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ClassicsOnline Home » HOVHANESS: Guitar Concerto No. 2 / Symphony No. 63 / Fanfare for the New Atlantis
Alan Hovhaness was one of the most prolific composers of the twentieth century. He stood alone among composers who were otherwise writing according to the flow of modern thinking, opposed to melody and emotion, and dismissing classical form and contrapuntal writing. Fanfare for the New Atlantis is a symphonic celebration of the rebirth of the legendary island of Atlantis. The Guitar Concerto No. 2 is full of lively dance-like music and rapidly changing rhythmic patterns. Symphony No. 63 ‘Loon Lake’ is full of nostalgia for the New Hampshire countryside of Hovhaness’s youth. It was commissioned by the New Hampshire Music Festival in conjunction with the Loon Preservation Society, who specifically requested the sound of the loon cry to be in the symphony. All three works are world première recordings.
By David Denton
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)
Fanfare for the New Atlantis • Guitar Concerto No. 2 • Symphony No. 63 ‘Loon Lake’
Alan Hovhaness was one of the most prolific composers of the twentieth century. He stood alone among composers who otherwise were writing according to the flow of modern thinking, opposed to melody and emotion, and dismissing classical form and contrapuntal writing.
Hovhaness was born with melody. Even as young as four years old, he was hearing melodies in his head, and thought everybody else did also. Then one day, when he was still in early elementary school, Schubert’s music was being introduced to class – he liked the music and thought, “Mr. Schubert wrote that music, but I am hearing my music in my head, so I should write it down.”
So his music came from his head – even orchestral music, complete in sound and form. Then he put it down on paper, using his mastery of musical knowledge, combined with his developing skill and technique. Even though he was an excellent pianist, he used the piano only after the music was written down on paper – just to examine its accuracy.
I feel that he was born in the wrong century by God’s mistake and he makes me think of the great composers of the past, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Sibelius, and Verdi. (Hovhaness had some objection to Verdi’s early orchestrations; but in some respects he was like Verdi, since both had an abundance of melody.)
Hovhaness, then, stood alone, as did his concept of contemporary music. To him it meant bringing back the music of the past, going all the way back to the original sources and then adding his own originality and new voice. Throughout his long composing career he sensed the cosmic consciousness of the new directions that music would take, that music must take. In the late 1960s he had started writing “romantic” music with Symphony No. 22 ‘City of Light’ (Naxos 8.559158), Symphony No. 24 ‘Majnun’ and other works. He was the pioneer of neo-romantic music.
He once said, in a CBC interview in October, 1968, referring to the contemporary music of that time:
“A certain form of beauty has its place in the world. Naturally, ugliness is important, but there should be a balance between beauty and ugliness. If everything is ugly, if I only hear the noise in the street, the noise of traffic – this certainly isn’t music. (Especially us today in living, having to cross a street everyday – I think we need something besides that.) And we may be satisfied by some kind of beauty – not a beauty which merely copies a beauty of 100 years ago or 200 years ago, but our own beauty, a new kind of beauty.”
Hovhaness’s 434 opuses include 67 symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and music for all combinations of instruments, also music for the voice – operas, oratorios, cantatas, anthems, and songs.
Hovhaness completed his Fanfare for the New Atlantis, Op. 281, on 2 February 1975. That is all I know about the piece, yet I chose it for this recording because I was attracted by the title. Atlantis is the legendary island that supposedly existed west of Gibraltar and was sunk into the ocean by an earthquake. This subject was of interest to the composer and he often talked about it. His interest in Atlantis could have been from Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis. He was a member of the Bacon Society and believed that Shakespeare was Bacon’s pen name. I heard the piece for the first time at the recording session in Scotland – I visualized Atlantis rising from the depths of the ocean and knew I had made the right choice. This fanfare is a celebration of the rebirth of Atlantis – it is Hovhaness’s symphonic extravaganza.
The Concerto No. 2 for Guitar and Strings, Op. 394, was commissioned by the famous Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes. Hovhaness completed the score in June 1985 but the première did not take place until 1990 at the Granada Festival; this was the only performance of the piece I know of, and Yepes died shortly after that.
