The ALAN HOVHANESS Website
Alan Hovhaness Biographical Summary    by Marco Shirodkar
 Early Years (1911–1930)


Hovhaness was born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in the affluent Boston suburb of Somerville, Massachusetts on March 8, 1911. His Armenian father, Haroutioun Hovanes Chakmakjian, came from Adana (now in Turkey) and was a chemistry professor at Tufts College. His mother Madeleine Scott, was of Scottish ancestry, and did not especially approve of young Alan's learning about Armenian culture from his father. She ensured he was known simply as Alan Scott Vaness, which is the name seen on his earliest music. After her death in 1931, the composer used the surname Hovaness (after his paternal grandfather) later adding an 'h' after the 'v' around 1942, and so becoming Hovhaness with the accentuation on the second syllable.

Without any special encouragement, Hovhaness was drawn to music by the age of 4 and received his first piano lessons around the age of 7, by which time he was already improvising and composing with his own notation. He claimed to have sometimes composed secretly at night in his early years, and nocturnal creativity was certainly the norm for much of his life. In interview he once said "My family thought writing music was abnormal, so they would confiscate my music if they caught me in the act. I used to compose in the bathroom and hide the manuscripts under the bathtub." Hovhaness said he never "wanted to become" a composer, but that the act of composing just seemed natural to him. Growing up without any siblings and a somewhat shy nature, he thrust his energies into solitary but creative pursuits, such as reading, writing and painting. Another boyhood interest was astronomy. By age 14 however, he had decided firmly on a musical path. In conjunction with a high school librettist, Hovhaness penned his earliest operas Lotus Blossom, Bluebeard and Daniel.

As a boy, he acquired a love of mountains through long walks and apparent metaphysical experiences in the hills of New England. Such landscapes were the frequent subjects of his paintings and drawings. Mountains always remained important to him, determining the locales in which he chose to live, such as Lucerne in Switzerland and Seattle on the Pacific Coast, and would prove to be a lifelong inspiration for many evocatively-titled works, such as Mountain of Prophecy and Vision From High Rock.

Hovhaness' collegiate education began at Tufts College and his musical training was in the normal academic fashion. Although his upbringing seems to have been a relatively conventional one for a Bostonian, Hovhaness early on possessed a keen interest in matters of a spiritual nature.

 1930s


Hovhaness' first compositional training was as late as 1932 at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, under the tutorage of Frederick Converse. By his early twenties (the early 1930s) Hovhaness' music was drawing some interest in Boston's music circles. An early musical mentor was Sibelius. The young Hovhaness once attended a Boston concert featuring Sibelius' fourth symphony and years later commented: "I thought that piece, its great unison melodies, so lonely and original, said everything there was to say … and not only about music".

But Hovhaness was already looking eastwards too: "In the 1930s in Boston and New York, I was listening to Armenian and Kurdish singers, and was influenced by what Uday Shankar, Ravi's brother, was doing. The Eastern modalities were always there." Dancer Uday Shankar and North Indian musician Vishnu Shirali had performed in Boston in 1936, a time when Indian music was scarcely known in the West.

Alan Hovhaness around 1935 Hovhaness in 1935
 photo copyright & courtesy of
 Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness


In 1935, prompted by his great love of the music of Sibelius, Hovhaness and his then-pregnant first wife (artist Martha Mott) visited Finland to meet Sibelius. A friendship was struck up, and the Finnish master later became godfather to their child, a daughter, who in homage was named Jean Christina. A few early articles on Hovhaness claim he was something of an "American Sibelius", but this mis-attribution is likely because he lectured on Sibelius at a time when the composer was little known. In interview Hovhaness later refuted any idea that his music was neo-Sibelian, and indeed a cursory examination of early scores shows that whilst there are some flashes of Sibelian string writing and sparseness, there are many other influences (such as Eastern music) which have also been added to the young composer’s assured melodic impulse.

