Alan Hovhaness - Always Original, Never Unnatural
“It is not my purpose to supply a few pseudo intellectual musicians and critics with more food for brilliant argumentation, but rather to inspire all mankind with new heroism and spiritual nobility.”
- Alan Hovhaness
Let’s begin with a ridiculous understatement: Alan Hovhaness was a prolific composer. Yeah, no kidding. Though the true number is unknown, Hovhaness’ output totals over 500 pieces. Notably, this includes 67 numbered symphonies, and there are 3 more that may have been lost. The man was so productive it is suggested that he had hypergraphia, a mental disorder the gives someone a strong urge to write or draw constantly; Dostoevsky, Van Gogh, and Isaac Asimov also had this affliction. Part of the reason it is difficult to know exactly how many pieces Hovhaness actually wrote is due to an identity crisis he had around 1943. Having had a bad experience at Tanglewood, leaving after only one lesson with the great Bohuslav Martinu, experiencing a “spiritual” awakening, and distraught by the criticism of Roger Sessions, Hovhaness took the extreme step to burn many of his early compositions. It was meant to give himself a fresh start, clean the slate. But still, yikes! That’s on the level of Cortés scuttling his ships to prevent a mutiny, or Caesar crossing the Rubicon with no way to back out of a confrontation with the Republic of Rome. Burning un-copied music before the time of the internet was as final a destruction as you could get at the time.
This principled stance is very much a part of Hovhaness’ modus operandi. Hovhaness brilliantly illustrated his composition philosophy in words through one of his many attempts to win a Guggenheim Fellowship:
I propose to create a heroic, monumental style of composition simple enough to inspire all people, completely free from fads, artificial mannerisms and false sophistications, direct, forceful, sincere, always original but never unnatural. Music must be freed from decadence and stagnation. There has been too much emphasis on small things while the great truths have been overlooked. The superficial must be dispensed with. Music must become virile to express big things. It is not my purpose to supply a few pseudo intellectual musicians and critics with more food for brilliant argumentation, but rather to inspire all mankind with new heroism and spiritual nobility. This may appear to be sentimental and impossible to some, but it must be remembered that Palestrina, Handel, and Beethoven would not consider it either sentimental or impossible. In fact, the worthiest creative art has been motivated consciously or unconsciously by the desire for the regeneration of mankind.
Hovhaness is clearly airing some grievances—“It is not my purpose to supply a few pseudo intellectual musicians and critics with more food for brilliant argumentation...”—but the logic is clearly thought out and communicated. He wants to be genuine, different, and isn’t afraid of the societal consequences.
Unsurprisingly (though still impressive), Hovhaness’ large number of symphonies were not all composed throughout his entire career. His reputation didn’t solidify until the 1950s, and his Symphony No. 2, _Mysterious Mountain_, wasn’t premiered until 1955, conducted by the great Leopoldo Stokowski, and later recorded by Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony. In fact, the largest surge would happen near the end of his life, writing nearly 20 symphonies from 1980-1989–essentially Symphonies 45-63–including 6 alone in 1986!
Another unique aspect of Hovhaness’ style is his incorporation of Armenian, Indian, and Japanese influences. Having studied in India and Japan, learned the functioning of some native instruments, Hovhaness began integration into his own composition. To be clear, this was a full cognitive integration, not just some random quotes or passing references to style. Quoting Marco Shirodkar from a biographical summary on Hovhaness:
Whereas many composers have flirted with the music of distant cultures merely as a convenient resource for their own idea-bank, Hovhaness incorporated the aesthetics and essence of these idioms into his very musical thinking - creating a homogeneic and truly transcendental music at a time when while most of his peers were entrenched in the citadel of musical 'modernism'.
There is no shortlist of pieces to explore Hovhaness’ music and various style periods. One can jump in at any point and find a unique world to surrender to. Alan Hovhaness set out to write for EVERY listener, regardless of origin or background. As he himself put it:
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.