Previously, in 1984, Alan and I had met Yepes at a performance of Spirit of Trees in Carnegie Hall. That piece had been commissioned by the world-renowned Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta. He and Yepes performed the piece together all over the world. After the performance, Zabaleta and Yepes invited us to a Spanish restaurant, along with their wives. Zabaleta and his wife were tall and had a distinguished appearance and manner; on the other hand, Yepes was short and lively, full of life. His wife was very much supportive of her husband and had a lovely personality.
After that meeting the commission came from Yepes for the guitar concerto and a contract was signed in January 1985. All the communication for the commission was done by Mrs Yepes by her letters. She wrote them in her cute, broken English – “Please write concerto as your heart inspires you. Be free in composing for my husband, because he is very clever and will be able to play all you write on his guitar”.
Shortly after the guitar concerto was completed, I heard from her about their son’s accidental death. I am sure Yepes was affected by this tragedy and could not do much with the concerto. This première recording is performed by Javier Calderón, the virtuoso Bolivianborn guitarist. He had commissioned Hovhaness’s first guitar concerto but could not make its première recording because of our lost communication, but we later restored our contact and he is the soloist for the second concerto instead.
The concerto begins mysteriously, with the solo guitar accompanied by the murmuring sound of strings; then comes a lively dance in an Arabic or Moorish mood (but it is a Hovhaness original). The second and fourth movements are like the first – lively dance-like music and rhythmic patterns changing rapidly – 4/4, 6/4, 2/4, 5/8, 3/8, and 7/8; the latter is often used by the composer, who specified putting the accent on the first and fourth beats of the measure. Pizzicato upper strings over a bowed bass section create a percussive sound (to me, almost electronic) unique to Hovhaness’s music. This delightful dance-like music is partly written in fugal form; as usual, the composer has a way to disguise these forms into appealing, easy-to-listen-to music. The third movement is the only slow movement. It is written in traditional Hovhaness symphonic style. The guitar cadenza by Javier Calderón comes towards the end of the movement.
Symphony No. 63 ‘Loon Lake’, Op. 411, was composed in 1988. Hovhaness was 76 years old at that time. The commission came in September 1987 from the New Hampshire Music Festival in conjunction with the Loon Preservation Society – they specifically requested the sound of the loon cry to be in the symphony. (Many loons can be found around the lakes around New Hampshire.) A large amount of the commission fee was donated by Mr and Mrs Huntington Damon.
Hovhaness grew up in a suburb of Boston. His mother was a descendant of a family who came from Scotland and settled in New England. One of the happiest memories of his childhood was visiting his uncle’s farm in New Hampshire. This symphony expresses the composer’s nostalgia for the New Hampshire countryside. He was tall and slender and did not drink or smoke. He loved a good old-fashioned breakfast of orange juice, scrambled eggs, and toast, so his music is never heavy, but grand, as nature’s contrasting changes, wind, rain, and storm.
The symphony was written in two movements and contains two distinct bird-song themes, a loon and a hermit thrush, played by the piccolo, one after the other. This occurs in two different sections of the symphony. Even though the subject of the symphony was the loon, Hovhaness’s interest was the hermit thrush, a bird that lives in the New England countryside. He had heard their calls in his childhood and was fascinated by them. They sang their song repeatedly in succession, but each time in different pitches. That interested him and he never forgot them, so he took this opportunity to put them in his symphony, along with the loon cry. The symphony is constructed around melodies which are played by solo instruments (flute, oboe, English horn, horn, clarinet, trumpet, and trombone) one after another and accompanied by the orchestra. The orchestra creates a cluster of sounds which describes the lake’s activities and its surroundings. The harp and percussion (timpani, large chimes, and glockenspiel) are the ripples and movement of the water on the lake. The piccolo imitates the birds’ cries.
Loon Lakehad its première on 18th August, 1988, with the New Hampshire Music Festival Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Nee. Hovhaness later revised the ending of the symphony (by my request) with a brilliant trumpet obbligato based on the hermit thrush song, together with the full orchestra reaching a climactic ending. The new version of the symphony was performed in the New Hampshire Festival on 2 July 1991, and this is the version recorded here.
As always, I would like to express my appreciation to Klaus Heymann for producing and releasing Hovhaness’s music on his label Naxos.
Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness
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HOVHANESS: Guitar Concerto No. 2 / Symphony No. 63...