With no prospect of orchestral performances, Hovhaness naturally wrote predominantly chamber music in the 1930s. There are songs and many piano works, including one (Mystic Flute, 1937) of which Hovhaness later wrote that Rachmaninov played on his concert tours. The 1936 String Quartet No.1 Op.8, displays an impressive command of disciplined counterpoint. In particular, the fourth movement treats four contrasting subjects fugally before superimposing all four of them with great facility, a concept probably modeled on the finale of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. With 1937's Exile Symphony (now known as Symphony No.1, Op.17) the young composer's humanity shone through as he addressed the 1930s persecution of Armenians by the Turks. A significant early success came in 1939 when Leslie Heward, principal conductor of the BBC Midland Orchestra, England, conducted the Exile Symphony. Heward was very impressed, in a New York interview he considered Hovhaness' music "powerful, virile, and musically very solid; he has guts, sticks to fundamentals … he is a genius and will create even greater works". Sadly for Hovhaness, Heward shortly died of tuberculosis at the age of 46, thus depriving the composer of a useful champion.

 1940s


In the early 1940s several experiences veered Hovhaness' musical thinking away from predominantly Western modes of expression towards his 'musical destiny', a highly personalized, almost seamless alchemy of Occident and Orient.

His receptivity to Armenian culture was reignited in 1940 when he became organist at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts. Here he was exposed to the modes and monody of the Armenian liturgy as well as the works of the composer-priest Komitas Vartabed, of whom he had some knowledge. "When I was growing up, my father had this wonderful record of choral music by the Armenian composer Komitas. To me, he's the original minimalist, and it was through Komitas that I got the idea of saying as much as possible with the fewest possible notes." Much later, in the early 1970s, Hovhaness recorded Komitas' piano music and conducted his choral works. Throughout most of the 1940s, Hovhaness supported himself modestly through his organist's position at St. James Armenian Church.

During the 1940s Hovhaness made several attempts at securing financial assistance through Guggenheim Fellowships. In 1940, Hovhaness typed the following high-minded credo into his application papers:

"I propose to create a heroic, monumental style of composition simple enough to inspire all people, completely free from fads, artificial mannerisms and false sophistications, direct, forceful, sincere, always original but never unnatural. Music must be freed from decadence and stagnation. There has been too much emphasis on small things while the great truths have been overlooked. The superficial must be dispensed with. Music must become virile to express big things. It is not my purpose to supply a few pseudo intellectual musicians and critics with more food for brilliant argumentation, but rather to inspire all mankind with new heroism and spiritual nobility. This may appear to be sentimental and impossible to some, but it must be remembered that Palestrina, Handel, and Beethoven would not consider it either sentimental or impossible. In fact, the worthiest creative art has been motivated consciously or unconsciously by the desire for the regeneration of mankind.

There would be four more failed applications for Guggnheim funding before success finally came in 1953 and '54.

In 1942, Hovhaness won a scholarship at Tanglewood to study in Bohuslav Martinu's Master Class. This period turned sour when he also came into contact with Bernstein, Copland and their impressionable circle in the composition class. Already something of an outcast amongst this clique (not being Jewish, homosexual, or Paris-trained), his naturally shy and aloof demeanor could only have amplified his uneasiness in the highly competitive Tanglewood environment. Hovhaness later stated that his music was ridiculed by members of this group, singling out Bernstein and Copland. Whereas Leslie Heward had previously publicly acclaimed the Exile Symphony, Bernstein had allegedly dismissed it as "ghetto music" after hearing only some of the Heward recording, and Copland proceeded to talk loudly (in Spanish) over the recording, preventing others from listening. Peceiving himself the object of ridicule, a somewhat reactionary Hovhaness abruptly left Tanglewood, with his artistic self-assurance somewhat undermined. In the event, there had been only one meeting with Martinu, contrary to the oft-made claim that Hovhaness was a "student of Martinu".

At this artistic crisis point, Hovhaness found strength from friendships with two Boston artists, Hyman Bloom (who later on became rather famous) and Hermon di Giovanno. In 1943 di Giovanno, a Greek painter and mystic, supposedly guided Hovhaness into the ancient worlds of Greece, Egypt, Armenia and India. Hovhaness described di Giovanno as the "spiritual teacher who opened the gate to the spiritual dimension". He was a pivotal influence in that he encouraged Hovhaness to seek out his paternal Armenian heritage and be true to himself in his pursuits.

