordal accompaniment. Lou Harrison remarked -- with more than a little inflation -- that Hovhaness was the caliber of melodist that came along once every couple of hundred years. If not quite that, Hovhaness certainly could knock out a great line. The movement grows increasingly contrapuntal without the trumpet losing its primacy. The wind writing throughout is extraordinarily beautiful.
Symphony No. 20 'Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain' is laid out very much like the fourth -- two slow movements framing a faster one based on two drones -- and it shares the same rhetorical strategies. However, the composer has expanded his harmonic language. We deal not only with consonant harmonies but tone-cluster dissonances as well. The music also "feels" bigger, although structurally it strikes me as much looser than the fourth. The composer describes the symphony as three very different pilgrim's marches: the first stately, perhaps coming through a mist; the second livelier with the sound of cymbals, bells, and drums; the third, a chorale and fugue. The third movement interests me the most. The chorale as such lasts less than half the piece. The fugue shoulders the brunt of the movement. However, the fugue practically sneaks in, as it were, before Hovhaness throws in a pot-load of contrapuntal toys: stretti, canon, augmentation and diminution, and so on. Nevertheless, it turns out that the chorale provides the material between successive fugal statements and in fact caps the movement.
Prayer of St. Gregory serves as an intermezzo in Hovhaness's opera Etchmiadzin. It's probably the only music from the opera I've heard. It exists in two forms: solo trumpet with strings and solo trumpet with winds. I prefer the string version. Because the CD is devoted to wind music, we get the B version. Nevertheless, this piece heads straight for the heart. Again, it features the familiar Hovhaness device of an arioso solo instrument against a chorale. The composer describes the music as "a prayer in darkness." Within its brief span, the trumpet climbs its own stairway to heaven.
The possibility of Mars colonization inspired Hovhaness's Symphony No. 53 'Star Dawn,' in two movements, which the composer thinks of as "journey" and "arrival." Doesn't sound like a particularly promising source, but you don't always get what you expect. This is no Star Trek soundtrack. Indeed, it's Hovhaness doing familiar things: chorale, monodic arioso, fugue. Yet, it is no more a rehash of old ground than any two Mahler symphonic marches are. This really is new music. I think particularly of an amazing passage in the first movement: a solo clarinet line against a delicate backdrop of tubular chimes, timpani, and tam-tam (gong). On paper, it comes across as a tour-de-force. In performance, it sings with a weird beauty, emphasis on the beauty part, even though some small voice whispers beneath the music, "How the hell did he think of that?".
Brion has long been recognized as a top wind man. From his Scottish players he gets not only precision but deep musicality. It's hard to keep the (at times) near-glacial movement of Hovhaness's music going, but it does indeed move, and Brion sees to it. John Wallace plays at the level you expect from one so eminent, but, really, every soloist (and there are a lot of them in these works) invest their lines with the same artistic forethought and care.
The sounds of the band are rapturously beautiful, and it's on Naxos. How can you resist?
By Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News
Of Armenian and Scottish extraction, the American
composer Alan Hovhaness absorbed a variety of
influences during a prolific and distinguished career. He
studied at the New England Conservatory with
Converse, and, after some criticism of his early work by
Bernstein and Copland, turned to Armenian sources for
inspiration. His later career brought wider influences
from the Far East, before a return to Western traditions.
A composer of considerable originality, he often made
use of idiosyncratic instrumentation, not least for a
number of his 67 symphonies, part of a corpus of over
four hundred compositions.
Of the Symphony No. 4 for Wind Orchestra
Hovhaness writes: “I admire the giant melody of the
Himalayan Mountains, seventh-century Armenian
religious music, classical music of South India,
orchestra music of Tang Dynasty China around 700
A.D., opera-oratorios of Handel.
“My Symphony No. 4 probably has the spiritual
influences of the composers Yegmalian, Gomidas
Vartabed, and Handel. It is in three movements. The
first movement, Andante, is a hymn and fugue. The
Allegro movement follows, …as (wind choirs) develop
the fugue in vocal counterpoint. The second movement,
Allegro, is a dance-trio-dance form. The third
movement, Andante espressivo, is a hymn and fugue.
Allegro maestoso in a 7/4 meter is a final hymn and
fugue over bell sounds.”
The symphony, composed in 1958 for the American
Wind Symphony of Pittsburgh, is the first of Alan
Hovhaness’s eight wind symphonies. The
instrumentation is that of an expanded symphony
orchestra wind section. Extensive solo passages are
given to the bass clarinet, contrabassoon,
marimba/xylophone, oboe and English horn. Quartets of
horns and trombones figure prominently in the opening
movement. Solo melodies are modal, while the
harmonic character is essentially tonal employing major
and minor triads in unusual, but satisfying relationships.
