Alan Hovhaness Symphonies - Part 2 : Symphonies 1 - 14

Overview & List of Symphonies Symphonies
 1–14 
Symphonies  15–30  Symphonies  31–45  Symphonies  46–67 
 Chronology of the 'Early' Symphonies


The writing of the first dozen or so surviving symphonies (each discussed individually below) spanned around 25 years. Excluding early discarded symphonies, Hovhaness's symphonic activity did not really get going until after the resounding success of No.2 Mysterious Mountain in 1955, by which time the composer's music was in its third broad stylistic phase. The numbering of these 'early' symphonies is somewhat chaotic, and bears little resemblance to their true chronology. This presents confusion for anyone trying to determine a stylistic evolution (symphonic or otherwise) on the basis of numbering or opus numbering. Some explanation is required, but first necessitates a chronological listing:

Year No. Title Opus Comments
1936 1 Exile 17, No.2  
1944 rev.1965 10 Vahaken 184  
1947 8 Arjuna 179 Piano and orchestra
1949 9 Saint Vartan 180 Also catalogued as Op.80
1953 rev.1963 5 170  
1954 rev.1960 13 190  
1954 45 342 Originally designated a concerto
1955 2 Mysterious Mountain 132  
1956 3 148  
1958 4 165 Wind orchestra
1959 6 Celestial Gate 173 Small orchestra
7 Nanga Parvat 178 Wind symphony orchestra
1960 rev.1969 11 All Men Are Brothers 186 1st movt. incorporates music from 1928/1932
1960 12 Choral 188 Choir, SATB, orchestra & tape


The reason for the chaotic symphony indexing lies in the fact that the numbering of symphonies necessarily follows their order of publication. After writing three 'conventional' symphonies during 1955-58 (Nos. 2, 3, 4) Hovhaness then appears to have temporarily abandoned any traditional notion of what a symphony should be. Two 'symphonic' works were written in 1959, Nos. 6 & 7, and concurrently three much earlier works were reclassified as symphonies in 1959 (Arjuna, Vahaken and "No.5"), and published as such whilst retaining their original titles. A fourth earlier work, 1950's Saint Vartan Symphony, appears to have always been designated a symphony, initially as Op.80 without an index number, then later as No.9, Op.180. The Symphonies 8, 9, and 10 are therefore from Hovhaness's 'Armenian period' of the 1940s, despite their higher index numbering.

Cast in various free-forms, none of 'Symphonies' 5, 8, 9 and 10 is structurally close to the more traditional Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. So what prompted Hovhaness's sudden libertarian use of the term 'symphony'? One theory is that Hovhaness felt the championing of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 by Leopold Stokowski could indicate that writing works entitled 'symphony' might be the key to further elevating his now enhanced profile. Another could be that his chief publisher C.F. Peters Corp., wanted to capitalise on the success of Mysterious Mountain/Symphony No.2 (actually published by AMP) by publishing "symphonies" from his considerable unpublished back-catalogue. In the unfortunate case of Arjuna, this redesignation meant that an exotic piano concerto, rather like Lousadzak of 1944, had now become Symphony No.8. With hindsight this was an unfortunate designation, for the Lousadzak concerto has received half a dozen commercial recordings but the Arjuna "symphony" not one.

After Symphony No.10, the indexing is more or less chronologically correct apart from No.45, which was a 1954 orchestral work rediscovered some 30 years later.

 Early Discarded Symphonies (c.1933–1943)


It is impossible to say with certainty how many early symphonies Hovhaness wrote and later discarded; seven symphonies have been cited. If so, it is likely that material from them was recycled either wholly or partially into later works (this is certainly true of the string quartets of the 1930s). His symphonic odyssey may have started in 1933 with a three-movement symphony performed at the New England Conservatory of Music, and a winner of the Samuel Endicott Prize. However many symphonies Hovhaness wrote in his youth (perhaps aspiring to the heights of his mentor Sibelius) it was the Exile Symphony of 1936 which Hovhaness preserved as his definitive 'first' symphony. It bears some musical hallmarks of the more mature Hovhaness, whilst simultaneously dampening commentators' claims of a complete stylistic U-turn around 1942.