The composer's disappointments at Tanglewood, his involvement with Armenian church music, and possibly di Giovanni's teachings of following one's inner voice and not the ego, all converged to prompt Hovhaness to take serious stock of his identity and his art. He acted decisively, destroying or discarding many pieces written thus far, though probably not the mythical "thousand plus" works one may read of elsewhere. With this cathartic act disappeared some major early works including 2 operas and about 7 symphonies, one of which won the Samuel Endicott prize in 1933. However, some early pieces either survived (e.g.. a 1937 Cello Concerto which surfaced for its professional premiere in 1999), were recycled into later works, or were simply reintroduced into the composer's catalogue years later with deceptively high opus numbers. Commenting some 50 years later on this act of self-criticism, Hovhaness remarked: "Actually, I was moving [from Boston] to a smaller apartment in New York and had to get rid of excess baggage".

In February 1944 Hovhaness formed an amateur orchestra to perform music based on pure intervals, which he had learned about through his post at St. James Church where he worked with Armenian priests. The response to the orchestra's first concert that June encouraged Hovhaness to create "giant melodies in simple and complex modes around stationery or movable tonal centers". Thus, from 1944 began a period of works with Armenian titles or subject matter. For the most part, Hovhaness employed Armenian modes and did not quote Armenian folk melodies, with the apparent exception of the three Armenian Rhapsodies. Hence 1943-1951 is known as Hovhaness' 'Armenian period', although he acknowledged concurrent Indian influences in these works. Extended melodic incantation, almost at the expense of harmony, is the overriding preoccupation during this creative phase, and long sections of works are harmonically static with just a pedal (or sustained open fifth) drone.

In the 1944 concerto for piano and strings, Lousadzak, the soloist's part is an exquisitely filigreed giant melody, monophonic throughout, which imitates Armenian and Turkish stringed instruments. In this seminal work Hovhaness introduced his aleatory technique, initially called 'spirit murmur'. Here, performers individually repeats a designated melodic phrase over and over without synchronicity to the rest of that section's players. The invention of this so-called ad libitum technique has mistakenly been attributed to Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, because some 17 years later he first employed it in his 1961 orchestral work Jeux Venitiens.

In the mid-1940s, several of Hovhaness' new works were premiered under his baton in Boston. The young Bostonian's reputation as a musical force defying categorization, was growing. Shortly after, his memorable New York debut took place and included the premiere of the Lousadzak piano concerto, which marked something of a turning point for Hovhaness. Composer and newspaper critic Lou Harrison recalled it thus:

"I remember the premiere of that work in Town Hall, and the enormous excitement that Alan's sudden appearance in New York produced. The intermission that followed [Lousadzak] was the closest I've ever been to one of those renowned artistic riots. In the lobby, the Chromaticists and the Americanists were carrying on at high decibels. What had touched it off of course, was that here came a man from Boston whose obviously beautiful and fine music had nothing to do with either camp, and was in fact its own very wonderful thing to begin with. My guest John Cage and I were very excited, and I dashed off to the lamented Herald Tribune and wrote a rave review while John went back to the Green Room to meet Alan".


Such was John Cage's enthusiasm, he set about supervising the publication of Hovhaness' recent two-piano work Mihr (Op.60) for Henry Cowell's New Music series. Given that Cage is credited with being the father of aleatoric music, it is perhaps historically significant that he was aware of Hovhaness' quasi-aleatoric writing employed from 1944's Lousadzak onwards. Harrison's newspaper review was described by Hovhaness as "the first good criticism I ever had ... a great encouragement." Another success for Hovhaness came in 1945, when Martha Graham commissioned music for her ballet Ardent Song.

