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Hovhaness, Alan

Alan Hovhannes (1911-2000)

This biography was authored and kindly supplied by HinakoFujihara Hovhaness.

"My purpose is to create music, not for snobs, but for allpeople—music which is beautiful and healing—to attempt whatold Chinese painters called 'spirit resonance in melody andsound.'"

Alan Hovhaness was one of the most prolific composers of theTwentieth Century— sixty-seven symphonies, three oratorios,seven operas, plus stage works, and numerous compositions for fullorchestra as well as various instrumental combinations.His opus numbers total 434; after finishing counting his manuscripts,there could well be over five hundred opuses. Unlikeany other Twentieth-Century composers, he stood alone. He followed his"instinct and his voice." His compositions were uniqueand original.

He was born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian on March 8, 1911, inSomerville, Massachusetts, son of Haroutioun Chakmakjian andMadeleine (Scott). At age four, he had made his first attempt tocompose on the eleven line staff, which he invented. Hismother, who had a small harmonium organ, could not play his music, sohe gave up composing for astronomy—until the age ofseven.

Hovhaness’s early piano studies were with Adelaide Proctor andlater with Heinrich Gebhard, both encouraged him greatly.His early studies in composition were with Leo Rich Lewis andFrecerick Converse at the New England Conservatory ofMusic.

In the summer of 1942, he won a scholarship to Tanglewood to study.By this time he had written numerous pieces of musicand had just finished composing his Symphony No. 1, 'Exile.'But after criticism by Aaron Copland and LeonardBernstein, heads of Tanglewood, he left there disappointed. As aresult, he burned more than one thousand pieces of music inhis fireplace.Herman di Giovanno, his spiritual teacher, a psychic who worked as awaiter in a Boston Greek restaurant, persuaded him to goback to his heritage, Armenia, to find himself. This led him into hisArmenian Period: Lousadzak (The Coming of Light),Concerto for Piano and Strings (1944), and The Prayer of St.Gregory, for trumpet and strings (1946). Still, notvery much musically happened in his time in Boston – in his own words,he described himself at that time as, “Composer of noperformance.”

In the same year, 1942, the writer William Saroyan, who believed inHovhaness's talent, introduced his music to conductorLeopold Stokowski. On January 21, 1943, Stokowski performed hisSymphony No. 1, 'Exile,' with the Los AngelesPhilharmonic Orchestra. He also performed numerous Hovhanesscompositions in years to come and became his champion. In 1951Hovhaness moved to New York – then things started happening. Hecomposed for radio and television, a Clifford Odets play,and three scores for Martha Graham Dance company. In 1955, Stokowskicommissioned and premiered Symphony No. 2,'Mysterious Mountain,' Hovhaness's masterpiece, for his debut withthe Houston Symphony Orchestra; the premiererecording, however, was with Fritz Reiner and the ChicagoSymphony.

In 1960 Hovhaness received a Fulbright Scholarship grant to go toIndia where he studied Karnatic music. From there hewent to Japan—a paradise for him. In 1962 he received a Rockefellergrant and went back to Japan to study Gagaku, ancientJapanese music. He then went to Korea and studied Ah-ak, the ancientorchestra and instruments of Korea.Early in 1960, New York Philharmonic Orchestra conductor AndreKostelanetz became his new champion and began commissioningmany works from Hovhaness, including Floating World, Op. 209(1964), Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints, Op. 211 (1964), andGod Created Great Whales, Op. 229 (1970), one of his most popularsymphonic works premiered by Kostelanetz at a New YorkPhilharmonic Promenade concert on June 11,1970.

In 1966, Vilem Sokol and the Seattle Youth Symphony invitedHovhaness to conduct his music in Seattle; a year later hebecame Composer-in-Residence with Seattle Symphony under MiltonKatims. He found great inspiration in the Cascade and Olympicmountain views there (and of course, Mount Tahoma/Mount Rainer). Hemoved to Seattle, where he resided the rest of his life.There he composed many symphonies, and Gerard Schwarz, the new youngconductor of the Seattle Symphony, conducted (and laterrecorded) his Symphony No. 50, 'Mount St. Helens,' Op. 360(1982). It was a great success and from that time on,Schwarz became Hovhaness's final champion. This symphony wascommissioned by Henry Hinrichsen, the young president of C.F.Peters, Hovhaness’s New York publisher; in fact, his father Walter wasthe discoverer of Hovhaness’s music – he believed inhis music and wanted to publish all of it. Unfortunately, “MysteriousMountain” went to G. Schirmer, to Hinrichsen’s greatregret. C.F. Peters now includes 225 of Hovhaness’s compositions intheir catalog.

Hovhaness lived in Seattle from 1972 until his death on June 21,2000 at the age of 89. He had received five honorarydoctorates and numerous other awards. He was a strict contrapuntalist,but his interest in ancient oriental music led him tostudy in Armenia, India, Japan, and Korea. His melodies, thoughEastern-sounding, are all original (unless otherwiseindicated in the scores). Even though he was spiritual, he wanted hismusic to be played with vitality, not meditatively,according to his own words, “People misinterpret my music. My musicshould be played like Tchaikowsky – not over-expressivenor meditative.”

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