 Symphony No.1  Exile Symphony  Op.17 No.2 (1936)


This work is the earliest 'official' Hovhaness symphony, and was premiered in 1939 in England by the BBC Orchestra under Leslie Heward. The conductor heaped praise on Hovhaness, declaring his first symphony "powerful, virile and musically very solid."

The Exile of the title alludes to the plight of the many Armenians (including Hovhaness' paternal family) either uprooted or killed before and after World War I, and moods of both fear and heroicism permeate the music of the surviving outer movements. Yet the work is dedicated to the English philosopher and writer Francis Bacon, the composer's literary hero.

The defiant tutti fanfares in the outer movements perhaps serve to illustrate tragedy and anger, or even the composer's solidarity with the persecuted. This recurring fanfare would reappear in the Saint Vartan Symphony of 1950 (another commemoration of Armenian persecution). Exile's third movement has an epic quality, with battle-like music interrupted by a recurring patriotic hymn, which eventually gets taken up as a dance-like fugue. The outer movements conclude identically in a somewhat open-ended manner, with just clarinets playing a sparse second-inversion tonic chord. This may suggest deliverance or hope for the persecuted, and is one of many original traits throughout a harmonically restrained mostly modal symphony. Maybe this is why Heward added "he has guts … and does not indulge in the chromaticisms of so many of our younger composers. He is a genius and will create even greater works"

This symphony's 1942 American premiere by Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony was relayed over the radio, but failed to garner momentum for Hovhaness's career, probably due in part to the war. But Stokowski did not forget his first encounter with Hovhaness, and in 1955 would introduce America to Symphony No.2 and, in the 1960s, Nos. 3 and 15, amongst other works.

In a c.1970 revision of the work, the central movement was replaced with a new one. Only the 1942 Stokowski recording of the work contains this original movement.

Three recordings available: Delos, Guild Historic, BMOP

 Symphony No.2  Mysterious Mountain  Op.132 (1955)


Since the 1960s, Mysterious Mountain has been Hovhaness's most celebrated and widely performed orchestral work. It was written for Leopold Stokowski's first appearance with the Houston Symphony in late 1955. The premiere, broadcast nationwide over NBC radio, was an outstanding success for the composer. The work later appeared on programs of the Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Boston Symphony Orchestras. Stokowski took the work on tour to Europe and Russia in 1958, where it was heard in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. Mysterious Mountain's celebrated 1958 recording by conductor Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, on the RCA label, greatly enhanced Hovhaness's standing on the international scene.

Symphony No.2's sub-title does not portray any specific mountain, but rather "the whole idea of mountains". In fact Hovhaness admitted a lack of any real connection between some of his exotic titles and musical content. In this case he was asked by Stokowski to "give it a name", advice well heeded in view of the work's subsequent success. Stokowski had also asked for an opus number, only to learn that Hovhaness's cataloguing was not up to date. The conductor apparently picked 132 as a good number, based on how much Hovhaness said he had composed thus far. This was a wild underestimate, and thus many earlier works now share opus numbers (for example Symphony No.1 is Opus 17 No.2), whilst others carry higher opus numbers.

The symphony's title, afterthought or not, serves the music well, and many commentators have remarked on this work's evocative, even metaphysical qualities — this despite it being one of Hovhaness's least exotic creations of the 1950s. Of the premiere, the Houston's Post reported:

"Hovhaness produces a texture of the utmost beauty, gentleness, distinction and expressive potential. The real mystery of Mysterious Mountain is that it should be so simply, sweetly, innocently lovely in an age that has tried so terribly hard to avoid those impressions in music."

Hubert Roussel, The Houston Post

This music is overtly melodic and colourful, modal rather than tonal throughout and employs traditional fugal counterpoint too. As with much Hovhaness, it is something of a melting pot of his musical tools. Passages in the rich string writing have reminded some commentators of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia.

