Alan Hovhaness Symphonies - Part 3 : Overview of Symphonies 15—30

Overview & List of Symphonies Symphonies
Symphonies  15–30  Symphonies  31–45  Symphonies  46–67 
 Symphony No.15  Silver Pilgrimage  Op.199 (1962)

This highly exotic, yet very accessible work takes its name from the novel Silver Pilgrimage by Justice M. Anantanarayanan, an account of a pilgrimage by a young Indian prince from Lanka, Ceylon, to Kafhi, Banaras. Its four movements span about 20 minutes and were composed while Hovhaness was in Japan researching under a Rockefeller Grant, though the music itself is Indian-flavoured. The work was premiered at the Festival of Music and Art by the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra under George Barite, presumably as a result of Hovhaness's six-month period as Composer in Residence at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii in 1962. Reviewing the première in the Honolulu Advertiser, Richard F. Smith acknowledged the work's aloofness from contemporary musical trends thus:

"a work of timeless beauty, it towered over the rest of the program like a banyan tree in a field of alien corn...Hovhaness has long explored the subtle and highly cultivated music of India and Asia Minor. But more important, he has absorbed some of the unique attitudes that gave rise to it."

Shortly afterwards, March 28th 1963, Leopold Stokowski gave the US premiere in New York, conducting the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Reviewer Miles Kastendieck wrote:

"Conspicuous on the program was Hovhaness's Symphony other American composer gets quite the effects or creates the kind of musical atmosphere that he does...this music communicates and leaves a listener pleased with what he has heard."

Writing in the New Yorker Winthrop Sargeant noted Hovhaness's uncompromising individuality:

"Mr. Hovhaness has always seemed to me an original - that is, a composer who owes nothing to any school or fashion but has devoted his life to the development of a highly personal style. ... I found the symphony evocative in a mysterious sort of way. Certainly it is music of great sincerity."

The work's first movement, Mount Ravana, is ominous and in three short sections. A quintuplet timpani flourish is played every 19 beats throughout themovement. In the outer sections the strings provide a mysterious backdrop through judicious use of double basses (repeated 43 quarter-note pizzicato cycle), cellos (continuous G, A flat, B flat, C chord cluster), first violins (ascending and descending pizzicato scalic writing) and second violins (ad libitum pizzicato chattering, using only G, A Flat and B flat). Against this backdrop the violas have the lyrical melody. There is a brief respite in the short central section, as horn and woodwind clusters and flute flourishes (perhaps bird calls or lightning) are heard above an insistent harp ostinato. This 7/4 movement is described by Hovhaness as "using only 7 tones: G, Ab, Bb, C, D#, E, F# - exploring these tones in linear and vertical permutations".

In the next movement Marava Princess, the most overtly Indian, just six tones are used (E, F, G#, A, C#, D#). The movement is lyrical and suggests feminine grace. A canonic section is followed by a lively dance with prominent timpani.

Hovhaness's description of the third movement is as follows: "River of Meditation suggests the spirit of religious meditation of a sage by a river. Out of only 7 tones (C, Db, E, F, Gb, Ab, Bb) come suggestions of bells, linear music in 7 meter and 5 meter, and a long flute line in no meter played very freely over free rhythmless sounds." The long flute solo referred to is scored without bar lines and marked to be played "very fanciful in spirit". It is somewhat hypnotic, full of semitone glissandi, heightening the mysteriousness created by the buzzing pizzicato strings beneath.

Heroic Gates of Peace is markedly more Western than the preceding three movements. Hovhaness writes: "the fourth movement suggests the spirit of the peaceful reign of wisdom wherein harmony is achieved between heaven and earth. Principles suggesting 'Gagaku' in the spirit of the T'ang Dynasty, Renaissance counterpoint, and long melodic line are combined in a universal world hymn".

Symphony No.15 was one of three Hovhaness recordings made by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra under Robert Whitney, for the Louisville First Edition series of LPs in the 1960s. These recordings will be relased on CD this Summer/Fall – see the discography page. In September 2001 a new, but inferior, CD recording was released by Koch Classics. This new CD also contains the only available recordings of two orchestral pieces, Vision From High Rock and Mountain of Prophecy, so is certainly worth acquiring.

Recordings available: First Edition, Koch (poorer performance).

