Fanfare reviews Alan Hovhaness: Exile Symphony
Back when I was a teenager, I was obsessed with the music of Alan Hovhaness, and was also uninhibited to an extent that is a bit embarrassing in retrospect. During that period, after attending a concert of the New York Philharmonic, I forced my way back to Leonard Bernstein’s dressing room, and asked him whether he ever intended to perform anything by Hovhaness. He replied, “Some of Hovhaness’s music is very, very good, and some is very, very bad.” (Somehow the first half of this quotation found its way into the program notes for the choral disc discussed here.) Well, these two recent releases certainly validate Bernstein’s statement, as, taken together, they offer us both extremes. Perhaps released in connection with the composer’s centenary in 2011, which seemed to prompt little or no acknowledgment from the major musical organizations, both are deluxe packages, with handsomely produced and elaborately annotated program booklets, and offering performances that generally exceed the norm for recordings of this composer’s music with regard to both precision and nuance.
Most standard biographies report that during the early 1940s Hovhaness destroyed “thousands” of works in a giant fire—works that were “on the wrong track” aesthetically, many of them shamelessly influenced by Sibelius. This statement has been proven to be, at best, an exaggeration. Those who have made a systematic study of the composer’s music are aware that (1) much of that early music was reused in later works—sometimes in revised form, and sometimes just as it originally appeared; (2) there is no evidence to substantiate the enormous number of works claimed to have been destroyed; and (3) the influence of Sibelius is greatly exaggerated—even something of a red herring—as traces reminiscent of Sibelius are usually barely apparent, whereas evidence of banal material given shockingly simplistic treatment is readily evident.
And, while we are dealing with Hovhaness mythology, there is an anecdote that first appeared quite late in the composer’s life concerning a traumatic experience that allegedly occurred at Tanglewood during the early 1940s. Repeated in the unsigned notes accompanying the choral disc, the story goes that while a recording of Hovhaness’s “Exile” Symphony was being played, both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein behaved quite disrespectfully, the latter running to the piano and playing “melodic minor scales,” and stating that he hates this “cheap ghetto music.” While I don’t doubt for a minute that Hovhaness’s music may have been subjected to severe criticism at Tanglewood, the anecdote itself strikes me as implausible. Not only would it have been the harmonic minor scale, which contains the interval of an augmented second that appears in so much middle-Eastern music, but why on earth would Leonard Bernstein, a proud Jew whose “Jeremiah” Symphony, written about the same time, used that same interval, be talking about “cheap ghetto music”? I have no information as to the source of this anecdote, but it may have morphed somewhat over the years, perhaps for the purpose of reinforcing a particular point. If anyone reading this can provide authentication for this anecdote, I’d like to see it.
Let me note at this point that in addition to a fine essay on the composer by pianist Sahan Arzruni, the notes to the BMOP release also incorporate the transcript of a 1981 interview with the composer, conducted by Charles Amirkhanian and Dennis Russell Davies. This interview is especially valuable, as it captures aspects of Hovhaness’s personality and manner of expressing himself more vividly and with a revealing accuracy usually missing from the usual sources.
Those interested in hearing the kind of music Hovhaness composed prior to the alleged bonfire have a revealing example in the Song of the Sea , dated 1933, when the composer was 22. Scored for piano with strings, the six-minute piece is purportedly inspired by the Biblical story of the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea. The music is very simply modal, with the piano playing mostly triads in block or arpeggiated figurations. The opening section is reminiscent of Henry Cowell’s early piano piece Tides of Manaunaun . I do not believe that the piece resembles the music of Sibelius in the least.
Also appearing during the pre-bonfire period was the Symphony No. 1, “Exile,” dedicated to the Armenian victims of massacre by the Turks. Those intrigued by the fact that Hovhaness’s list of works includes 67 titled symphonies will no doubt want to hear the one designated No. 1. Here its composition date of 1937 is misleading, as the work went through several subsequent revisions, which entailed the replacement of the original scherzo with an entirely different movement. Assuming that the piece we are hearing retains some of the original 1937 music, one is struck far more by its composer’s familiar fingerprints than by any resemblance to Sibelius. This was Hovhaness’s first major orchestral work to be performed—a broadcast performance by the BBC in 1939. Three years later it was performed by Stokowski and the NBC Symphony—the first performance by a major American orchestra of a work by the composer. From this relatively early date, the symphony clearly reflects a predilection for melodies and arabesques redolent of Middle Eastern-flavored modes; the work also exhibits the remarkably simplistic, repetitious treatment of materials characteristic of his earlier music. In his notes, Arzruni states, “His art is simple, not simplistic.” This, I’m afraid, is a subject for debate, and would require a clearly defined distinction between those two concepts. However, there can be little debate about the quality of this performance. Of the several available recorded performances, this is clearly the most polished.