For detailed information read our more exhaustive article on Mysterious Mountain, with discussion of the symphony's origins, critical responses, musical content and CD recordings of Mysterious Mountain.

Recordings available: BMG Music (Fritz Reiner cond.), Delos, Telarc and others

 Symphony No.3  Op.148 (1956)


It was probably the big success of Symphony No.2 that set Hovhaness on the path to being a symphonist - though not in the traditional Austro-Germanic sense. After years of struggle, such a success seems to have raised the composer's musical spirits, for the next symphony followed almost immediately.

The evocative and alliterative title of 'Mysterious Mountain' was a somewhat accidental stroke of good marketing by Hovhaness for his Symphony No.2. In stark contrast, the untitled No.3 has suffered a life of near-total obscurity until its recent recording (at Hovhaness's suggestion) in 1996. The obscurity is unfortunate, as Hovhaness believed it was one of his better symphonies and remarked on it being a favourite. Like No.2, No.3 was premiered by Stokowski, this time conducting the Symphony of the Air at Carnegie Hall, in October 1956. The press reception was neutral, and after Hovhaness and the Denver Symphony gave the second performance in 1962, complete with enthusiastic reviews and standing ovation, the symphony disappeared for over 3 decades.

Certainly like Symphony No.2, No.3 is climactic and another one of Hovhaness's 'Western' symphonies, the composer referring to it as "a tribute to Mozartian classical sonata form." A central movement in "modified rondo form" is flanked by two outer movements in full sonata form with recapitulation. But Hovhaness's trademark preoccupations with old polyphony and prime-numbered meters again surface in the finale - here he pits measures of 5, 7, 11, and 13 against each other, and canonic counterpoint makes up the development section.

Two CD recordings: Guild Historic, Soundset

 Symphony No.4  Op.165 (1958)


Premiered before an outdoor audience of some 6,000, this symphony is scored for Wind ensemble with added harp and percussion, and remains well known through its Mercury recording by the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble. It is in three movements and the composer enigmatically referred to "spiritual influences of the composers Yegmelian, Gomidas Vartabed and Handel". A local paper reviewincluded the following:

"It was the Symphony of Alan Hovhaness that made the most impression on the audience. It is a superb work carefully wrought by a composer who is both inspired and imbued with craftsmanship. It is really a set of three movements in the form of a concerto grosso with various solo instruments. Mr Hovhaness is a master of color, and his ability to achieve weird and unbelievably beautiful effects with combinations of instruments percussive and wind is uncanny".

Donald Steinfirst, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The outer movements start with solemn hymns which lead to a majestic fugue. The central movement is in dance-trio-dance form. The first dance is taken up by solo marimba (19/8 + 20/8). Two 'trio' sections follow (woodwind with harp, then woodwind with vibraphone). The second dance has the xylophone (20/8 + 9/8) taking the place of the opening marimba solo. The work contains superimposed meters as well as free rhythm sections and many passages which are in prime numbered meters like 7/4 and 11/4. One very noteworthy effect occurs in the last movement when a phrase in the lower trombones is accompanied by crossing glissandi in two upper trombones (first minor thirds, then major seconds). This makes for a very original effect, where two sliding notes momentarily merge into one before 'diverging' back out. In the 1960s glissandi became very prominent in Hovhaness's music, to the extent where they became large segments of musical phrases.

Recording availableMercury

 Symphony No.5  Short   Op.170 (1953)


Hovhaness's music was in a transitional phase in the early 1950s. Having somewhat 'exhausted' his Armenianisms of the 1940s, and now getting commissions for large ensembles, he was looking for new directions, resulting in some of his most exploratory music around 1953/54, as witnessed by the diversity to be found within Symphonies 5 and 13 from these years. Symphony No.5 is a mere 11 minutes long, and comprises three contemplative movements of around 4, 5 and 2 minutes. Chronologically, the work comes between Symphonies Nos.9 (1950) and 13 (1954) and before the famous No.2 (1955). No.5 was published as a symphony five years after its creation, and thus may not originally have been conceived as such.

