Composer Alan Hovhaness Dies at 89


Alan Hovhaness
Alan Hovhaness
Photo courtesy of C.F. Peters

Alan Hovhaness, a prolific composer who melded Western and Asian musical genres, died in Seattle on June 21, 2000. He was 89 and had suffered from a severe stomach ailment for the last three years.

Hovhaness was born in Somerville, MA, on March 8, 1911 to Haroutiun Hovhaness Chakmakjian, a chemistry professor, and Madeline Scott Chakmakjian. His Scottish mother thought her husband’s Armenian last name sounded too foreign for a young child growing up in a suburb of Boston, so she changed his name to Alan Hovhaness when he was still quite young. Hovhaness began improvising even before he had piano lessons, and began writing music as soon as he learned to read it at the age of seven. By age 13, Hovhaness had already written two operas, Bluebeard and Daniel, as well as a number of smaller works. His early piano teachers were Adelaide Proctor and Heinrich Gebhard, and his first composition studies were with Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory of Music (following a brief period at Tufts).

The pivotal moment in Hovhaness’ development as a composer was in 1942, when he won a scholarship to study at Tanglewood. It was there, in Bohuslav Martinu‘s master class, that Hovhaness was first exposed to Eastern music. He subsequently worked with priests of the Armenian church and Eastern Troubadours who still sang the pure intervals of their ancient music. This precipitated for him a new way of creating melodic lines which were free from equal temperament in pure modes. As he wrote in the Music Clubs Magazine of February 1965: “To me the hundreds of scales and ragas possible in Eastern musical systems afford both disciplines and stimuli for a great expansion of new melodic creations. I am more interested in creating fresh, spontaneous, singing melodic lines than in the factory-made tonal patterns of industrial civilization or the splotches and spots of sound hurled at random on a canvas of imaginary silence. I am bored with mechanically constructed music and I am also bored with the mechanical revolution against such music. I have found no joy in either and have found freedom only within the sublime disciplines of the East.”

In 1948 Hovhaness joined the faculty of the Boston Conservatory of Music. He left this post in 1951 to move to New York in order to pursue composition full time. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in India from 1959-1960, during which time he was invited to participate in the annual Music Festival of the Academy of Music in Madras. He was also commissioned by All India Radio to write a work for an orchestra comprised entirely of Japanese instruments, which he called Nagooran. He served for six months as composer-in-residence at the University of Hawaii and became a composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony in 1966.

He was presented with the National Arts and Letters Award, twice with the Guggenheim Fellowship, and twice with an honorary doctorate in music (from the University of Rochester and Bates College). In a note submitted with a biographical survey to the American Music Center in 1949, however, Hovhaness wrote, “No important awards–see list of works–It is best that no mention be made of my scholarship or education because my direction is completely away from the approved path of any of my teachers–thus the responsibility will be inflicted on no one but myself.” The tonality of Eastern music, particularly Armenian and Indian music, was especially influential in his development.

In an article in the Musical Quarterly of July 1951, Henry Cowell wrote, “Western composers who go back to pre-16th century styles deliberately avoid any air of modernity, and call themselves ‘neo-classical.’ Their music often sounds inhibited, for their attitude represents an extreme of conservatism. Hovhaness’ music…sounds modern (but not ultra-modern) in a natural and uninhibited fashion, because he has found new ways to use the archaic materials with which he starts, by following their natural trend towards modal sequence and polymodalism. His innovations do not break with early traditions. His is moving, long-breathed music, splendidly written and unique in style. It is contemporary development of the archaic spirit and sounds like the music of nobody else at all.”

Program notes from a performance by pianist Joel Salsman in honor of Hovhaness’ eightieth birthday vividly describe the process by which Hovhaness composed: “He writes every night, getting more and more creative as the night goes on. By dawn he is wildly creative; composing in a sweep, he leaves corrections and revisions until later. Quite often the entire score complete with orchestration comes at one time. His total output of compositions is impressive, even more so when one hears that he has destroyed whole periods of work.” In 1940, Hovhaness burned over a thousand of his works, including several operas and two symphonies, saying that he had not been critical enough when writing them. His total surviving output includes more than 400 pieces, including at least nine operas, two ballets, more than 60 symphonies, and more than 100 chamber pieces. Among his best-known works are And God Created the Great Whales (a music-dance drama), Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No. 2), the Mount Saint Helens Symphony (Symphony No. 50), and the Easter Cantata.

See Alan Hovhaness’ submission to the AMC Biographical Survey from 1949