Measure by Measure

The Summit Revealed

Alan Hovhaness and his Mysterious Mountain

By Sudip Bose | March 7, 2019
Via Other Minds
Via Other Minds

In 1942, the American composer Alan Hovhaness attended a master class at Tanglewood led by Bohuslav Martinů. In his early 30s at the time, Hovhaness had already written a considerable amount of music, including a symphony that the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed to some acclaim—the conductor of that concert, Leslie Heward, had proclaimed Hovhaness a “young genius.” Martinů’s class, however, was the province of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and other such hungry wolves. One day, a recording of Hovhaness’s symphony was played, eliciting a response that was derisive in the extreme. Copland could barely listen, chatting loudly throughout. Bernstein was even crueler: when the symphony concluded, he went to the piano, played a mocking minor scale, and declared, “I hate this dirty ghetto music.”

Hovhaness fled Martinů’s class, humiliated and chastened. On more than one previous occasion, he had responded to criticism with self-flagellation, destroying hundreds of early manuscripts in total. But he was also convinced about the correctness of his artistic aims. “I propose to create a heroic, monumental style of composition,” he had written, a few years before the Tanglewood debacle,

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.

He stuck to his principles throughout his life, and by the time of his death in the year 2000, he had become one of the most prolific composers of any age, with more than 500 works to his name, including 67 symphonies. His music reveals both an intense spirituality and a reverence for the natural world. He was very much interested in the music of India and Japan, though the most profound influence on his compositions was his patrilineal Armenian heritage. John Cage and Lou Harrison, themselves drawn to nonwestern cultures, championed his music, but Hovhaness’s refusal to go along with the avant-garde currents that defined the 20th century placed him at odds with many tastemakers and critics. To some, he was a visionary mystic, to others a curious anachronism.

One of his admirers was Leopold Stokowski. In 1955, the conductor wanted a new work with which to begin his tenure at the Houston Symphony, and Hovhaness obliged with a symphony. Stokowski was enchanted but for one detail: the work, unlike many of Hovhaness’s pieces, did not bear a descriptive name. As the composer recalled many years later, Stokowski phoned him up and said, “‘I like your titles. Give it a title.’ And so I gave it the title Mysterious Mountain, which I felt was mysterious enough.” This wasn’t Stokowski’s only contribution. Does the piece, he had asked, have an opus number? No, Hovhaness responded—none of his pieces had opus numbers, since he’d never bothered to catalogue his work before. “People like opus numbers,” Stokowski said. The conductor suggested that, in addition to its subtitle, the work be known as the Symphony No. 2, opus 132, knowing that the added grandeur and gloss would win over certain segments of the audience.

Mysterious Mountain was certainly a rarity: a consonant, harmonious, melodic work written in the same year as such ferociously modernist pieces as Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître, Bruno Maderna’s String Quartet, and Iannis Xenakis’s Metastaseis. The Houston premiere turned out to be a great success (for Stokowski and Hovhaness), heard nationwide via an NBC radio broadcast, and the piece was soon taken up by many of the best American orchestras of the mid-20th-century—Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, and Chicago, among them. In 1958, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded the work, and though many versions have followed, few can match Reiner’s in atmosphere, spirituality, power, and depth of feeling.

In 1940, just when he was beginning to probe the depths of Armenian music, Hovhaness served as the organist at the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts. Writing his symphony 15 years later, he must have had the sound of the organ in mind. Listen to the opening, with all the strings, except for the double basses, divided and playing double-stops. The long, quietly uttered phrases consist of chords of at least 16 notes, making for a plush sound that is rich, resonant, deep—organ-like. Every time I hear it, I fall under the spell of this opening hymn, which seems to emerge from some distant time and place. If the music that follows is meant to evoke some hazy, elusive mountain, the steady crescendos suggest a gradual, sumptuous warming of the chilly peak as sunlight falls upon it with increasing intensity. Occasionally, we hear the twinkling of the celesta, and I imagine Hovhaness moving from mountaintop to sky, from day to starry night. At any rate, the celesta is prominent throughout the movement. After the woodwinds play a distinctly Eastern-sounding second subject, the celesta provides tantalizing dissonances that bring out the luxuriance of the consonant progression of chords. Another beautiful dissonance, reminiscent of Shostakovich, occurs in the plangent trumpet melody that follows—a song of loneliness, perhaps, or spiritual longing.

The second movement is made up of two fugues, and the dense contrapuntal writing gives the music an urgent, tempestuous quality, a feeling of unease relieved by the appearance of another sonorous hymn. This double fugue ends with a powerful climax, but the final movement regains the atmosphere of sacred calm, with the strings playing a pentatonic melody heavily redolent of the East. An opulent string chorale comes out of a prayer-like passage—if Anton Bruckner had written a slow movement to be played in an Eastern monastery rather than a Gothic cathedral, it might sound something like this. These passages seem to be the culmination of the composer’s spiritual quest, a journey tinged by moments of melancholy. Consider, for example, the melody played first by the oboe and then taken up by the clarinet and other winds, which evokes sadness, maybe regret, with the celesta providing an unsettling glint throughout. The stately chords build slowly, the sound becoming more luminous, as if clouds were slowly parting from the face of our mountain summit, revealing the bare peak in all its splendor—a wondrous, memorable effect.

Hovhaness said that he did not have any specific mountain in mind while writing this piece but rather “the whole idea of mountains.” For him, mountains were “symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds.” Indeed, to spend time with this symphony, to truly commune with it, is to glimpse something of another world. And yet, despite the popularity of Mysterious Mountain, its composer had conflicted feelings about the work. “I am happy it is popular,” he once wrote, “but I have written much better music and it is a very impersonal work, in which I omit my deeper searching.” That self-assessment might sell the symphony well short, but surely Hovhaness must have been irked that of the many pieces he composed, this was the only one that anyone ever seemed to know. So consider Mysterious Mountain the starting point. Many of Hovhaness’s symphonies—with evocative titles like Arjuna, Vishnu, City of Light, Mount St. Helens, To the Appalachian Mountains, and Hymn to Glacier Peak—are well worth exploring. Despite the reputation he had acquired in some quarters, he was by no means a one-hit wonder.


Listen to Fritz Reiner lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in this debut recording of Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain:

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