The first movement is characeristic of Hovhaness's early 1950s tendency to write polymodal movements with little hint of an overall home key. Mysterious splashes of tuned percussion and string pizzicatos punctuate austere woodwind and trumpet lines, with occasional interjections of menacing deep woodwind 'gongs'. Most of the accompanying material is stated within strict rhythmic cycles. The second movement starts with a slow fugal introduction, unusually for Hovhaness, with muted strings. This leads to an idyllic flute melody (with pizzicato strings and pentatonic harp strumming) undermined by threatening trombone clusters. These clusters suggest a possible late 1950s revision, as the brass imitate the Japanese Sho, whereby note clusters 'resolve' by a few of the notes hanging after others are released (interestingly Hovhaness had not yet been to Japan). The work ends with a resplendent canonic processional led by trumpets, recalling in mood and texture the final processional of the Saint Vartan Symphony.

 Symphony No.6  Celestial Gate  Op.173 (1959)


A painting by the Greek mystic painter Hermon di Giovanno was Hovhaness's inspiration for this symphony. Such paintings adorned the walls of Hovhaness's apartments throughout most of his life. In the early 1940s, di Giovanno had guided Hovhaness into the ancient worlds of Greece, Egypt, and India and had encouraged the composer to further study his Armenian heritage. Hovhaness described di Giovanno as "my spiritual teacher who opened the gate to the spiritual dimension". Perhaps this is the "Celestial Gate" of the title, rather than the title of the specific painting.

When tributes were paid after Hovhaness's passing in June 2000, his long-time composer friend Lou Harrison remarked that Hovhaness "was one of the greatest melodists of the 20th century", and this symphony certainly exemplifies Hovhaness's adeptness for beautiful melodic writing. It is unsurprising then that after Mysterious Mountain, Celestial Gate is the symphony most widely recorded, with three versions currently available. Its enduring popularity, for it is one of his masterpieces, here merits a brief analysis.

Cast in a single movement (with some material dating from the early 1940s), the work begins darkly, with a narrow chromatic melody on bassoon stated above chattering pizzicato strings. The mood soon brightens to the beautiful and tranquil main theme of the work, a full 21-bar theme made up of 4+4+5+4+4 phrases. This is stated on clarinet above a viola countermelody; the string accompaniment includes scalic pizzicato motifs which come to the fore in a later dance-like section. After partial re-statements of the theme (including a typical Hovhaness fugal treatment of the first phrase) and brief interludes featuring the opening material as well as mysterious 'free-rhythm' passages on the strings, we arrive at a change in mood.

Throughout the next arresting section, the strings move in parallel, playing a shifting four-chord ostinato over which the trumpet plays a melancholy motif. This is punctuated by timpani strikes in a cycle of 23 (eighth-notes), and tubular bell strikes in a cycle of 7 (quarter-notes). Typically for Hovhaness, the periods of these cycles are prime-numbered, so that the pattern of combined strikes between them will not repeat itself until after many iterations. This section subsides and a pizzicato dance begins, using the scalic melody heard earlier in hushed double basses under the main theme. This is then taken up canonically, and throughout this section the music is punctuated by Timpani strikes, again in a cycle of 23 (eighth-notes).

A few seconds of 'free-rhythm' music return us to the opening material, but shortly a new hymnal theme appears in strings, using the familiar Hovhaness 7/4 meter of 3 quarter-notes plus two half-notes. Contemplative hymnal sections frequently end Hovhaness works, here with lyrical interjections from the winds. This harmonically static section again features hushed double basses playing the scalic 'pizzicato dance'. But the work, which began in the depths of lower strings and bassoon, ends with 'floating' high tessitura con sordini violin clusters, leaving the listener transported from our mundane world to an ethereal world of serenity, even bliss. It is as though a new dimension reveals itself before us as we finally pass through the Celestial Gate.

