Alan Hovhaness Symphonies - Part 5 : Overview of Late Symphonies

Overview & List of Symphonies Symphonies
Symphonies  1530  Symphonies  3145  Symphonies  4667 
 Symphony No.46  To The Green Mountains  Op.347 (1980)

Information to follow

 Symphony Nos. 47 - 49 

Information to follow

 Symphony No.50  Mount St. Helens  Op.360 (1981-82)

Completed on January 24th 1982, Symphony No.50 is the best known of Hovhaness' later symphonies, following a well-received recording on the Delos label with the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. It was commissioned and published by CF Peters, the composer's former publisher during 1958-1972, who perhaps saw in Hovhaness the ideal candidate from whom to commission a symphony about the Mount Saint Helens eruption of May 18, 1980. This program symphony is one of the few works of Hovhaness which commemorates a specific historical event. Two orchestras apparently wanted the first performance, so it was decided on the toss of a coin, with George Cleve and the San Jose Symphony getting the first performance in California on March 2, 1984.

The first of the three movements is "in the form of a prelude and fugue, suggesting the grandeur of the mountain before the destruction". Then comes an evocation of Spirit Lake, before this body of water was forever wiped from the map by the explosion of May 18. Here, plenty of tuned pecussion is called upon to evoke the memory of a "paradise lake, forever lost". Finally, the fiery 'Volcano' movement concludes the symphony. The morning of the eruption is represented by a quiet "dawn hymn" introduction, before the fragile calm is shattered with a violent thump of the drums. Music of violence and destruction is then let loose, involving along the way trombone glissandi, stormy strings and triple canon in 20 voices of winds, brass and strings, followed by percussion". Then the dawn hymn returns in triumph, also undergoing fugal treatment.

The San Jose Mercury described the premiere as a "stunning success" -- particularly gratifying for the composer given his troubles over the work's completion:

"It gave me tremendous trouble for some strange reason and I rewrote it many times and wrote as much as two extra symphonies which I threw out completely -- I guess the subject somewhat scared me."

(from the composer's correspondence dated Febaruary 9, 1982)

 Symphony No.53  Star Dawn  Op.377 (1983)

The two-movement wind band symphony 'Star Dawn' was composed in 1983, and takes its title from a phrase by Dante. Hovhaness must have read Dante at an early age, for the solo clarinet melody in the first movement is taken (note for note) from an unpublished 1933 piano miniature itself entitled 'Star Dawn' -- thus 50 years on the composer must have still had that piece (or its title) in his head, or else accidentally re-discoverd the manuscript.

In this work evoking space travel, bells symbolize the stars, flowing melodies a sense of journey, and chorales symbolize mankind. The first movement describes a journey from Earth, the second mankind's arrival at a distant planet. The first movement contains a noteworthy chromatic vibraphone passage of some length. The work's 'symphonic' credentials, however, are somewhat questionable, with a second movement clocking in at a mere 4 minutes (the first movement is 9 minutes). Indeed, the work was originally cast in three movements, but one was discarded. Notwithstanding this, there is an excellent recording of 'Star Dawn' on Naxos.

 Symphony No.60  To The Appalachian Mountains  Op.429 (1992)

The following is drawn from the composer's comment about "To the Appalachian Mountains":

The music was composed during November and December of 1985. While composing this symphony I studied many Appalachian songs, but did not quote any of the melodies except in the third movement. However, I tried to put myself into the spirit and moods of the Appalachian idioms and culture, the spiritual life, the religious singing from shaped-notes under the oak trees, and the Appalachian ballads and their tales of love and death. I studied the structures of motives and scales in the Appalachian music and tried to create my own melodies within the boundaries of the modes which employ altered major scales and minor pentatonic [black-key] scales.

Symphony No. 60 was commissioned by Martin Marietta Energy Systems, Inc., Kenneth Jarmolow, President, in recognition of "Homecoming '86" -- a celebration of the cultural heritage of the State of Tennessee.

I. Andante is in the spirit of a hymn of faith, sung by horns and trumpets. A majestic processional fugue on the pentatonic scale develops and rises to a powerful climax. The hymn-like spirit returns in a new variation, rising to a festive ending in the full orchestra, with bells ringing.

