Alan Hovhaness

From Academic Kids

Alan Hovhaness (March 8, 1911June 21, 2000) was an American composer of Armenian and Scottish descent.

He was born as Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville, Massachusetts to Haroutioun Hovanes Chakmakjian, a chemistry professor at Tufts College, and Madeleine Scott. (Upon his mother's death (October 3, 1930), he used the surname "Hovaness" in honor of his paternal grandfather, and officially changed it to "Hovhaness" around 1940.) Alan was interested in music from a very early age, and decided to devote himself to composition at the age of 14. He studied at Tufts and then the New England Conservatory of Music, under Frederick Converse.

He became interested in Armenian culture and music in 1940, as the organist for the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1942 he won a scholarship at Tanglewood to study in Bohuslav Martinu's master class. However, Martinu had a serious fall in the early summer which made it impossible for him to teach. Instead, the composer's seminar at which Hovhaness attended was led by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. While a recording of Hovhaness's first symphony was being played, Copland talked loudly all the way through it, and when the recording finished, Bernstein remarked "I can't stand this cheap ghetto music." Hovhaness was angered and distraught by his experience at Tanglewood, and quit early despite being on scholarship. The next year he devoted himself to Armenian subject matter, in particular using modes distinctive to Armenian music, and continued for several years, achieving some renown and the support of other musicians, including John Cage and Martha Graham, all while continuing as church organist.

Lou Harrison reviewed a 1945 concert which includes his piano concerto Lousadzak:

There is almost nothing occurring most of the time but unison melodies and very lengthy drone basses, which is all very Armenian. It is also very modern indeed in its elegant simplicity and adamant modal integrity, being, in effect, as tight and strong in its way as a twelve-tone work of the Austrian type. There is no harmony either, and the brilliance and excitement of parts of the piano concerto were due entirely to vigor of idea. It really takes a sound musicality to invent a succession of stimulating ideas within the bounds of an unaltered mode and without shifting the home-tone."

However, as before, there were critics:

The serialists were all there. And so were the Americanists, both Aaron Copland's group and Virgil's. And here was something that had come out of Boston that none of us had ever heard of and was completely different from either. There was nearly a riot in the foyer [during intermission] - everybody shouting. A real whoop-dee-doo.
(Miller and Lieberman 1998)

In 1948 he joined the faculty of the Boston Music Conservatory, teaching there for three years, then in 1951 took up composing fulltime. During the 1950s he branched out from Armenian music, adopting styles and material from a wide variety of sources. In 1954 he wrote the score for the Broadway play The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets, and then two scores for NBC documentaries.

His biggest breakthrough to date came in 1955, when his Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain, was commissioned for Leopold Stokowski's debut with the Houston Symphony, and that year MGM Records released recordings of a number of his works.

From 1959 through 1963, Hovhaness conducted a series of research trips to India, Hawaii, Japan, and South Korea, investigating the ancient traditional musics of these nations and eventually integrating elements of these into his own compositions.

He moved to Seattle in 1963, where he lived for the rest of his life.

His music is accessible to the lay listener and often evokes a mood of mystery or contemplation. Boston Globe music critic Richard Buell wrote: "Although he has been stereotyped as a self-consciously Armenian composer (rather as Ernest Bloch is seen as a Jewish composer), his output assimilates the music of many cultures. What may be most American about all of it is the way it turns its materials into a kind of exoticism. The atmosphere is hushed, reverential, mystical, nostalgic."

Significant compositions include:

  • Symphony no. 2 Mysterious Mountain, op. 132 (1955)
  • Symphony no. 4, op. 165 (1957)
  • Symphony no. 5 Nanga Parvat, op. 178 (1959)
  • Symphony no. 9 St. Vartan, op. 180 (1949-50)
  • Symphony no. 15 Silver Pilgrimage, op. 199 (1963)
  • Symphony no. 22 City of Light, op. 236 (1970)
  • Symphony no. 24 Letters in the sand, op. 273 (1973)
  • Symphony no. 50 Mount St. Helens, op. 360 (1982)
  • Fra Angelico, op. 220 (1967)
  • And God created great whales, op. 229 (1970)


  • Gagne, Cole (1993). Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810827107.
  • Harrison, Lou. Alan Hovhaness Offers Original Compositions. New York Herald Tribune, 18 June 1945, p. 11.
  • Howard, Richard (1983). The Works of Alan Hovhaness: A Catalog, Opus 1-Opus 360. Pro Am Music Resources. ISBN 0912483008.
  • Miller, Leta E. and Lieberman, Frederic (1998). Lou Harrison: Composing a World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195110226.

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