3 Recordings available: Crystal (cond. Hovhaness), Koch and Telarc

 Symphony No.7  Nanga Parvat  Op.178 (1959)


Hovhaness was keen to write music for the emerging wind music movement in America during the 1950s and 60s. Symphony No.7 was one of four works commissioned by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra of Pittsburgh, the others being Symphonies Nos. 4, 14 and the Trumpet Concerto. For the three symphonies, Hovhaness added a harp.

Composed in under a fortnight in November 1959, this symphony is a musical portrait of the inhospitable Kashmiri mountain Nanga Parvat, whose name means "without trees". The sonorities and material Hovhaness invents are not typical of those one would associate with Wind Symphony writing, which may explain the four commissions mentioned above. The three movements reflect the composer's description of the mountain as "Serene, majestic, aloof, terrible in storm, forever frozen in treeless snow", resulting in some of the composer's most violent music.

The opening Con ferocita is brutal, with loud drumming throughout, and represents "the tiger-like ferocity of the Himalayan Mountains". Multiple rhythmic strands meet and pass. In the second, rhythmically complex March movement, "the sounds suggest wild improvised village marches in raucous woodwinds and false brass unisons" [by false unisons, Hovhaness means parallel melodic motion resulting in bi-modality]. "These savage sounds are organized into severe forms including two polymodal isorhythmic canons in woodwinds. Percussion plays forward and retrograde rhythm; timpani plays contracting and expanding rhythm. The march is an isorhythmic structure."

After the passing of the storms, the third Sunset movement portrays the mountain's "serene, majestic, aloof" aspects mentioned above. There is a "noble and heroic processional with clashing bells in superimposed meters". The movement ends with a descending harp ostinato supporting shimmering woodwind tone clusters representing "shafts of light through craggy peaks".

Forthcoming recording available 2010: Naxos (with symphonies 14 & 23)

 Symphony No.8  Arjuna  Op.179 (1947)


This intriguing work was originally conceived as a double concerto for piano, timpani, and small orchestra, according to Brian Q Silver, an expert on Indian music. It was entitled Ardos, after a mountain in Armenia near the Lake of Van, and exhibits a confluence of Armenian and Indian melodic styles. According to Hovhaness, the piece was never properly performed because "the Armenians weren't ready for it". Much later the score was taken to India, with the only alterations being the change of title to Arjuna and a substitution of mrdangam for the timpani. The newly-titled work was 'premiered' at the Madras Music Festival on February 1, 1960. Handel Manuel conducted the orchestra with Hovhaness on piano. Written when Hovhaness was "writing Armenian music with an Indian slant", the Indian newspaper critics heard it as being in the Indian 'nata bhairavi' mode, thus substantiating the composer's claimed overlap of Armenian and Indian modes.

"The music principally centred around the 20th mea, Nata Bhairavi ... No attempt at harmonization. The entire composition was a melodic piece ... an organic whole ... a new, fertile and untrodden field has been laid bare by Mr. Alan Hovhaness."

P. Sambamoorthy, The Hindu, Madras, India

"I was greatly impressed by the remarkable capacity of Dr. Hovhaness to understand and assimilate the Indian system of music ... the success with which he brought out the Bhava of Nata Bahiravi is praiseworthy. The beginnings of a new era of universal thinking and living in art are most appropriately reflected in these very able, successful – though perhaps the very first – attempts at creating forms that know know clime or time."

D. Venkataswami Naidu, The Hindu, Madras, India

The work's obscurity, compared to the better-known piano concerto Lousadzak, can be attributed partially to the fact that it was perhaps unwisely published as a 'Symphony' rather than the concertante piece it really is. It is one of Hovhaness's most substantial Armenian-phase works, lasting around 30 minutes and scored for woodwind, horn, timpani, piano and strings. Its radicalness is typical of late 1940s Hovhaness, huge spun-out melodies, with virtually no harmony or modulation. The timpanist is used almost like a tabla accompanist, and as such may have more work to do than in any prior orchestral work. Some aspects of the work  can be seen as early minimalism on a symphonic scale. Composer and friend Lou Harrison once recommended Ardos (as it was still then called) for a concert in Rome, calling it “20 minutes [sic] of the most shocking melodic adventure you can imagine, truly heroic and daring.”

