Saturday, 12 May 2012

The mysterious Mr. Hovhaness

Though he never won huge critical acclaim, the hugely prolific Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) has always had a loyal following. His best music reassures the listener that all is well with the world (even when it isn't). Its gentleness and radiance is allied to a modal language that gives it a quality which anybody in my own country who treasures the hymn-like lyricism of Vaughan Williams (as found in the slow movement of his Fifth Symphony) will find attractive. Along with a taste for singing melodies (sometimes with an Armenian-tinged accent) his music also manifests a confidence with lively counterpoint that shows that the spirit of Bach is close to his heart. 

Hovhaness's best-known work is undoubtedly the Second Symphony (Mysterious Mountain), a work of considerable beauty that seeks to evoke the grandeur and mystery of mountains in general. There are three movements. The first shows combines rapt and intensely hymn-like modal writing with woodwind-led pastoral passages. The second movement is an expressive double fugue where exceptionally fluent polyphonic writing is first put in the service of lyricism before the pace picks up considerably and is built up excitingly on strings while Hovhaness's brass bring back the main theme in glory, rather in the manner of a chorale melody in a Bach cantata fantasia. An imposing climax is followed by the final movement which begins quietly before an oriental-sounding dance figure begins to rise up and sweep all before it - a remarkable piece of writing. After this mighty wind has passed the mysterious mountain looms back into view and the hymn-like modal radiance and pastoralism of the first movement returns. 

Another Hovhaness symphony that stands out from the crowd (and it is a crowd, given that he wrote nearly 70 of them!) is the Sixth Symphony (Celestial Gate). What makes it stand out is its main melody - one of the loveliest ever written. If that sounds like quite a bold statement, I doubt you'll disagree with it when you hear the tune in question. Due to his use of irregular rhythms and phrasing, the composer makes his music float above the earth. The chromatic gropings of the opening bassoon solo set a mysterious mood in play which the clarinet assuages with the main melody. As in the Second Symphony, a rapt serenity fills the music - a mood maintained when Hovhaness's characteristic fugal writing begins. This fugue builds to a radiant climax before yielding to a beautiful, peaceful vision on solo strings. The next section of this single-movement work returns to the chromatic gropings of the opening and the mood darkens. This chromatic writing alternates with aleatory swarm-like writing conjured by the unmeasured, uncoordinated repetition of short ostinato figures. Melancholy and hope contend, with the lovely melody most definitely conveying the latter. Then the music turns sinister with percussion, trumpet and Bernard Hermann-like slashing strings conjuring a dark vision of considerable power, underpinned by modal harmonies. A quiet dance-like passage for pizzicato strings follows, which is no less mysterious. The flute introduces an oriental-sounding melody above it. In time, however, the reassuring hymn-like side of the composer returns and all is well again. The trumpet sings to us, warmly. At the end the violins float up into the heavens in music of a deeply ethereal nature. 

If you enjoy the serene, radiant side of Hovhaness - and his lyrical use of trumpet - then please also try the short but lovely Prayer of St. Gregory, an intermezzo for trumpet and chamber orchestra. At its climax (when the trumpet falls silent) it glows like a Bach chorale. 

'Euphony' is a word that describes Hovhaness in this mood. You can also hear him being euphonious in the String Quartet No.4 'The Ancient Tree'. This isn't anywhere near so distinguished (backing up the critical contention that he is a variable composer) but it has a nostalgic quality that is quite sweet. Arvo Pärt's popular Fratres doesn't seem too far away, melodically-speaking, at times, though the 'Armenian' quality of the melody is not to be underestimated. That said, there's also a fugue-based section on a folk-like theme whose character again recalls Vaughan Williams (to these English ears) and the delicious closing section is clearly Bach-inspired. 

Another fine example of the composer's art is the Alleluia and Fugue, Op.40b. Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia meets Bach!

Hovhaness' appeal to 'conservative' listeners is understandable but even 'radical' listeners can find works in his voluminous output to appeal to them, such as this gamelan-inspired piece for four harps, Island of the Mysterious Bells. Fascinating, isn't it?

For a flavour of what he was like as a choral (and orchestral) composer, please try his rather magnificent Magnificat (entirely characteristic!) Hear eight-part writing in block chords, polyphony from ages past, oriental melismas, aleatory passages - in other words, pure Hovhaness. 

Having hopefully helped win you over to Alan Hovhaness, what are the objections to his music? That he is a primitivist, peddling a production-line that brings diminishing returns. There's certainly some truth in that, and I've heard one or two pieces (literally only 'one or two') by the composer than are toe-curdlingly bad (I remember The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, thankfully not on YouTube) and even his devotees tend to admit that his later symphonies aren't up to the standard of the earlier ones. Still, I've heard a good thirty or so pieces by the composer (a small fraction admittedly!) and it's been a case of 'so far so good' so far!

For those wishing to explore further:

----Prelude and Quadruple Fugue
----Symphony No.19 (Vishnu)
----Symphony No.22 (City of Light)
----Symphony No.50 (Mount St. Helens)
----Concerto for Two Pianos
----And God Created Whales
----Tzaikerk, "Evening Song"

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