By far the biggest helping hand Hovhaness received (and needed) in the second half of the 1940s was from Armenian colleagues in the Boston and New York areas. Dr. Elizabeth Gregory befriended Hovhaness in the early 1940s and was the driving force behind his first concerts in Boston. Soon after, pianist Maro Ajemian met Hovhaness in Boston and helped launch his career in New York by co-founding The Friends of Armenian Music Committee in the late 1940s. At the centre of this committee were pianist Maro Ajemian and her violinist sister, Anahid. The greatly talented Ajemian sisters sacrificed international stardom to concentrate on contemporary music, of which Hovhaness was perhaps the chief beneficiary when they started out. They helped create a New York ‘buzz’ about the composer through two enormously successful Friends-sponsored concerts of Hovhaness’s orchestral music, first at Carnegie Hall and then at Town Hall, with rave reviews following in the New York Times (Olin Downes), the Herald Tribune (Virgil Thomson) and other New York papers. Thomson’s oft-quoted remarks, from February 1947, were as follows:

"… the high quality of this music, the purity of its inspiration, is evidenced by the extreme beauty of its melodic material (which is original material, not collected folklore) and in the perfect sweetness of taste that it leaves in the mouth. There is no vulgarity in it, nothing meretricious, silly, easy, or of low intent. It brings delight to the ear and pleasure to the thought. For all its auditory complexity - for ornateness is of its essence - it is utterly simple in feeling, pure in spirit and high-minded. And for Western ears it is thoroughly refreshing. Among all our American contributions to musical art, which are many, it is one of the most curious and original, without leaning at any point on ignorance, idiosyncrasy or personal charm".


The Friends of Armenian Music also assisted Hovhaness financially during his desperate financial situation in the 1940s and early 1950s. Maro Ajemian's championing continued into nearly all of the early recordings of Hovhaness. She was the performer essentially responsible for 38 of the 40-odd Hovhaness recordings made between 1946 and 1957, and many of these were produced by her sister's husband George Avakian (at Disc) or his producer friends (at Mercury).

Alan Hovhaness with Maro Ajemian Hovhaness with his greatest keyboard champion, Armenian-American pianist Maro Ajemian, who made around 40 Hovhaness recordings by the mid-1950s and brought him to the attention of New York's musical establishment

In 1947 Hovhaness married his third wife, the dancer Serafina Ferrante. He was 36, she 18, but it was his happiest marriage to date. The following year Hovhaness was invited to join the faculty of the Boston Music Conservatory where he taught for three years, whilst retaining his duties at the Watertown Armenian church. His Conservatory duties included teaching composition and conducting the student orchestra. This teaching post did not hinder his productivity, and students recall that in his classes he imposed no compositional dogma, unlike other composers there.

In 1949, Hovhaness was asked by the American Music Center to contribute some information for its American Composers Biographical Survey. Fully aware that he was shunning the musical vogues of the mid-century (Americana, 12-tone composition and even atonality) he wrote:
"It is best that no mention be made of my scholarships or education because my direction is completely away from the approved path of any of my teachers - thus the responsibility [for attitudes toward my music] will be inflicted on no one but myself."


 1950s


In the 1950s Hovhaness, now in his forties, gradually acquired a considerable reputation, receiving academic honors and a steady flow of commissions. These commissions, many from top-tier orchestras, saw Hovhaness embarking on a more Western phase of writing, utilizing the standard symphony orchestras now at his disposal. The 1950s witnessed the first batch of multi-movement symphonies with neo-Romantic tutti sections, a luxury notably absent from the modestly scored works of the 1940s. Armenian influences gave way, though not completely, to diverse influences including neo-Renaissance polyphony, a resurgence of fugal writing, Indian ragas and a marked broadening of harmony to include triads and chromatic relationships. Hovhaness' timbral palette expanded greatly too, now including highly coloristic effects (e.g. celesta clusters reminiscent of Webern) and a bolder employment of 'rhythmless' sections, which hitherto had been quiet pizzicato backdrops but now came to the fore and included both string and woodwind groups. Highly developed rhythmic cycles, related to Indian tala and planetary orbits, also emerged from about 1949.