Bell sounds which dot the final contrapuntal hymn and
fugue are essentially atonal, positioned against triadic
In his Symphony No. 20, ‘Three Journeys to a Holy
Mountain’, the composer has essentially composed
three very different pilgrims’ marches. He writes: “The
first movement is in the spirit of Armenian religious
music in three great melodic arcs, the last having the
mood of a spiritual”. The opening clarinet choir
suggests a barren landscape and employs an oriental
harmonic device called the dragonfly, in which
consonant open harmonies and triads are periodically
touched and then released by temporary dissonances.
The first of three arcs begins with a noble, hymn-like
trumpet statement. Clarinets return for the second time,
again with their dragonfly utterances. A second arc
starts with solo English horn. It is a warm, rolling,
reverent and fully developed slow march. Once again
the dragonfly returns to intersperse the arcs, now with
flutes added and leading to the final melodic arc in the
style of a grand and noble spiritual. Clarinets and flutes
return for a final time to complete the movement. “The
second movement is a long melodic line completed nonharmonically
and unisonally over held drones in
Oriental style.” Suggesting a fresh start in this collection
of pilgrims’ marches, a solo alto saxophone plays a
dance-like figure, joined on and off with other
saxophones and lifted along by the rhythms of a
percussion ostinato. Clanging chimes announce grand
unison trumpets intoning a prayer/sermon, punctuated
with primitive clashing cymbals. The final section is a
fetching dance, with solo oboe and clarinet section
gracefully moving forward above bouncing timpani and
bass drum figures. “The third movement is in the form
of a chorale and fugue: at the climax of the fugue, the
chorale theme powerfully returns, interspersed with
many-voiced canon interludes.”
Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain was
commissioned by the Ithaca NY High School Band in
1969 and is scored in vocal style using the numerous
doublings found in larger wind band ensembles. In fact
the work is enriched by the use of many multiples of
some instruments (clarinets and brass), just as multiple
strings function in the orchestra. Prominent solo lines
are given to the English horn, alto saxophone, section
clarinets and oboe.
Of his Symphony No. 53, ‘Star Dawn’, for Band the
“The thought for the symphony initiated with a
phrase from Dante, “star dawn”, which suggested
traveling in space. Bells symbolize the stars, long
flowing melodies create a sense of journey, and great
chorales symbolize humankind. My life-long interest in
astronomy has suggested the thought and hope that we
may colonize Mars. As we overcrowd the Earth, we
must eventually confront this issue. Mars, although
cold, seems to have a climate which may make this
The symphony is cast in two movements. The first
commemorating the journey and the second, arrival.
Star Dawn was commissioned by Charles D. Yates, for
his San Diego State University Wind Ensemble, and
was completed in 1983.
Hovhaness writes of his Return and Rebuild the
Desolate Places as follows:
“1. In the form of a netori or short prelude. Through
mysterious clusters, the solo trumpet sounds like a
prophet of doom. It is the voice of Cassandra. Suddenly
terror strikes with fury and devastation, ending with
dark glissandi of moaning trombones.”
“2. Inspired by a portrait of the heroic priest,
Khrimian Hairig, who led the Armenian people through
many persecutions. It is a melismatic hymn of the
builders of the temple, who follow the sound of the
trumpet, which is the cantor, or inspired messenger. The
priest-like melody is in the form of three arcs: 1) The
Chalice of Holiness, 2) The Wings of Compassion, 3)
The Triumph of Faith. The people emerge from their
dark caves rejoicing.”
Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places was
commissioned for a performance by the American Wind
Symphony Orchestra of Pittsburgh and was first
published in 1965. In support of the solo trumpet, the
instrumentation is scaled for a small orchestral wind
“The Prayer of St Gregory was an intermezzo in my
religious opera Etchmiadzin. Saint Gregory, the
Illuminator, brought Christianity to Armenia around the
year 301. This music is like a prayer in darkness. St
Gregory was cast into the pit of a dungeon where he
miraculously survived after about fifteen years after
which he cured the King’s madness.”
In this case the solo trumpet functions as a cantor, or
preacher. The large wind band responds as the
congregation. The band version of the work was first
given in 1972 by the trumpet-player Gerard Schwarz,
with Keith Brion and the North Jersey Wind Symphony.
Last Albums Viewed
HOVHANESS: Symphonies Nos. 4, 20 and 53