Alan Hovhaness - Mysterious Mountain

Robert Fisk writes in today's Independent ~ "There is nothing so infinitely sad - so pitiful and yet so courageous - as a people who yearn to return to a land for ever denied them; the Poles to Brest Litovsk, the Germans to Silesia, the Palestinians to that part of Palestine that is now Israel. When a people claim to have settled again in their ancestral lands - the Israelis, for example, at the cost of "cleansing" 750,000 Arabs who had perfectly legitimate rights to their homes - the world becomes misty eyed. But could any nation be more miserably bereft than one which sees, each day, the towering symbol of its own land in the hands of another?

Mount Ararat (photo above) will never return to Armenia - not to the rump state which the Soviets created in 1920 after the Turkish genocide of one and a half million Armenians - and its presence to the west of the capital, Yerevan, is a desperate, awful, permanent reminder of wrongs unrighted, of atrocities unacknowledged, of dreams never to be fulfilled. I watched it all last week, cloud-shuffled in the morning, blue-hazed through the afternoon, ominous, oppressive, inspiring, magnificent, ludicrous in a way - for the freedom which it encourages can never be used to snatch it back from the Turks - capable of inspiring the loftiest verse and the most execrable commercialism."

Alan Hovhaness was born in Boston in 1911. His Armenian father came from Adana, which is now in Turkey, and his mother was of Scottish descent. Hovhaness trained at first in the New England Conservatory, and was organist at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, (see photo below), where he was influenced by the music of the composer/priest Komitas Vartabed. Listen to MP3 samples of Vartabed's music sung by the Yerevan Chamber Choir here.

In 1942 Hovhaness won a scholarship to study at Tanglewood with Bohuslav Martinu. But Hovhaness did not fit into the Tanglewood clique dominated by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The official Hovhaness web site says that his compositions were ridiculed by the Tanglewood set, and that Bernstein called it "ghetto music." After leaving Tanglewood Hovhaness developed his unique composing style, and continued to be influenced by Armenian, as well as Indian music. After rejection by the Tanglewood group of composers his champions included fellow mavericks John Cage and Lou Harrison.

Hovhaness wrote 67 numbered symphonies, the second of which was composed in 1955 and titled "Mysterious Mountain." Those who believe that youth is a time of life should note that Hovhaness wrote his first symphony aged 25, his second aged 40, and his last aged 81. It would make the perfect overgrown path if the title "Mysterious Mountain" referred specifically to Mount Ararat, but sadly this is not the case. The title refers to mountains in general rather than one specific peak, and the apocryphal story is that the title came about because Leopold Stokowski asked the composer to give the symphony a name.

Whatever the derivation of the title Hovhaness' Second Symphony, like all of the composer's music, should be heard more often. I will be playing the symphony in my Overgrown Path programme on Future Radio tomorrow (Sunday August 5). This is a test webcast, and will be broadcast between 5.00pm and 6.00pm British Summer Time, and is available on web radio. Convert on-air times to your local time zone using this link. Click here for the audio stream. Windows Media Player doesn't like the stream very much and takes ages to buffer, WinAmp or iTunes handle it best. Unfortunately the royalty license doesn't permit on-demand replay, so you have to listen in real time. If you happen to be in the Norwich, UK area tune to 96.9FM.

On Sunday week (August 12) I will be playing William Alwyn's Fifth Symphony which featured in Brain music. Lou Harrison championed Alan Hovhaness. I will be webcasting an all Lou Harrison programme on September 23, and you can read an interview with him in Going Buddhist with Lou Harrison.

Listen to Armenian Radio here. Photo credits. Mount Ararat from Wikipedia. St James Armenian Church, Watertown, Mass from church web site. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Thank you for featuring Alan Hovhaness. He is truly a composer who should be played more often.

Growing up in Seattle – where Hovhaness spent his last years – I was privileged to have seen him there from time to time, and to hear many of his works performed.

Incidentally, the photograph of Mt. Ararat drew me in. It is very similar in profile to Mt. Rainier, the solitary volcano overlooking the city of Seattle.
Pliable said…
Mountain connections ...

Of course, another of Alan Hovhaness' great works with mountain connections is his Symphony No. 50 "Mount St. Helens".

I was playing the recording of that work with the composer conducting the Seattle Symphony (Delos DE3131) last night as I wrote that piece.

I guess I'm compensating for the total lack of hills, yet alone mountains, here in East Anglia!
Thank you for this lovely site. Please do let us know if we can be of any service to you in providing information, materials, etc.


Alan Hovhaness International Research Centre, Yerevan, Armenia.,

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