In 1951, feeling able to support himself more through composing, Hovhaness moved again to New York to commence full-time composition. He wrote music for radio, television, theatre and dance. He spent two years (1951-53) composing music in diverse ethnic styles for Voice of America (where one of his roles was as Director of Music, composer, and musical consultant for the Near East and Trans-Caucasian section). The uniqueness and growing appreciation of his music secured an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Between 1953 and 1955 he gained two composition Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. During this time he traveled to Greece and the Eastern Greek Islands. 1954/55 saw success on Broadway with his entrancing score for Clifford Odet's play The Flowering Peach, which had 135 performances at Broadway's Belasco Theatre. Following this, NBC commissioned two documentary scores, for Assignment India and Assignment South-East Asia.

Many such small successes led to Hovhaness' biggest breakthrough in the mid-1950s. Symphony No.2 entitled Mysterious Mountain, was premiered (but probably not commissioned) for Leopold Stokowski's début with the Houston Symphony in October 1955, and brought Hovhaness national exposure and many laudatory reviews. Stokowski introduced Symphony No.3 too, a year later at Carnegie Hall.

Another boon for Hovhaness was that between 1955 and 1957 MGM Records released a series of all-Hovhaness LPs, recording major works such as the concertos Khaldis, Lousadzak, Talin, Concerto No.2 for Violin, the Saint Vartan Symphony and several chamber works; in all, a total of around 20 pieces spread over 8 discs.

During the Summers from 1956 to 1959 Hovhaness taught at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. In 1958, the University of Rochester awarded Hovhaness a Doctor of Music honorary degree. Oliver Daniel writing in the Saturday Review of 22nd Feb 1958 described Hovhaness' music as "moments of tranquility in a chaotic world". This was also the year that the Koussevitsky Foundation commissioned the Magnificat, for many years one of Hovhaness' most popular works.

April 1958 saw the commercial recording of Mysterious Mountain by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a major coup for the composer. It appeared on the RCA label and his since become his most famous recording, and most-performed orchestral work.

In June 1959, Bates College, Maine, conferred on Hovhaness the honorary degree of Doctor of Music, the second of some five doctorates eventually awarded to the composer. The originality and accessibility of Hovhaness' contribution to American music were highlighted in the doctoral citation thus:

"for boldness and delicacy of imagination, for originality and individuality without eccentricity, for a great number of compositions each fresh and distinctive, for fusing old melody and modern technique and spirit; in short, for making music to lift the hearts of men as only he can."


Hovhaness was a Fulbright Research Scholar in India during 1959-1960, which further colored his compositional palette. Here he studied Karnatic music with native South Indian musicians and was also commissioned by All India Radio to write a work for an orchestra comprised entirely of Indian instruments, which he called Nagooran. Hovhaness was the first Westerner invited to participate at the annual Music Festival of the Academy of Music in Madras. On New Year's Day 1960 the Madras Music Festival held its first concert of Western music, an all-Hovhaness concert. In this program, the composer premiered two existing (but appropriately re-titled) works, his Madras Sonata for piano and the piano concerto Arjuna (known as Symphony No.8). Nanga Parvat (Symphony No.7, portraying the Himalayan peak) was also premiered, and all pieces impressed the native critics. Reviewing Arjuna in newspaper The Hindu, the Indian musicologist P. Sambamoorthy noted that it represented "a new fertile and untrodden field."

Hovhaness' catalogue of works began the 1950s at around Opus 80; by the end of the 1950s it was close to Opus 200, which indicates a creative tenacity of around a dozen new works a year. Coupled with his musical travels and research this is highly impressive, as the works of the 1950s are generally of a high quality, inventiveness and variety.

 1960s

Hovhaness made his first trip to Japan in 1960 where he conducted his works with the Tokyo Symphony and Japan Philharmonic. This latter orchestra later recorded the original version of the sublime Meditation On Orpheus. The May 16, 1960 edition of Time magazine reported: "The Japanese were intrigued by Hovhaness' trance-like, tranquilly breathing music, with its use of Eastern dance patterns, its little swirling eddies of sound." Upon returning from the Orient, Hovhaness was in Europe for a year, conducting and performing several of his works.

