Program Notes—ALAN HOVHANESS 75th Birthday Concert. Alleluia and Fugue. Avak the Healer. Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens”

by Walter Simmons



Program Notes

Alan Hovhaness 75th Birthday Concert
Alleluia and Fugue
Avak the Healer
Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens”

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.

Alan Hovhaness

Alan Hovhaness has pursued this ideal with a vigor matched by few contemporary composers. Functioning in his own esthetic realm, aloof from the musical mainstream and its ephemeral trends and fads, Hovhaness has produced a prodigious body of music including more than fifty symphonies and literally hundreds of other works of all dimensions, designed to be performed by an endless array of instrumental combinations from the beginning student to amateur groups and large-scale professional ensembles. Since his days as an isolated eccentric, who performed his exotic music for friends in the Boston area while living on a meager income earned as a church organist, up until today when he is regarded as one of America’s foremost composers, whose music is known throughout the world, Hovhaness has been guided by a dignity, humility, and integrity that have enabled him to make use of any available means and opportunity to pursue his own unique and uncompromising vision. As we celebrate the 75th birthday of this distinguished artist, we celebrate the independence of mind and courage of conviction that his musical life represents.

Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1911, Hovhaness  gravitated toward music at a very early age, despite the absence of parental encouragement. He underwent a per­functory exposure to conventional music lessons and studied for a while at the New England Conservatory. This training, however, did not respond to his inner artistic needs as did the counsel and encouragement of two Boston mystics, the painters Hermon di Giovanno and Hyman Bloom, who urged Hovhaness to turn toward the culture of his ancestral Armenia as a source of inspiration both musical and spiritual. Renouncing the conventional approaches he had thus far followed in vain, he delved wholeheartedly into this cultural archeology and emerged with a new sense of artistic identity, having discovered a musico-philosophical realm with which he finally felt a kinship.

I was looking for a new direction that would be more expressive, and I found that direction in the church music of Armenian culture. That led me to a more ancient kind of Armenian music than ‘folk music,’ much of which has been tampered with; I also discovered the music of Komitas Vartabed, who was a very great man, and his development of Armenian music was the first influence I had.

This was the beginning of Hovhaness’ immersion in the ancient Western and Oriental musical cultures upon which he has drawn for the inspiration of most of his mature work, in a pursuit of the Confucian ideal of joining heaven and earth, East and West.

Somehow, Armenian music led me to India, when I heard the music of the dancer Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s brother, who brought along a group of musicians from India. This opened up a whole new world yet seemed very much related to the different modes of Armenian music. Also Japanese music and theatre had a strong influence throughout the 1940s. The visual and musical aspects of Japanese drama, and its wonderful way of handling stories, gave me a new outlook; I wanted to create a new kind of opera from that influence. Around 1950, an Armenian from Korea played me some ancient Korean court music and I found this terribly exciting. I thought this was the most mysterious music I had ever heard. That had a strong influence.

The harmony and concept of Gagaku, which came to Japan from China in the 7th century, could readily be applied to any kind of modal melodic line. It is a very original concept and a more natural way of developing modal music than anything ever done in Europe until recently: the whole idea of rhythm versus non-rhythm, of chaos versus complete control or partial control. While I am not interested only in turning to the past, I think music should be beautiful now, just as it always was, and more beautiful, if possible.

Alleluia and Fugue (1942)

Alleluia and Fugue dates from a period when Hovhaness’ work was marked by a fascination with the sounds and techniques of early Christian music. A hauntingly archaic quality pervades both sections of the work. The hymn-like Alleluia alternates between richly chordal organum-like passages and episodes featuring a mournful modal melody with simple canonic imitation. The Fugue follows with Handelian vigor, though its Dorian modality enables it to remain evocative of the distant past.

Avak the Healer (1946)

The cantata Avak the Healer combines qualities of ancient Western music with elements of Armenian liturgical music, most clearly represented by the cantorial lines of the trumpet. The composer’s own text, sung by the soprano, is filled with simple yet strangely abstract images that convey an aura of mystical adoration. The six sections of the work maintain a continuous mood of reverence and spiritual purity, devoid of the dramatic contrasts and conflicts common to Western music of more recent centuries. The entire work remains, in the words of commentator Robert McMahan, “suspended in some mysterious halfway world between the ‘here’ of the concert music repertory and the ‘there’ of timeless ritual.”

Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens” (1982)

Since the 1970s, Hovhaness has attempted to integrate elements inspired by the various traditions of Oriental music within a more expansive Western symphonic framework that embraces some of the richness of Romantic harmony and orchestration while retaining a purity of spiritual content. This more recent stage of development is exemplified by the Symphony No. 50, “Mt. Saint Helens.”

The following commentary is adapted from program notes by the composer:

Since 1972 I have made my home near the sublime peaks of the Cascade and Olympic mountains. Years ago in my childhood I climbed many times the mountains of
New Hampshire, and I loved those ancient worn down mountains covered by forests with rocky peaks rising above the trees.

Now I live between the young volcanic Cascade Mountains and the oceanic Olympic Mountains with rain forests, and I find inspiration from the tremendous energy of these powerful, youthful, rugged mountains.

When Mt. Saint Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980, the sonic boom struck our south windows. Ashes did not come here at that time but covered land to the East all across the state of Washington into Montana. Ashes continued to travel all around the world landing lightly on our house a week later after their journey all around our planet.

On August 7, 1980 we had to travel to Walla Walla. Before we began our journey I had a feeling that Mt. Saint Helens would erupt again, but as we drove across the Cascade Mountains the beautiful summer day made me forget my premonition. Then, after a while a strange darkness came over the landscape and the sun disappeared behind weird colors. Blackness covered the sky stretching from behind the Cascade Mountains, extending from the western horizon over our heads. People were taking pictures by the roadside of this new eruption coming from the direction of Mt. Saint Helens beyond the western horizon.