by Walter Simmons
Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”
“Mysterious Mountain” is probably Alan Hovhaness’ most popular and often-performed orchestral work. It was commissioned by Leopold Stokowski, for his first concert as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1955, a performance that was televised nationwide. (Stokowski had begun to champion the music of Hovhaness during the 1940s, and continued to do so for the rest of his life.) This work by the erstwhile obscure composer achieved further widespread exposure through an RCA Victor recording released in 1958, featuring a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Fritz Reiner. This recording—the first of many—has remained available in one medium or another almost without interruption for more than 50 years. All these factors have contributed to its popularity, but not to be discounted is the character of the work itself: euphonious, serene, and contemplative throughout most of its 20-minute duration.
The Symphony No. 2 was originally entitled, simply, “Mysterious Mountain.” But around 1970, in an effort to provide some organization to his enormous and disparate body of work, Hovhaness added a number of his major orchestral works to his roster of symphonies, which eventually reached No. 67 (although their chronology remains inconsistent, to say the least). It was at this time that “Mysterious Mountain” became the subtitle of Symphony No. 2. One of the reasons for the confused chronology of Hovhaness’ works is the fact that he often re-purposed material from earlier works—modified or not—into later compositions. For example, the animated fugato in the second movement of the work at hand originally appeared in more primitive form in his String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1936.
Hovhaness intended his music to evoke spiritual states that transcended the concerns of mundane life. He accomplished this through an ever-evolving musical style that embraced the modal polyphony associated with the Renaissance, rich passages of hymnlike chorales, and religious incantations and dancelike styles of his ancestral Armenia. As time went on, he was to absorb elements of the musical styles of India, Japan, and Korea into his language. “Mysterious Mountain” is unusual among Hovhaness’ works in that Eastern musical references are largely absent from it. Mountains were a source of both awe and inspiration for Hovhaness: They seemed to suggest to him the immensity of the universe, and this impression was suggested in the titles of many of his works. Growing up in New England, he had ready access to mountain ranges, which he loved to explore; and he spent the last decades of his life among the mountains of Washington State.
The Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” comprises three movements. The first, Andante con moto, features rich, triadic, hymnlike chorales, with non-harmonic decorations played by the celesta. The overall effect is, indeed, celestial. The second movement, Double fugue: Moderato maestoso; allegro vivo, opens with a modal fugal exposition that suggests a Renaissance motet. This is followed by the exposition of an agitated subject introduced by the strings (taken, as noted above, from an early string quartet). Finally the two fugatos are combined contrapuntally in a majestic peroration. The third movement, Andante espressivo, begins quietly with a mysterious ostinato that builds gradually to a climax and then recedes. This is followed by a fervently spiritual hymn in the strings, and then, by a woodwind chorale. An ethereal passage, produced by subdivided solo strings, leads to a serene conclusion.
(Interested listeners are referred to the excellent Web site www.Hovhaness.com.)
Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic with a particular focus on tonal American composers of the 20th century. While in his teens he maintained an ongoing correspondence with Alan Hovhaness. Simmons is the author of two books in Roman and Littlefield’s series Twentieth-Century Traditionalists, of which he is the supervising editor. Hundreds of his writings can be found on his Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com.
© Walter Simmons
BBC Proms Concert 2016