A Word from the Composer: Alan Hovhaness
March 8, 1911 – June 21, 2000
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. . . . There has been too much emphasis on small things while the great truths have been overlooked. . . . 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. —Alan Hovhaness
Hovhaness would face harsh public disparagement and ruthless, seemingly destructive self-criticism. But his creed served as his lodestar, and the young, misunderstood Hovhaness eventually became one of twentieth-century America’s most prolific and respected composers.
Hovhaness was born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1911 to an Armenian father and a Scottish mother. His interest in music started when he was four years old. He became an excellent pianist and violinist; after high school graduation, he entered the New England Conservatory and studied under Frederick Converse. Even at this young age, notable composers such as Roger Sessions took an interest in Hovhaness. In 1940 Hovhaness took a position as organist for the Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts. During this time he experienced a turbulent period of study at Tanglewood: while a recording of Hovhaness’ First Symphony played during a seminar Aaron Copland conversed loudly in Spanish with some composers, and Leonard Bernstein proceeded to plunk out a modal scale on the piano at hand, remarking, “I can’t stand this cheap ghetto music.” (Bernstein made amends in 1960, admitting that “some of Hovhaness’ music is very, very good.”) Hovhaness left Tanglewood and returned to Boston. It seems Hovhaness took this opportunity to evaluate his experiences, and the advice and criticism he had received, and to determine what kind of a composer he would be. After destroying much of his early work, Hovhaness devoted himself spiritually and musically to his Armenian heritage. The years 1943–1951 were known as Hovhaness’s Armenian period. Support and attention to his work grew dramatically; Hovhaness enjoyed great success as he debuted his work first in Boston and eventually in New York City, where he received his first critical encouragement from the press.
In 1951, Hovhaness moved to New York City, where his compositional career flourished even further: in just eight years, his opus catalog grew from eighty to two hundred. Always pursuing the spiritual along with the musical, Hovhaness traveled to India in 1959 on a Fulbright Fellowship and immersed himself in Indian music and culture. He made further travels to Hawaii, Japan, and South Korea to research the traditional music of those areas and to learn to play their native instruments, all the while receiving more commissions. He visited Russia and Europe, and finally his ancestral homeland of Armenia in 1965, where Hovhaness gave the people a set of handwritten manuscripts of harmonized Armenian sacred music.
In the early 1970s, Hovhaness moved permanently to Seattle to live near the mountains he so dearly loved. His settling out West in Seattle seemed to be mirrored in his writing style, as in his later years Hovhaness moved away from the modal and adopted a more neo-Romantic style. The final three decades of his life brought great success in publishing; in the end, there were over four hundred opus numbers to his name. In 1996 Hovhaness’s health began to decline, and he died on June 22, 2000. In the decade after his death, his reputation as a composer only increased among musicians and audiences.
True to the creed he penned, throughout his life Hovhaness created music that is immediate, deeply felt, and accessible to the general public. In numerous interviews, Hovhaness commented on the importance choral music held for him. Hovhaness used the lowered seventh degree of the scale, triadic harmonies, cantorial recitatives, naturally flowing melodies, ostinato rhythms, abundant counterpoint, and rhythmic and ornamental elements of Eastern music in his sacred choral music. His love for religious practices from both the East and West added to his wide expressive vocabulary.