A Rockefeller Grant enabled Hovhaness to revisit the Far East in 1962 to study Ah-ak (ancient court music of Korea), Bunraku and Gagaku (ancient ceremonial and court music of Japan) with Masataro Togi, a renowned Gagaku musician. In Japan, Hovhaness was warmly welcomed by the media, according to one report "lionized by the press". During his stay, the cantata Fuji, for Japanese female choir, flute, harp and strings, was premiered. 1962 also saw a six-month period as Composer in Residence at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. Here he participated in the Festival of Music and Art in Honolulu, which included the premiere of Symphony No.15 Silver Pilgrimage. In 1963 Hovhaness settled in Seattle. In 1965 Hovhaness undertook a tour of Russia sponsored by the Department of State under the Cultural Exchange Program.

The visit to the Far East had involved more research with native musicians, leading to new elements in Hovhaness' style and bringing about a fourth stylistic period. Here, Hovhaness returns to the long harmonically static sections of the 1940s, though now with melodies often in unisonal canons, and frequently employing glissandi. It is in this creative phase that fugue and Renaissance polyphony recede. There is more sparseness of harmony in the 1960s than 1950s, often a drone is all that supports melodies. Repetition and elaboration of material completely replaces any development. Indeed, one Japanese commentator likened Hovhaness' music to an unfolding scroll, rather than the photographic print befitting most Western music.

1963 saw Hovhaness' second collaboration with Martha Graham for her ballet Circe — this music became Symphony No.18. Graham called upon Hovhaness' services again in 1973 for her Myth Of A Voyage ballet, with the music being published under the title Dream Of A Myth.

In the mid-1960s Hovhaness divided his time between the mountainous landscape of Lucerne (Switzerland) and New York. At this time, the enthusiastic patronage of conductor André Kostelanetz ensured that several Hovhaness works were premiered and subsequently recorded by the New York Philharmonic (a later champion of Hovhaness' music was the orchestra's young trumpeter, Gerard Schwarz). At this time, Hovhaness created some of his most accomplished neo-oriental works. These included Floating World - Ukiyo, a virtuosic symphonic poem with Buddhist connotations, and the subsequently popular Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, a sort of marimba concerto inspired by Japanese wood block pictures, commissioned for Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Alan Hovhaness with Andre Kostelanetz Hovhaness (left) with New York Philharmonic conductor André Kostelanetz, around the mid-60s. Kostelanetz commissioned several Hovhaness works
including the famous piece
And God Created Great Whales, which the composer later regretted writing.
Photo courtesy of New York Philharmonic Archive



It was in Lucerne, Summer 1966, that Hovhaness penned one of his most original and startling works, the Vishnu Symphony (Symphony No.19). In this work, which symbolizes the creative forces of the galaxy, his aleatory technique reaches its apex of elaboration, with whole sections of "controlled chaos" representing "volcanic clouds … celestial clouds … nebula clouds". With Vishnu, where Hovhaness' ad libitum technique reaches its zenith before receding sharply, it is noteworthy just how far the composer has traveled musically since the early 1940s, whilst always retaining a unique and uncompromising aesthetic stance.

 1970s

In 1966/67, Hovhaness had been Composer in Residence with the Seattle Symphony. In the early 1970s Hovhaness moved permanently to Seattle, Washington. His recent links with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra had unwittingly brought about a love affair with the landscape: "I like the mountains very much. I don't have to go to Switzerland, I expect to stay here."

The most obvious change in Hovhaness' music of the 1970s (and thereafter) was the retreat from overtly oriental/Eastern sounding devices. If anything, Hovhaness veered towards a more Western neo-romantic approach, but still within the realms of rhapsodic melody and mystical expression. Noteworthy is the expansion of harmony from purely modal (as in the 1960s) to fully chromatic, including whole-tone and diminished chords. As always, these relationships serve purely for their sensory effects. When referring to an early 1970s work, Hovhaness wrote: "this period in my music is going toward a romantic expression".