 Symphony No.16  Kayagum  Op.202 (1962)

Hovhaness's Rockefeller Grant enabled him to study in Korea as well as Japan in 1962. This 16-minute work is in 5 movements and scored for strings, 2 percussion, harp, timpani and 6 Korean instruments. The Korean instruments are the kayagum (a 12-stringed zither with pentatonic tuning, not dissimilar to the Japanese koto), janggo (rod drum with 2 sticks), zwago (hanging drum), and 3 pyunjong (bronze bells). Although there is no commercially available recording of this work, it appeared in limited edition on the composer's first Poseidon Society disc in 1963. No performance details were given, but the recording of this work is almost certainly of Hovhaness conducting the premiere, and perhaps only, performance in Seoul, South Korea in 1962 (see photograph). The performance was recorded for broadcast by South Korean radio (notice the suspended microphones).

Newspaper photo showing Hovhaness conducting his Symphony No.16 in Seoul, 1962. The kayagum soloist is seated in front of the first violins.

The composer's sleeve notes state: "This symphony is inspired by the beauty of Korean mountains, the sublimity of Korean traditional music, the wisdom and nobility of Korean people. The painting in the Korean National Museum "Mountains and Rivers Without End", painted by Lee Sang-chua, inspired the textures of sounds. The beuatiful Kayageum playing of Hwang Byong-ki, and splendid musicians of other traditional Korean insutrments inspired the wish to work with the microtones of wonderfully flexible and noble-voiced Korean instruments."

Recording: 1963 Poseidon LP of the Seoul premiere (hard-to-obtain, non-commercial pressing).

 Symphony No.17  Symphony for Metal Orchestra  Op.203 (1963)

Hovhaness's ability to write functional music befitting specific occasions (known as Gebrauchmusik) is nowhere more apparent than in Symphony No.17. Symphony for Metal Orchestra was commissioned for performance at a metallurgical convention and is appropriately scored for metallic instruments only, in the unique combination of 6 flutes, 3 trombones & metallic percussion (5 players). Its four movements span 23 minutes. The year prior to this symphony's composition, Hovhaness had studied Gagaku music in Japan and Korea, which he described as "the earliest orchestral music we know, it came from China and Korea in the 700s". Here, the spirit of this early music is suggested by the trombones playing with tuned percussion. However, the most striking sonorities Hovhaness achieves with this ensemble are probably the dense flute clusters, where the 6 flutes function effectively as one instrument for much of the time. Here they are cleverly imitating the sound of the Sho, a sort of Japanese mouth organ, which Hovhaness had learned to play in 1962 when studying with native musicians.

The work contains many canons at the unison, a Hovhaness trademark of the 1960s. Primarily because of the scoring, the overall mood of the work is dark and foreboding.

Excellent recording available: Koch Classics, with other Hovhaness works

 Symphony No.18  Circe  Op.204 (1963)

Originally a ballet score for the Martha Graham Dance Company, the music was first heard at The Prince of Wales Theatre, in London on September 6, 1963. The plot was also by Graham and based upon the myth of Ulysses' encounter with the sorceress Circe. The dance explores "the jungle of man's unconscious." Accompanied by his helmsmen, the hero Ulysses meets the sorceress Circe who turns his companions into beasts (snake, lion, deer and goat) and uses magical powers to seduce him. Perhaps the best clue to the music lies with the premiere's programme notes: "the world Ulysses sees, in Martha Graham's adaptation of the myth of Circe, is his own: that inner world of bestialities and enchantments where one discovers what it costs to choose to be human". Thus the music is episodic, rather than symphonic, and it's not known why Hovhaness made a reworked 'symphony' from the ballet (though he did the same when he made 'Ardent Song' into Symphony No.13

Both ballet and symphony are about 20 minutes long. The Symphony is a slight re-scoring of the ballet, with a larger wind section, 2 percussionists (instead of 1) and an additional celesta. There is no commercially available recording of this work. A rare revival of the work took place by the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York during April 2004.