 Symphony No.9  Saint Vartan  Op.80/Op.180 (1950)


Saint Vartan is one of the triumphs of Hovhaness's 'Armenian' period. He premiered it conducting the New York Philharmonic on 11 March 1951 at Carnegie Hall, and dedicated it some years later to the painter Hermon di Giovanno after his death. The dedication of this piece to his "spiritual teacher" is significant, for it indicates the high regard in which it was held by the composer. The work's 24 short movements have been likened to a series of 'steps' by the composer, a trait shared with other works. Laden with uncommon invention and colour (even for Hovhaness), the cumulative effect of the 'steps' is a growing emotional intensity, culminating in an almost frenzied triumphant processional. At 45 minutes, it is one of many Hovhaness large-scale works which unfold in a scroll-like improvisatory manner, rather than through organic growth from a few thematic seeds.

Saint Vartan commemorates the 1500th anniversary of the heroic death of the Armenian warrior-saint Vartan Mamikonian, who in 451 AD bravely led an Armenian army to defeat against an invading Persian force of around four times in size. Armenia, the first Christian state, had refused to yield to the Zoroastrian faith of the conquering Persians. However, a few years after the battle, the Persians had to grant religious freedom in order to retain control of Armenia. Hovhaness's music serves somewhat loosely to poeticize the conflict and symbolise the spiritual (if not military) victory of the Armenians. The music is partially programmatic too - one movement is entitled 'Death of Vartan'. Interestingly, this movement reinstates the angry fanfares of the earlier Exile Symphony (which also portrays the persecution of Armenians) but this time played by the piano, which is in dialogue with a lamenting trombone.

Like much of Hovhaness's music from around 1949-52, a stylistic pigeon-holing would render the work neo-Archaic. It is a mosaic-like tapestry of short musical numbers that betray, in a single work, Hovhaness's unique and eclectic absorbtion of archaic genres. These include Tapor (Armenian processional), Yerk (Armenian song) and more familiar Middle Age forms like the French Estampie and the German Bar (medieval A-A-B verse structure). The small orchestra [0000, saxophone 1410, timp, perc, piano, strings] is treated in a chamber-like fashion until toward the end. For many 'steps' in the work, instruments are used soloistically above a string accompaniment, though the strings and timpani take up the dexterous dance movements. The carefully-constructed scheme is as follows:

Step Form Scoring Comments
Part 1
1 Yerk Song trombone, percussion
& strings
2 Tapor Canonic processional 3 trumpets & percussion Reworking of Overture from 1950 suite 'Is There Survival?'
3 Aria horn & strings
4 Aria trumpet & strings
5 Aria horn & strings
6 Bar Canonic dance timpani, violins &
double basses
7 Tapor Processional trumpet, vibraphone
& strings
8 Bar Canonic dance timpani, percussion
& violins
9 Bar Canonic dance timpani, percussion
& violins
Reworking of movement from 1950 suite 'Is There Survival?'
10 Estampie timpani & strings
11 Bar Canonic dance strings
12 Bar Canonic dance timpani, vibraphone
& strings
13 Aria trumpet & strings
14 Lament (Death
of Vartan)
trombone & piano
15 Estampie Double canon 4 trumpets, timpani, percussion & strings
Part 2
16 Yerk (To Sensual Love) Song alto saxophone,
timpani & vibraphone
Reworking of movement from 1950 suite 'Is There Survival?'
17 Aria (To
Sacred Love)
trombone & strings
18 Estampie timpani & strings
19 Bar Canonic dance timpani, vibraphone
& strings
20 Aria trumpet & strings Reworking of movement from 1950 suite 'Is There Survival?'
21 Bar Canonic dance timpani & strings
22 Bar Canonic dance timpani, percussion
& strings
Reworking of movement from 1950 suite 'Is There Survival?'
23 Bar Canonic dance timpani & strings
24 Estampie Double canon 4 trumpets, timpani, percussion & strings Reworking of final movement from 1950 suite 'Is There Survival?'. See below.