By the early 1960s, MGM and Mercury Hovhaness LPs of the 1950s were long out-of-print and new recordings less frequent. Around 1963 Hovhaness and his fifth wife, Elizabeth Whittington (daughter of conductor Dorsey Whittington and a pianist who had studied with Mieczyslaw Horszowski), had the idea to issue a self-released LP of his music. After this trial LP, several releases followed in the early '70s on the couple's own label, Poseidon Society. Poseidon would record and distribute his music independently, with all recordings supervised or conducted by the composer and financed by themsleves. Some of these recordings were licenced to the British independent label Unicorn. Comprising mainly orchestral works conducted by the composer, Poseidon's releases can be considered definitive interpretations of his works. Included were major pieces such as Symphonies 9, 11, 19, 24, 25 and the large-scale oratorio Lady of Light. This proactive stance enabled the music to reach wider national and overseas audiences. Through word-of-mouth, rather than advertising, the Poseidon LPs sold well — the company at one time apparently able to gross more than $100,000 per annum. Following the couple's divorce, ownership of Poseidon recordings was retained by Elizabeth who later sold the catalog to Crystal Records, by whom they were issued on cassette and later in CD format.

However, it was not just Poseidon releases that sold well in the early 1970s, the music itself was in demand for live performance. The 1975 Hovhaness royalty statement from publisher C.F. Peters Corp. was 17 pages long. Nearly all of his 240 compositions had sold that year, from 1 copy of the Accordion Concerto to 5,620 copies of the 4-page choral piece From the Ends of the Earth. Thus despite still being critically unfashionable, the composer could live off his work, rather than through teaching at any academic institution. Additionally, commissions still regularly came in from outré sponsors, such as the Korean government for Symphony No.35.

Despite healthy music sales, in 1972 Hovhaness parted company from chief publisher Peters Edition after 17 years. Briefly, he was again published by Peer (1972-77) and AMP (1974). A few years later at a concert of his music he met the Japanese soprano, and one-time actress, Hinako Fujihara. She was to become his wife for the last 23 years of his life. Fujihara Music was set-up to publish his new music. Like a previous wife, who had administered Poseidon Society, Fujihara administered an independent record company to release the composer's music, this time called Fujihara Records. Releases included Symphonies 31, 38, 40 and 47, as well as vocal chamber works.

Although aloof from the American classical music establishment, but having contributed a great deal of music, in 1977 Hovhaness was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

 1980 - 2000

During the last two decades of his life Hovhaness' nomadic lifestyle somewhat ceased. Happily married and becoming somewhat fragile, he traveled abroad much less frequently, but continued to compose news works at his usual prolific rate. Productivity finally declined in the 1990s and acute illness came around 1996.

In May 1981, Henry Hinrichsen, president of C.F. Peters, approached Hovhaness with a one-off commission for a symphony on the theme of Mount St. Helens, the famous volcano that had erupted in 1980. Hovhaness warmed to the idea and accepted, in the process receiving the first commission fee paid to a composer during Mr. Hinrichsen's 10-year association with Peters. Both the Seattle Symphony and the San Jose Symphony wanted to give the work's premiere, which was eventually decided by the composer on the flip of a coin.

Between 1980 and 1989 Hovhaness penned some 80 works, including almost 20 symphonies. 1986 alone witnessed the creation of six symphonies. Generally much lengthier than earlier symphonies, some commentators have alluded to a musical prolixity in his late symphonies not in evidence in his earlier work. In a 1986 Knoxville Symphony concert program the composer states that he seems "to be getting more prolific with the years, unfortunately for my publishers. My success now is quite a surprise to me: for the first half of my life I was known as the composer who was never performed. I had no luck until I was 41, when Leopold Stokowski, the great conductor, conducted one of my pieces and decided to champion my work".

In 1991 as a tribute to the composer on his 80th birthday, The American Composers Orchestra, in conjunction with the Armenian Apostolic Church of America presented a gala celebration at Carnegie Hall. It featured Pulitzer prize-winning conductor and composer Karel Husa, clarinetist Lawrence Sobol, singer Richie Havens, and Hovhaness himself conducting the first and last works, one of which was the first performance of his Symphony No.65, Op.428, entitled Artstakh. Only two more symphonies would follow, the next year.