 Symphony No.19  Vishnu  Op.217 (1966)

The Vishnu Symphony is one of the most original orchestral works of the 20th century, and deserves to be widely known. Right from the unsettling low-brass growlings of the very opening, it is clear that this is a work of astonishing invention. It is certainly his boldest work with regard to exploring the limitless sonorities afforded by his 'senza misura' aleatoric technique, which had come a very long way from the hushed pizzicato murmurings of 1944's Lousadzak. Yet the composer's facility with what he called 'controlled chaos' allows it to sound completely at home in this adorational hymn to the universe, where its purpose is to portray mystery, magnitude and cosmic energy. The aspect of the Hindu god Vishnu with which this tone poem is principally concerned is related to his most ancient character as a solar god, depicting him as "protector and preserver of the life of the spheres in their endless rotations and spiral motions". From the composer's own description, it is clearly a very ambitious work:

"In Symphony Vishnu I continue to explore my invention of 'spirit sounds' or 'controlled chaos' first introduced in Lousadzak which I composed in 1944. In Vishnu I develop whirling waves of sounds to their apex of elaboration. 'Controlled chaos' is achieved by precise and exact written notes of irregular and varying patterns, played simultaneously at variable speeds. Sometimes the sounds are delicate and mysterious. At other times bells, trombones and trumpets reach climaxes of wild, free sounds circling like orbits of fire".

"Vishnu symbolizes the creative forces of the galaxies. The symphony suggests the concept of the circulation of divine energies throughout the universes. Wild but controlled chaos bursts out in brass and percussion in free, rhythmless passages, followed by bells. This might symbolize the explosions which take place in the central core of giant galaxies of stars when millions of suns explode simultaneously, throwing out new universes of stars and planetary systems."

Alan Hovhaness, Poseidon Society disc annotation

Originally conceived as a cosmic tone poem entitled To Vishnu, the work is in one continuous movement cast as "an unfolding giant melody of adoration to the immensity and sublimity of limitless stellar universes". The giant melodic line is "non-harmonic, [but] unisonal or soloistic, with bells, drums and drones". The different sections of adorational melody ("hymns and love songs to nature, plants, forests, waters, mountains, planets, suns and galaxies") are preceded and punctuated by "clouds or mists of sounds". The clouds in question are "volcanic clouds, storm clouds, celestial clouds, nebula clouds, star clouds". All instruments are involved in the cloud music at various times. Since each 'controlled chaos' cloud is written using the notes of a distinct scale or mode, what we hear is a carefully calculated modal cluster, and thus we never descend into anarchic atonality or chance music. As always, Hovhaness chooses his instrumental groupings and their motifs carefully, such that detail can be heard through the surface haze.

The work was composed partly in Lucerne Switzerland in July and August 1966 and partly while Hovhaness was composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra the same year. Many Hovhaness traits of the 1960s can be found in this work. Long sections are drone-like whilst huge melodies unfold, and the listener in a hurry may tire of these harmonically and texturally static sections. There are frequent sudden shifts between instrumental groups, e.g. high strings with tuned percussion often cut-off brass and timpani. One recurring trait in this work is the tension between major and minor thirds, expressed both melodically and harmonically. Even in the texturally sparse melodic sections of the work, Hovhaness achieves highly original sonorities. Much of the work is in 7 meter, and the phonetic 'Al-an Hov-ha-ness' rhythm, three quarter notes (crotchets) plus two half-notes (minims) features prominently in a march-like section, later used on the Carl Sagan television series 'Cosmos'. The last third of the symphony is quiet and subdued, and the composer has compared the work's overall structure to the classical Japanese three-part form or 'Jo-ha-kyu', likening Vishnu to "Cosmic adoration, cosmic processional-dance, cosmic death and glorification".

"This may be Hovhaness's greatest work. It is surely his most thoroughgoing use of aleatoric quasi-improvisation in senza misura ... one of the great one-movement symphonies. An impressive statement, impossible to take lightly."

Timothy Virkkala, writer and editor

Unfortunately, this work almost achieved a 'cosmic death' at its premiere on June 2, 1967, which was also broadcast. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 1967 Promenade season at Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall, the conductor and Hovhaness 'champion' André Kostelanetz savagely cut sections out, and reordered the remaining ones. Instead of 30 minutes, the 'premiere' had lasted a mere 11. Feeling it was one of his best works, the composer was naturally very disappointed. Thankfully, he conducted a full recording of it for his own Poseidon Society record label in the early 1970s (now available as a CD through Crystal).

Recording available: Crystal, conducted by the composer

 Symphony No.20  Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain  Op.223 (1968)

Information to follow.

