No one will accuse Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) of not being a prolific composer. This 20th century American composer lists 415 opuses, including 63 symphonies to his life’s work. He was a contemporary of more famous American composers like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. In many ways he may have played the role of Antonio Salieri, whose works (at least according to the movie Amadeus) were overshadowed by the vastly more talented Amadeus Mozart.
That so little of his music has been recorded might suggest that much of it is mediocre. I cannot claim to be a judge on that. I have just three CD’s of his music. It is unlikely that his mediocre works would make it to plastic. I do know that after having sampled his better-known works these last few years, his music can at times be brilliant. It is also usually inventive, in way that so much modern classical music is not.
I happen to be fans of both Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Bernstein invested most of his talent in conducting music rather than writing it. Perhaps Bernstein’s works are so good because he had so much time to polish his music. His musical Candide first appeared on Broadway in 1956. In 1989, shortly before he died, he was still perfecting it with his “Final Revised Version” of Candide. Aaron Copland also created some wonderful American masterpieces including arguably the most admired work of American classical music, Appalachian Spring. I am a huge Copland fan and have most of his works. While Copland’s works were far more numerous than Bernstein’s were, many of Copland’s lesser-known works deserve their obscurity.
According to Wikipedia, both Bernstein and Copland snubbed Hovhaness. “I can’t stand this cheap ghetto music,” Bernstein reportedly said at Tanglewood upon hearing a recording of Hovhaness’s first symphony. Sitting near him, Aaron Copland talked loudly through it while a humiliated Hovhaness sat nearby. Perhaps Hovhaness’s lanky figure, chiseled features and Armenian background also contributed toward their low opinion of him.
Mysterious Mountain is perhaps Hovhaness’s best-known work of music. Yet there is much more to enjoy about his music. If nothing else, Hovhaness’s music defies easy categorization. Its breadth can be sampled by listening to both CDs in Hovhaness Collection, Volume 2. What an odd collection this is! It starts with one of his more recent works that marks an event that even I can recall, the 1980 explosion of Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens, Symphony No. 50 starts with a movement celebrating the pristine and picture perfect Spirit Lake, which straddles Mount St. Helens, before the explosion forever changed it. It then moves through the eruption itself, which through innovative drum work convincingly captures the awesome power of the eruption. It is shortly followed by another oddity, And God Created Great Whales that includes the sounds of whales mixed in with the orchestration. Following it is Mysterious Mountain, which while good is somewhat overrated. The highlight for me is a track on the second disk: Alleluia and Fugue for string orchestra, Godly music worthy of Bach himself.
I was turned onto Hovhaness one Saturday when I was driving around doing chores. I was listening to WETA-FM. This was when it was still largely a classical music station. On Saturday afternoons, the station often played music that would never get a spin during the week. What I heard was the last movement of Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 3. For a moment, I thought I was hearing an undiscovered work of Aaron Copland. It did not take too much listening to realize that this was too thematically rich to be Aaron Copland. I remember pulling off the road into a shopping center and sitting in my car waiting for it to end before continuing my chores. It defies easy categorization and blends many themes at once, including an undercurrent of Native American chants.
While there are many Hovhaness recordings available, they can be difficult to find even in the more discerning music outlets. I had to order Symphony No. 3 off the web. Moreover, many of the recordings are by second or even third-rate orchestras. The KBS Orchestra in South Korea, for example, performs Symphony No. 3. In spite of these imperfections, it is a memorable symphony. It deserves to be recorded by a first class orchestra and conductor someday.
If you spurn Alan Hovhaness, you may regret your choice. While I have just dipped into his music, I am still intrigued. If nothing else, his music is routinely adventurous. When you sometimes do not expect it, a piece can soar into the stratosphere. I will be adding more to my Hovhaness collection in the years ahead.