The noteworthy employment of vibraphone and saxophone in this work is an inheritance from a ballet score of January 1950 entitled Is There Survival?, most of which was recycled for Saint Vartan. Five of the 'steps' - 2: Tapor, 9: Bar, 16: Yerk, 20: Aria, 22: Bar, 24: Estampie - are faithful re-arrangements of movements from Is There Survival?, whose scoring included saxophone and vibraphone, but not strings. (Away from the ballet, Hovhaness retitled this score King Vahaken, which should not be confused with the title Vahaken of Symphony No.10). In the Yerk (To Sensual Love) the melismata in the long saxophone melody may invoke jazz undertones in the listener, but are actually entirely consistent with the melismata Hovhaness employs when writing for other instruments in Armenian-flavoured works (cf. the piano in Lousadzak and the flute in Arevakal). Indeed it could be said that these flourishes are at times part of the melody itself rather than embellishment.

Variety in Saint Vartan is achieved through tempi, monody and polyphony, and distinct instrumental groupings. The contemplative Arias, all sung by solo brass, contrast effectively with the lively, polyphonic Tapors and Bars. Although most of the Bar canons are strict, several are not at the unison but instead have voices entering at intervals more reminiscent of fugues. However, since the original melodic intervals are preserved exactly, what we hear is a fascinating polymodal blur of superimposed keys. This effect is further mesmerised by entries not always at the measure, but at half-measure stretti.

The final Estampie double canon here merits a brief analysis to show how complex this music can be. The first canon is in one mode with four voices. A second canon follows in three modes with three voices. Finally, a double canon appears in 8 voices. Beneath this polyphony lies complex rhythmic punctuation provided by percussion, telescoping constantly in an expanding and contracting pulse. Thus all elements in the musical tapestry are functional, with none serving mere effect. The fascinating inter-relationships of the parts come about from the sheer tightness of the structure.

Such polymodal and unisonal canons as those employed in Saint Vartan show Hovhaness reworking simple archaic techniques to create music sounding just as fresh and radical as any by his atonal and serial-minded contemporaries. Perhaps it is more radical, by virtue of its disciplined embracement rather than anarchic expunction of the musical past.

Recording available: Crystal (conducted by Hovhaness).

 Symphony No.10  Vahaken  Op.184 (1944, revised 1965)


The title for the Vahaken symphony comes from ancient Armenia’s pagan god ‘Vahagn’, a symbol of wind, strength and great courage. The work’s original realization was around 1945, when Hovhaness’ music employed Armenian and Indian linear models, of which the latter clearly prevails here. This influence was reignited during the 1959/60 visit to India. Shortly after, the still unpublished ‘Vahagn’ was reworked in Switzerland and published as the three-movement “Symphony No.10 – Vahaken”.

The noble and heroic outer movements exhibit, in true Indian style, an inextinguishable faith in seemingly endless melody, without recourse to harmony or modulation. Hovhaness generates his “giant melody” from myriad melodic variants, themselves built from a few basic motifs. As in the final jhala section of Indian classical music, there is no resolution of ideas; instead, melodic and rhythmic permutations create effects of stasis and cumulative tension. In the first movement this tension is dispersed, but the finale builds to a state of frenzy, then abruptly cuts off. Brief respite is provided by the central Intermezzo movement, a playful minuet quite distant in spirit and ethnicity from its more substantial neighbors, and probably composed (or derived from material) years earlier.

Until recently, Symphony No.10 was one of the few remaining early Hovhaness symphonies never released in a commercial recording, although in its first incarnation it was not labelled a symphony. In early 2009 Centaur Records released an all-Hovhaness disc which included this work.