 Symphony No.21  Etchmiadzin  Op.234 (1968)

Although coming at the end of his Oriental period, this work addresses Armenian subject matter. Hovhaness described this work as a religious symphony, since Etchmiadzin "is the religious capital of Armenia". It was commissioned to honour His Holiness Vaskan I Catholicos of all Armenians, yet because of the modes employed, sounds just as much Indian to Western ears.

The work is in three movements, and is solemn in nature throughout. The first movement is a religious ceremonial, the second a stately dance entitled Pavana. The third movement begins with a musical "outline" of Mount Ararat, leading into a solemn processional. The movement's third section portrays the heroism of the priests of Etchmiadzin, who stubbornly remained in their churches during wartime to ring out the bells, thus giving the army "strength to defeat the enemy invaders".

Recording available: Crystal, togather with other works conducted by the composer

 Symphony No.22  City Of Light  Op.236 (1970)

This work was commissioned by the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in the year of Birmingham, Alabama's, centennial. A former conductor of that orchestra was the father of Hovhaness's wife at the time. The city of the title is, the composer explained, not Birmingham: "I was thinking of a miliion lights, an imaginary city..."

The shimmering first movement is majestic, and serene, while the following "Angel of Light" recalls a childhood experience. The third movement scherzo utilises a dance medlody from the composer's childhood opera Lotus blossom. The finale is a 'hymn of praise'.

Recording available: Delos (conducted by Hovhaness, coupled with Symphony No.50 'Mount St. Helens')

 Symphony No.23  Ani  Op.249 (1972)

In Ani Hovhaness pays homage to the capital city of old Armenia, once known as the "city of one thousand and one churches". In its heyday, Ani was one of the most populated cities on Earth. Today it is a ghost city in ruins, lying just within modern Turkey's border.

This three-movement work is quite substantial, lasting some 38 minutes. It is scored for large band with antiphonal brass choir II ad lib, and was composed between 1st and 18th January 1972 for the Smithtown Central High School Symphonic Band and its conductor Lawrence Sobol, who commissioned the work.

The composer conducted this work for his Poseidon record label. His characteristic sleeve notes focus on time signatures and only general remarks:

The first movement, Adagio, begins and ends in seven meter. The music suggests the spirit of a mighty cathedral. One hears, however, bells, sounds like many birds, and roaring sounds of nature, followed by a fugue and a majestic close.

The second movement, Allegro Grazioso, is a humoresque, beginning and ending in seven meter. There are gamelan sounds (an orchestra of bells), the a trio, or middle section, in thirteen meter, followed by bird-like music.

The third movement, Adagio, is an elegiac song, gradually becoming powerful, defiant, and finally rejoicing in a victorious fugue. The Symphony ends with tumultuous bells.

At almost 40 minutes long, Ani is the second-longest symphony Hovhaness had composed up to that time. The first movement features a notable and arresting 'senza misura' passage featuring heavy brass "controlled chaos" but much of the music otherwise consists of solemn and extended hymn-like sections. Overall, however, because of the work's connotations with the ancient city of Ani the mood is reverential and restrained. In 1989, as part of the millennial celebrations of the great cathedral of Ani, Hovhaness was invited to conduct the specially-assembled 'Ani Symphony Long Island Wind Orchestra' (Lawrence Sobol, Musical Director) in a performance of this work.

Recordings available: Crystal (cond. Alan Hovhaness), and Naxos (cond. Keith Brion)

 Symphony No.24  Majnun  Op.273 (1973)

This is a 45-minute work in two main sections, scored for tenor, trumpet, choir and strings. It was commissioned by the International Center for Arid and Semi-arid Land Studies for Focus on the Arts Series at Texas Tech Univeristy in Lubbock, Texas

The music comprises a series of numbers for different groupings of the ensemble, with a libretto based on the famous love story Majnun and Layla of Persia and the Near East; as such, it is perhaps more a cantata than a symphony. Each half of the work opens with arresting pizzicato senza misurawriting, whereas all other music is more conventional. A section entitled The Celestial Beloved as well as the very opening of the work, feature solos for violin. Technically, the work is undemanding, for the most part moving along in quarter, half and whole notes, either hymnally or fugally.

