Alan Hovhaness is one of Americas most idiosyncratic musical pioneers who sought a musical reconciliation between East and West, spiritual and mundane, long before it was fashionable to do so.
Born near Boston, Massachusetts to an Armenian father and a mother of Scottish ancestry, his upbringing was more or less conventionally American. As a boy he composed in secret, once remarking "My family thought writing music was abnormal, so they would confiscate my music if they caught me in the act." An early musical mentor and personal friend was Sibelius, from whom Hovhaness perhaps acquired his love of long lyrical melodies.
The composers receptivity to Armenian culture was reignited around 1940 when he became organist at Bostons Armenian cathedral. Here he was exposed to early liturgical Armenian music as well as the works of the composer-priest Komitas Vartabed. From 1944 began a series of works with Armenian titles or subject matter. Essentially comprising Hovhaness's Armenian period', these bold works have huge monodic melodies over static drones somewhat foreshadowing the Minimalists of the late 1960s. Hovhaness himself described this music as giant melodies in simple and complex modes around stationery or movable tonal centres". From 1944 too, he introduced his spirit murmur, where musical phrases are repeated over and over by each player independently to produce a buzzing textural blur. This so called ad libitum technique was later used by the European Avant Garde (beginning with Lutoslawksi and Ligeti in the 1960s). The Armenian phase reached its zenith with the 24-movement St. Vartan Symphony of 1950.
In the 1950s Hovhanesss style became more Westernised, but some Armenian and also Indian influences remained prominent. Very noteworthy is his pioneering use of Indian cyclic rhythm concepts. In this decade he achieved widespread recognition, particularly with his Symphony Mysterious Mountain, premiered by Leopold Stokowski and recorded by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony - though ironically, this is one of his less exotic-sounding scores.
Following extended visits to India, Korea and Japan during 1959-62 to study the ancient Karnatic, Ah-ak, and Gagaku musical traditions, Hovhaness embarked on musical style incorporating Indo-Oriental idioms throughout the 1960s, a period when his music was at its most distant from Western models. For example, his Symphony No.16 is scored for both a Western orchestra and a Korean traditional ensemble including a solo part for kayagum, a sort of zither. As always, his music remained tonal, or more correctly, modal.
From the 1970s Eastern influences receded somewhat, though Hovhaness remained very prolific, reaching around Opus 450 by the time of his death. His output comprises music in almost every conceivable genre, from large scale oratorios, operas and symphonies down to piano sonatas and solo works for Oriental instruments.
Broadly speaking, Hovhaness wrote highly communicative music which is contemplative, rarely harsh, and often with an implied or explicit mystical theme. Such ideas were very unfashionable in the 1950s and 60s, but since the dawn of mainstream cross-cultural and new age trends in the 1970s he has acquired a growing band of devoted admirers, an audience not dissimilar in its musical tastes to the many admirers of later spiritual minimalists such as Arvo Prt and John Tavener.
Hovhanesss exceptionally large body of orchestral music includes over 20 concertos and almost 70 symphonies of which the finest include No.2 Mysterious Mountain and No.6 Celestial Gate. The Concerto No.7 for orchestra (1953) is one of the most taut and purposeful works of the 1950s by an American composer. Amongst Hovhanesss most distinctive works are his evocative tone poems, such as Floating World and Meditation on Orpheus. One of his most visionary utterances is the 16-minute Fra Angelico, inspired by paintings of the Renaissance artist.
Two gems are his 1951 Armenian-colored Khaldis (a concerto for 4 trumpets, piano and percussion) and the 1972 quartet for four harps entitled Island of the Mysterious Bells, an example of his facility with non-standard ensembles, as is the delightful miniature Upon Enchanted Ground (1951) for harp, flute, cello and giant tam-tam.
Vocal and Choral Music
Amongst his finest achievements here are probably 1957s Magnificat and the mystical oratorio Lady of Light (1969).
The Suite for Harp (1973) is a fine example from Hovhanesss extensive catalogue of works for solo instruments of all kinds.