 Symphony No.11  All Men Are Brothers  Op.186 (1960, revised 1969)


The title refers to the composer's utopian attempt to "express a positive faith in universal cosmic love as the only possible ultimate goal for man and nature. Let all unite on our tiny planet, our floating village, our little space ship as we journey across mysterious endlessness". The work was commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the New Orleans Philharmonic and premiered by them under Frederick Fennell in March 21, 1961. In the composer's words a "completely new version" was composed in Luzern, Switzerland in the Summer of 1969. The same orchestra, this time under Werner Torkanowsky, premiered the new version on March 31, 1970.

Hovhaness must have been pleased with this piece, as it was the first work he recorded for his Poseidon record label, conducting the Royal Phiharmonic Orchestra. This recording was also the first Hovhaness release on Unicorn records.

However, this symphony clearly sounds very different to its chronological neighbours (Nos. 6, 12, 7, 14), being much more chromatic and developmental (at least in its revised version). The answer may lie with a 1994 interview in Gramophone magazine, where Hovhaness enigmatically remarks that "in the mid-1930s I already had music that indicated the way I'd go, including material I'd incorporate into All Men Are Brothers in 1930. No one could tell that I'd written it decades earlier." There are certainly many moments which recall much earlier Hovhaness music. The second movement's chromatic climax bears a resemblance to the climaxes of Prelude and Quadruple Fugue (1936, orch. 1954) and the Double Fugue section (1936, orch. 1955) of Mysterious Mountain. This movement's martial undercurrent also recalls that of the Exile symphony of 1936 and, more overtly, its opening is very close to the opening of 1944's Anahid, a fantasy for chamber orchestra.

Amongst the thick string writing, fugal expositions and battle music are typical 1960s Hovhaness devices (no doubt added in the revision of 1969) such as bell tolls, violin cluster pedals, harp glissandi and hymnal brass tuttis. Although occasionally exotic and epic in sound, it all adds up to a cohesive and very accessible Western-sounding symphony.

Recording available: Crystal (conducted by Hovhaness)

 Symphony No.12  Op.188 (1960)


Information on this symphony to follow.

 Symphony No.13  Ardent Song  Op.190 (1953)


Information on this symphony to follow. It was adapted from a ballet commissioned by Martha Graham.

 Symphony No.14  Ararat  Op.194 (1960)


Like Nanga Parvat, its sister-symphony of the previous year, in Ararat Hovhaness uses a wind symphony to depict the harshness, beauty and majesty of a mountain. Like the earlier symphony, it was commissioned by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra of Pittsburgh.

The music is often abrasive, the last movement being amongst the composer's most violent utterings. Hovhaness's programme note for this work when it appeared for an LP about 1970, is in his characteristic writing style, dry and to the point:

Wild fierceness of volcanic earthquake and avalanche-shaken mountains, rought stones, caves, rocks sculptured by tornadoes inspired this symphony of rough-hewn sounds

1st movement - An introduction of somber dragon-fly sounds in low clarinets, horns, trombones and roraring drums leads to a morose three-tone and later, four-tone melody in low clarinets under flute cluster. Bassoons sing a clashing modal melody against the clarinets. A giant melody emerges, sung antiphonally between two groups of trumpets, followed by horns and trombones against dissonnant clusters. Intensity increases in power and dissonance. [In ancient (Japanese) music, sounds of brief duration touched and released against longer sustained sounds were called 'dragon flies', as the dragon fly skims on the surface of the water.]

2nd movement - Clashing bells in 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, 13/8, 17/8, and drums in 19/8 ring in clangor. Dark trombones, clarinets, bassoons and horns sound ominous dragon-fly formations. Bells, lightning and thunder sound in piccolos, flutes and threatening trombones. Dark rumblings grow into a cataclysm of sounds.

3rd movement - Crashing drum meters 19/8, 17/8, 13/8, 7/4, 13/4, 23/8 clash continuously. Six trumpets sound a unison cry of mighty peaks bursting into sound clusters and then resolving into single tones. The trumpets rise above the roaring sea of superimposed drum rhythms. The poet Isahagian, writes of the peak of Mt. Ararat: Infinite lightnings have touched the sword of the diamond.

Forthcoming recording available 2010: Naxos (with symphonies 7 & 23)

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