The musical narrative is outlined by the composer as follows: 

With its mystical or Sufi overtones, the love story embraces earthly love to Divine Love. Majnun, exiled from his beloved, wanders in the desert and, surrounded by jackals, writes her name in the sand. As he writes, his soul in trance approaches his beloved and Divine Beloved. The symphony is scored for tenor solo, mixed chorus SATB, solo trumpet, solo violin, and string orchestra. the trumpet sounds the impassioned note of Majnun's love for Layla, the distant beloved. The solo violin sounds the note of Layla and the visionary, or Angelic Beloved.

The composer conducted the premiere, in Lubbock, Texas, on January 25th, 1974. He later recorded it in London, England for his Poseidon Society series of recordings.

Recording available: Crystal (Poseidon Society recording conducted by Hovhaness)

 Symphony No.25  Odysseus  Op.275 (1973)

The Odysseus Symphony was completed in November 1973 and premiered under the composer's direction in London, England. The work is more a symphonic poem than symphony, and (as with parts of symphonies 23 and 24) display an increasing tendency for Hovhaness to write extended sections of music which proceed at a more leisurely pace than before. This latter tendency, combined with the work's neo-Romantic chromaticism was proved somewhat displeasing for one critic at the work's London premiere: 

"... [the Odysseus Symphony's] descriptive tale and one-movement form evoked memories of Lisztian tone-poems rather than anything symphonic, except of course, that Liszt was an intrepid explorer. Hovhaness was more like a wanderer who had spent half a century in total isolation, unaware that music had moved on since people like Bax were writing Celtic rhapsodies. There were magic spells, there was love and longing, there were storms. There was even a "triumphal homecoming followed by a spiritual homecoming". But it was all too late."

Joan Chissell, The Times (London) 11th April 1974

The work is not a literal retelling of Homer's Odyssey, but rather evokes the trials of Odysseus as he returns to his beloved Penelope. The composer has referred to "canonic passages for violins" as Penelope weaving her magic web, and "love songs" as Odysseus returns to her. There is also stormy music evoking the "tempest-tossed Odysseus" and an effective bachannale section.

Odysseus is a good example of how Hovhaness's harmonic palette had again evolved by the early 1970s. Here there are sections whose string writing recalls the sensual chromaticisms of Wagner and the late Romantics, a long way from the virtual harmonic stasis of Hovhaness's overtly Oriental works of the mid-to-late 1960s. The music is continuous, scored for small orchestra (with woodwind and brass confined to one of each instrument) and lasts around 35 minutes. In 1974 the composer conducted a fine recording of this work in London for his Poseidon Society label, and it was licensed in England to the Unicorn label.

Recording: Crystal (cond. Hovhaness)

 Symphony No.26   Op.280 (1975)

Information to follow.

 Symphony No.27   Op.285 (1976)

This 6-movement work lasts around 35 minutes and has a devotional spirit with extended vocal-style melodies, based loosely on Armenian modes, and ends in a majestic finale.

This work was premiered along with Symphony No.28 on April 23, 1977 at Los Angeles' Armenian Symphonic Music Association's Commemorative Concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center. The concert culminated that year's Armenian Martyr's Day observances and around 3,000 people attended. The concert was dedicated to the memory of one and a half million victims of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915–23, as well as to victims of all races who have suffered man's inhumanity to man.

Hovhaness conducted the work, which was commissioned by the Armenian Symphonic Music Association.

 Symphony No.28   Op.286 (1976)

Symphony No.28 had its world premiere after Symphony No.27's, performed by the Armenian Symphonic Music Association Symphony Orchestra, a specially put-together ensemble comprising mainly musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was labeled a "love symphony" and at this time Hovhaness had recently met his soon-to-be new wife). The work uses solo wind instruments extensively, creating a religious canvas as a backdrop.

This 25-minute symphony is in five movements, the second actually a much earlier work entitled Kohar, which dates from 1946, when Hovhaness was in his Armenian period.

When the work was performed by the Seattle Youth Symphony in the early 1980s, Hovhaness told the orchestra: "This symphony I'm dedicating to my grandmother, who died a long time ago – my Armenian grandmother. And she went through the massacres and apparently carried a picture of me, when I was first born, through that, successfully, so I owe her something."

 Symphony No.29   Op.289 (1976)

Information to follow.

 Symphony No.30   Op.293 (1976)

Information to follow.

Back to top of page