During the early 1940s, dissatisfied with the direction his work was taking, and influenced by a number of mentors outside the world of music, Hovhaness decided to turn to his Armenian roots as the source of a deeper and more individual creative voice, somewhat analogous to Ernest Bloch’s decision to capture “the Jewish soul” in his music. Among his first efforts in this vein were three pieces titled Armenian Rhapsodies . The composer was always at pains to point out that these three were his only pieces to incorporate actual Armenian melodic material, taken from songs, dances, and liturgical chants. Though these fledgling efforts were soon surpassed by more elaborate compositions based on original, though Armenian-related, material, these three rhapsodies display a sense of atmosphere and a fresh approach to modal polyphony that was not present in his earlier work. Again superseding previous recorded performances, the three Armenian Rhapsodies are the most rewarding pieces on this disc. However, the producer wisely decided to disperse them in alternation with other works on the program, rather than present them in succession, as they are very similar to each other.
Several additional phases of Hovhaness’s stylistic evolution took place over the following years, during which he expanded his interests to include early Christian polyphony, followed by aspects of the music of India, then of Japan, and then of Korea, all of which were incorporated into his language. Then, from the early 1970s until the early 1990s, when he essentially stopped composing, he entered a final phase, which has been called “neoromantic” by some, but “primitive” by me. These works, extremely simple in texture and structure, and often very slow in tempo and long in duration, retain the longstanding fondness for Middle Eastern-inflected melody and triadic harmony, but incorporate a highly idiosyncratic form of chromaticism as well, with generous use of half-diminished-seventh chords used in an unorthodox, nonfunctional manner. Many commentators have speculated that this final phase represents a return to his pre-Armenian style. I do not share that view, as I find distinct differences between the works from these two corners of his compositional career.
Hovhaness’s Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings was composed in 1980. As enthusiasts are well aware, the works that Hovhaness called “symphonies” have nothing in common with the formal symphonies of, say, Brahms, except that they are relatively long works for orchestra. Similarly, the works that he called “concertos” have nothing in common with the Romantic virtuoso vehicle other than their featuring a solo instrument along with an ensemble—and even that isn’t always the case! This 17-minute work in three movements is generally representative of the kind of music he was composing at the time, with one major exception. The first movement begins in a triadic, hymnlike vein. When the saxophone enters, the harmony becomes chromatic, with the strange, half-diminished-seventh chords, while the melody is still largely diatonic. This is followed by a vigorous fugato in the strings. The second movement is truly unlike anything I have ever heard by this composer. It begins with something like a waltz, exceedingly lightweight in character, almost suggesting popular music of the early 20th century. (Someone like Paul A. Snook, more conversant with this genre, could probably characterize it more precisely.) A Trio section follows, now along the lines of a diatonic jig in a major key, while maintaining the light-classical flavor. Unlike the standard scherzo, the waltz idea does not return. In its utter insipidity, the movement would be downright revolting, if it weren’t so bizarre and out-of-character for the composer, which makes it a notable curiosity. The third movement returns to the hymnlike tone of the opening, after which the saxophone enters with a simple, diatonic, major-key melody, accompanied by quarter-note pizzicati in a manner suggesting Satie. There is a polyphonic interlude for the strings, followed by an incantation by the saxophone, accompanied by more quarter-note pizzicati. The piece concludes strangely, in a manner that can almost be called flippant.
Throughout his composing career Hovhaness composed short choral anthems on sacred texts. These have been among his most consistently popular and widely performed compositions, and are mainstays of many church choirs. They generally combine relatively simple Renaissance-style polyphony with cantorial melodic lines inflected by Middle Eastern modes. As many of them are quite lovely and inspirational in effect, I have often wondered why, what with the plethora of Hovhaness recordings that have appeared over the years, little attention has been turned toward this aspect of his output. Now the widely admired choir Gloriae Dei Cantores under Elizabeth C. Patterson has addressed this neglect with a selection of such compositions. Most are accompanied by organ only; others call for small instrumental ensembles. As with the BMOP release, I would like to have had a hand in the programming decisions, as the selections seem to have been chosen with no effort to separate the wheat from the chaff. Now I suppose some may object, asserting that one man’s chaff is another’s wheat. I’m not so sure, but am willing to let consumers decide for themselves. Again Bernstein’s words reverberate: Some of these pieces are extraordinarily moving, such as the Ave Maria from the lovely motet triptych, The God of Glory Thundereth, From the End of the Earth, Unto Thee, O God , and Why Hast Thou Cast Us Off. (This is not especially coincidental, as all were composed during the 1950s, generally acknowledged to be the composer’s strongest period.) On the other hand, some are banal in the extreme, such as the Simple Mass , composed in 1975 according to the principles enunciated by Pope John XXIII. And many are just routine, and could have been penned by any number of composers.
The performances are carefully shaped, with much attention to intonation, balance, and nuances of phrasing. The disc is a worthy contribution to the Hovhaness discography, but one rues the missed opportunity of a chorus of this stature focusing its attention on the composer’s most inspired works within this genre.