2011 also saw the centennial of one of my favourite composers, the late Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000). He occupied an unusual place in American contemporary music. His music is very approachable, unlike the work of some of his contemporaries, such as the late Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). Like Olivier Messiaen, he was very interested in the music of different lands and cultures. He born in Massachusetts to an Armenian father and a woman of Scottish-American descent. Despite his mother’s wishes, he did develop a great appreciation for the music and culture of his father’s land. He utilised Armenian church modes, Indian rhythmic cycles, drew on various Middle Eastern musical traditions and even went so far as use aleatoric elements in his compositions. He really had a thing for Baroque counterpoint. I’m not sure if any composer since Max Reger has composed so many fugues. Despite the various influences, his music is uniquely his own. Hovhaness doesn’t sound quite like anybody else.
At a time when many composers were embracing the serialism of the post-Schönberg era, Hovhaness stubbornly continued writing music that spoke directly to the listeners. He would criticize atonality as being “against nature”, something not unlike what Leonard Bernstein would do in his Norton Lectures at Harvard.
He later developed an appreciation for Japanese and Korean music, going so far as to compose a symphony for gayageum (a traditional Korean zither) and symphony orchestra. One of Korea’s most celebrated gayageum performers, Hwang Byung-ki, performed at the premiere. Unfortunately, it’s never been recorded. A problem with Hovhaness was that he was so very prolific. He left behind him some 67 symphonies and over 434 opus numbers. Performing all of it, let alone recording it, is a problem.
I was working for an insurance company in Salt Lake City when I first heard his work. I was really impressed by the sheer beauty of the sound. Years later, I’m still impressed, though I have to admit that there are works of Hovhaness’ I like better than others. For some reason, I’ve never really warmed to his Symphony No. 53 “Star Dawn”.
One of his most popular works is his Prayer of St. Gregory, Op. 48. This work, written for trumpet and string orchestra, is rendered here in an arrangement for cornet and harmonium.