II. Allegro is a lively fiddle tune in mountain style, developed into a long, dance-like melismatic [embellished] line in the violins over drum rhythms. The middle section, Adagio con molto espressione, sounds the moods of tragic Appalachian ballad style, sung by the English horn, followed by a dramatic passage for brass instruments and full orchestra. The dance tune returns, with a canon in four clashing keys. This resolves into a pentatonic canon in the original key and ends with full orchestra.

III. Adagio. The movement is freely based on a folk song, "Parting Friends." John Gordon McCurry, one of the American composers and publishers of shaped-note music, heard "Parting Friends" sung when he was only eight years old. Since McCurry was born in 1821 this tune dates from 1829 or earlier. My own version of this plaintive tune is sung by a solo oboe, over a free, murmuring pizzicato in the lower strings. I devised this effect in 1944, for my amateur orchestra in Boston. I have given this device the name "spirit murmur." A quasi-vocal fugue forms a brief development section, suggesting heavenly voices, and the movement ends with a return of the solo oboe over the "spirit murmur."

IV. The Finale opens with a pentatonic hymn in seven-four time, played by the full orchestra. A fugal section follows, developing a motive from the hymn. A dance (Allegro) is played by the woodwinds, accompanied by pizzicato strings. The string section then puts forth a canon which has about it the character of mountain dance music. The hymn which opened the Finale returns in a grand climax with wild ringing bells supported by the full orchestra.

 Symphony Nos. 61 - 62 

Information to follow

 Symphony No.63  Loon Lake  Op.411 (1987-88)

Completed on January 11, 1988, this is a single-movement symphony that was commissioned by the New Hampshire Music Festival. It is scored for a modest orchestra (piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, percussionist on timpani and chimes, harp, and strings) and cast in eight sections which are played without pause. Two of these are umeasured or 'senza misura' passages which feature the piccolo playing two different bird calls, those of the mountain thrush and the loon. The 'senza misura' technique is also employed in passages for harp and double-basses. Particularly prominent are the many solo passages given to the woodwinds.

The work was recorded in 2007 for a future release on the Naxos label.

 Symphony No. 66  Hymn to Glacier Peak  Op.428 (1992)

Glacier Peak is a craggy, ice-covered volcano in the Cascade Range, which Alan Hovhaness viewed every clear day through his living room windows. When the Seattle Youth Symphony commissioned a symphony from him, then, a "Hymn to Glacier Peak" (its subtitle), seemed inevitable. Being in Hovhaness's late, simple style, the work is entirely suitable for performance by a youth orchestra.

The first movement begins with a hymn in 7/4, a favorite meter of the composer's. The strings dominate, with trumpet entering to double the hymn melody (as in, say, the conclusion of Honegger's Second Symphony). A trombone enters, briefly adding new material, followed by a short English horn solo, leading to a full orchestral crescendo, after which horn and trumpet lead the strings through a reprise. This is followed by flutes and timpani in a short dance followed by a slower, tense section, all in canon. The hymn returns with the orchestral forces aided by harp. The music is very similar to -- if not quite as memorable as -- much of the music in The Mount St. Helens Symphony.

The second movement is a love song, written in his notes as "to Hinako," his wife. It is a short piece, the bulk of which features oboe and flute singing over pizzicato strings.

The third movement provides the work's grandest music, another of his prelude-fugue-and-hymn efforts. Beginning largo maestoso, the texture recalls the full orchestral moments of the first movement, and the string opening of the second. A quieter section follows, with clarinet solo accompanied by timpani and tremolo strings. With the third section the drama returns, with a somewhat ominous Asian- sounding passage leading to a bumptious fugue. The fugal writing becomes canonic, and the symphony ends with a short triumphal hymn.

The symphony exhibits Hovhaness's equanimity with sectional form. Development occurs, of course, in the spinning out of the first movement's hymn, but, as in the last movement, the transitional passages are not exactly thematically linked -- they are intuitively constructed. We are a long way from Beethoven and Sibelius. The key to the success of the symphony is its commitment to melody and simple orchestral color, not involved motivic interplay or harmonic development.

This commentary by Timothy Virkkala

 Symphony No.67  Hymn To The Mountains  Op.429 (1992)

Information to follow

Back to top of page