In 1994, still composing, he remarked "I don't fear dying because I have so many friends waiting for me on the other side". By 1996 Hovhaness' good health finally began to decline markedly. For the first time in 80 years he was unable to compose. After three years of intensive care, he died in Seattle on June 21, 2000 from a long-term stomach ailment.

On the 23rd of April 2001, a Hovhaness memorial concert was held in Seattle's Benaroya Hall and subsequently repeated in New York. For the first time the concert hall waived its rental fee, and Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz and solo harpist Yolanda Kondanassis volunteered their services. The conductor read out a letter from composer Lou Harrison which declared Hovhaness "one of the great melodists of the 20th century" and "a master to us all". Schwarz, himself a Hovhaness advocate for over 30 years, paid the following tribute when speaking to the Seattle Times: "He was trying to add beauty and sensitivity to the world. He cared deeply about goodness and about nature, and he has had a tremendous impact. I've known Alan since 1963 ... throughout it all, even in the times when his music wasn't so fashionable, he stuck to his thinking and to his distinctive style, which had a passion and also a great reserve. He stood out. Alan was amazing ... he was one of the great composers of our time".



Hovhaness had an aloof demeanor, several associates commenting that he was courteous but distant. Privately he was an avid conversationalist with a sharp wit. He married several times, but found lasting happiness with his sixth wife, for the final 23 years of his life. He disliked teaching, or holding down any long-term responsibility - probably a contributory factor in the breakdown of several marriages. Some of his wives were creative artists (the first a painter, the fifth a pianist). His lifetime preoccupation was his composing, and he thought little else to be of comparable importance. He could be hypersensitive to criticism (much of which indeed resulted from a misunderstanding of his music) but later on the critics bothered him less. He could also lose patience with less capable performers, having worked for years with some of America's top conductors and orchestras.

Hovhaness made an imposing physical presence, being tall with a strongly-featured face and very large hands. In person he was, by all accounts, gentle and polite if ocassionally somewhat aloof. His intellectual prowess was considerable - from a young age he was receptive to art, literature and philosophy, not just music. Later in life, he claimed some mystical experiences had brought him whole musical sections (such as part of Mysterious Mountain and the long theme to Fra Angelico). The mystical and religious preoccupations of many works reflect a pantheistic spiritual outlook (Hovhaness never adhered to any specific religious doctrine) which mirrors exactly the huge diversity of his musical influences - Hovhaness was truly a world citizen.

Hovhaness devoted himself to full-time composition as early as it was financially feasible, around the mid-1950s, even though composers usually established themselves once an academic appointment was secured. Hovhaness could compose in the midst of noise and activity, by just shutting-off the outside world. Music was forever going on in his head; ideas would "persecute" him if he did not write them down. He probably had the condition known as hypergraphia - an overwhelming urge to create on a daily basis. Even in a restaurant he would pull-up a napkin to jot ideas on, and almost all photographs of him show a writing implement or two at-the-ready in his breast pocket. He once spoke of writing fugues "to keep myself occupied" - he may well have written more fugues than any other 20th century composer.

Whereas many composers have flirted with the music of distant cultures merely as a convenient resource for their own idea-bank, Hovhaness incorporated the aesthetics and essence of these idioms into his very musical thinking - creating a homogeneic and truly transcendental music at a time when while most of his peers were entrenched in the citadel of musical 'modernism'. For the most part, his was an accessible, non-elitist Gebrauchsmusik (or functional music), quite capable of transporting the listener from everyday quotidian time to inner or otherworldly contemplation.

"Since his days as an isolated eccentric who performed his exotic music for friends in the Boston area while living on a meager income earned as a church organist, up until today when he is regarded as one of America's most original and widely performed and recorded composers, Hovhaness was guided by a dignity, humility and integrity that enabled him to make use of any available means and opportunity to pursue his own unique and uncompromising vision."

Walter Simmons

Alan Hovhaness around 1980

My purpose is to create music not for snobs, but for all people, music which is beautiful and healing. To attempt what old Chinese painters called 'spirit resonance' in melody and sound.

Alan Hovhaness

Photo courtesy of Mrs Hinako Hovhaness


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