Monday, November 14, 2011

Alan Hovhaness & the Mysterious Mountain of Echmiadzin

This weekend’s concert could be called “From Sea to Shining Sea and Purple Mountain’s Majesties” except it’s rather awkward as marketing tools go. Claude Debussy’s La Mer depicts the sea in all its beauty and awesomeness, and the opening work on the program – Alan Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain – depicts… well, the mysteriousness and awesomeness of mountains.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra – with guest soprano Lisa Daltirus in Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” and Ravel’s three songs from the 1001 Arabian Nights, Shéhérazade – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. There’s a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance with Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic.

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There is something that has always been ardently spiritual about this work to me – the very sound of it, much less the title which is borne out in the composer’s oft-quoted explanation:

“Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and the spiritual worlds. To some, the ‘Mysterious Mountain’ may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet. To some, it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside — Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta or Grand Teton.”

Here are three YouTube clips of the complete work – the first movement with the Akron Youth Symphony, recorded in 2007 (though I suspect the contrabassoonist is a ringer – understandably: not many youth orchestras would have a contrabassoon player, much less one already exhibiting male pattern baldness).

The 2nd and 3rd Movements are audio clips (with mountain-appropriate illustrations) from the recording with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Royal Liverpool Orchestra.


Even though this is easily Hovhaness’ most popular work, he did not particularly care for it and even told one interviewer in 1961 that “I go out of the hall whenever it’s performed.”

Most people are surprised to discover a work written in 1955 – at the height of post-war academic serialism that has given modern music such bad press – to be so accessible. While it’s a beautiful and evocative piece of music, it’s not exactly representative of Hohvaness’ output. As he himself has put it, “I have written much better music and it is a very impersonal work in which I omit my deeper searching.”

It came about because Leopold Stokowski, who’d conducted Hovhaness’ 1st Symphony, wanted a new work for his first concert with the Houston Symphony but when the composer sent him a brief fanfare called “To a Mysterious Mountain,” Stokowski said he wanted something more substantial and so Hovhaness responded with a three-movement work which he called his Symphony No. 2.

The implication is that it had been written earlier or perhaps put together from previous pieces (the second fugue in the middle movement came from his 1st String Quartet written in 1936). Most sources say it was composed “by 1950” and orchestrated in 1955 for Stokowski.

Stokowski asked if it had an opus number – “people like opus numbers.” When the composer said he hasn’t catalogued his works, Stokowski picked No. 132 out of the air, asking if he thought that would give him enough room for his earlier works. “Sure, that should be okay,” Hovhaness said.

“Oh, and I like your titles,” Stokowski told him. “Give it a title.” So he decided to call it “Mysterious Mountain.”

That story may sound disappointing to many listeners who hear the majesty and spirituality of great mountains and the expansive grandeur of nature in this music – and it’s not clear his admiration for mountains in general wasn’t behind the original composition – but mountains (and nature) have certainly featured in much of Hovhaness’ later music: there are other “mountain” symphonies – No. 20, “Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain,” No. 46 “To the Green Mountains,” and No. 50 inspired by Mount St. Helens, specifically, then No. 60 “To the Appalachian Mountains,” No. 66 “Hymn to Glacier Peak,” and his last symphony, No. 67 written in 1992, “Hymn to the Mountains.”

Though it is the work that put Hovhaness on America’s musical map, it’s also interesting that he never got paid for writing it.

(Digression No. 1: about the title, I am reminded of Krzysztof Penderecki’s work, one of the most frightening, searing pieces I’ve ever heard, called “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” Despite the intensity of the music and the power of its title, it was originally called 8’37” (its duration) – the idea of the Threnody was completely an afterthought.)

(Digression No. 2: about Hovhaness not getting paid for his 2nd Symphony, I am reminded of a comment by Elliott Carter (who will be celebrating his 103rd Birthday next month), talking about how much (or, more precisely, how little) money he received for composing his Variations for Orchestra, written the same year Hovhaness’ 2nd Symphony was premiered, which amounted to his earning $0.25/hr. While people in the audience nodded at the inhumanity of this, the way we regard artists financially, he said a woman wearing furs and dripping with jewels stood up and huffed disappointedly, “Mr. Carter! You mean to tell me you write for money???”)

- Dick Strawser

P.S. The title of this post refers to Echmiadzin which is actually a city in Armenia and was chosen, its Harry Potter-esque rhythm aside, not because of any relevance to Hovhaness' symphony though he did later compose a symphony he entitled "Etchmiadzin." Hovhaness's father was an Armenian born in what is now Turkey (then, the Ottoman Empire) and his original family name was Chakmakjian but the composer later decided to change it (since, he said, no one could pronounce it, anyway) to Hovaness after his grandfather's name (with the accent on the first syllable) but then Americanized it - that is, adapted it to suit the standard American mispronunciation - to Hovhaness (with the accent on the second syllable).

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