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It may seem strange to begin the formal musical analysis of a symphony by describing my own feelings about its creator, but the 20th century American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is an exceptional case. My relationship to his music is an extremely personal one. I must first admit I am not generally fond of that the art usually lumped into the same category as Hovhaness’s music. I confess a little snobbery when it comes to ‘new-age’ spirituality and many kinds of musical fusion. While I am consistently interested in the various traditional musics of the world that I encounter in their pure forms, I am no “world music” buff. In general, I prefer sophisticated musical art, and though I believe that the subconscious is one of the most important factors in musical composition, I am also interested in well thought out motivic development, gritty drama, and the study of complex musical forms. In other words, I like the model of Alban Berg.

Alan Hovhaness was primarily concerned with none of these things. He composed quickly and prolifically like the masters of old, and wrote on instinct. This is not to disparage his technical skill as a composer: when he had the mind to, Hovhaness could put together very tightly wound works. He was a well trained and brilliant contrapuntal craftsman, as is evidenced by some early student pieces such as the String Quartet No. 1 ‘Jupiter’ (1936) and the Sonata Ricercare (1935). Hovhaness continued to toss off fugues with ease throughout his life. He also wrote many expressive and memorable melodies, surely the purest sign of musical genius and the most exposed form of composition. He even worked in a colorful twelve-tone row once in a while. In many works, however, a single modal line of improvisatory nature is sufficient for him. In other cases entire pieces contain only a metrically straightforward melody with simple harmonic accompaniment. Why then, is this music so special?

There are some tangible musical reasons that this body of work stands out. Hovhaness assimilated various musical traditions outside of the West with unparalleled ease and authenticity. He consistently used the techniques of Armenian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean musics in a natural, unpretentious way. These influences never clash with the preexisting elements of his compositional language, and the sincerity of musical expression does not waver. A good counterexample is Henry Cowell, another East-West fusion pioneer and rough contemporary of Hovhaness’s. Cowell’s musical experiments in synthesizing various world musics into his own compositions, such as Persian Set and Ongaku, were one time affairs that sound forced and sterile when compared to any number of Hovhaness’s works influenced by Eastern music. In Cowell, it seems as if he were simply putting on another compositional ‘mask’ for these works. There seems to be no individual stamp on the music, only the aping of a foreign style. Hovhaness never ceases to sound like Hovhaness, always remaining clearly himself. His indefatigable artistic personality was a truly international one, and his innate musicality never failed to serve him in all that he attempted. English Hovhaness researcher Marco Shirodkar writes beautifully about this. “Of course, many 20th century composers flirted with such exotica, but in Hovhaness they find perhaps the most seamless alchemy of all because it was more than mere flirtation. It was a musical engagement on an aesthetic as well as technical level.”

Hovhaness was also a pioneer of aleatoric techniques, although he never receives any credit for this in academia. In his 1944 concerto for piano and strings ‘Lousadzak’ Op. 48, he first employed short, repeated, senza misura passages in pizzicato strings to create a reliably beautiful bed of modal sound on top of which the soloist could play freely. By the time he composed the ‘Vishnu’ Symphony in 1966, Hovhaness had fleshed out this technique to occupy much of the musical foreground. In the composer’s own words, “In Vishnu I develop whirling waves of sound to their apex of elaboration.” For Hovhaness, however, aleatoricism never became the overriding philosophy it did for his one-time friend John Cage, but remained simply another element on which he could draw in his already rich musical toolbox.

Another distinctive element of Hovhaness’s work is the way in which he treats forms. His large-scale works are often a collection of miniatures that work together in a more or less organized way. Different sections are recognizably cordoned off from one another. This lends the music a unique directness. Aria, hymn, fugue, dance, etc. sections are most often distinct and recognizable in a very individual manner. The music never "doesn't know what it's doing" - it sings, it prays, it dances innocently and without regret. So much abstractly conceived music of less than stellar quality suffers from the loss of these simple musical meanings and falls flat; Hovhaness’ music never does. In this way, paradoxically, his adherence to the conventions of musical affect is one of his most individual aspects.

Despite all of these attractive qualities in the music, I think my own love for it is rooted in something less tangible: Hovhaness was an artist of ultimate innocence and uncompromising honesty. There was something almost child-like about his persona as both a man and a musician. He was always true to his own natural musical voice. Hovhaness, in Jean Walkinshaw’s 1983 documentary, sits down at the piano for a few moments to play a short, unnamed piece he composed when he was “8 or 9 years-old”. Already in this tiny melody with chordal accompaniment, the distinct modal flavor of his music is perceptible. The core of his musical soul was present all along, and he never veered away from it. Nor was Hovhaness shy about his lofty aesthetic goals:

"I propose to create an heroic, monumental style of composition 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 become virile to express big things. It is not my purpose to supply a few pseudo intellectual musicians and critics with more food for brilliant argumentation, but rather to inspire all mankind with new heroism and spiritual nobility. This may appear to be sentimental and impossible to some, but it must be remembered that Palestrina, Handel, and Beethoven would not consider it either sentimental or impossible. …" Whatever the reason I was originally drawn to Hovhaness, ever since I immersed myself in his work during my high school days, my admiration for it has been unwavering. It keeps me grounded in a time of musical uncertainties. The art of Alan Hovhaness is a fascinating world in which musical traditions collide; yet it is also a coherent world, where melody, harmony, and expressive directness still reign. All this is contained in the genius of a warm and profoundly singular musical imagination and presented with unmistakable stylistic consistency.


Hovhaness’s nineteenth symphony Op. 217, subtitled ‘Vishnu’, is a good representation of the composer at his most inventive. Hovhaness undertook the composition of Vishnu throughout 1966 and it was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Andrč Kostelanetz on June 2, 1967 at Lincoln Center. While there was a commission involved, it seems Hovhaness had probably already conceived the work to his own specifications. As Shirodkar has documented, the results were musically disastrous. Kostelanetz rather cavalierly cut Vishnu down from half an hour to 11 minutes at the premiere, presumably because it did not conform to whatever preexisting programming needs the orchestra had. Hovhaness later recorded the complete symphony at his own expense.

While Hovhaness himself was clear that the programmatic titles of many of his works were given only after the composition was complete, this did not stop him from describing in detail this particular piece’s affiliation with its namesake, the Indian god of the universe. An ardent enthusiast of astronomy, Hovhaness explicitly forged a connection between this symphony and the cosmic world in his liner notes for the recording.

“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.” It is appropriate then that Carl Sagan, famed astronomer and public advocate of science, chose sections from Vishnu to accompany his highly acclaimed 1980’s TV series Cosmos. Whatever extra-musical content this symphony might have, nevertheless, it stands completely on its musical merit, and that is how Hovhaness would have wanted it approached.

Vishnu is scored for a large orchestra including triple winds, up to six percussionists, 2 harps, and celesta. Hovhaness employs lush orchestral coloring throughout the work, and is also fond of using instrumental families as a unified soloistic group - one advantage of such a large orchestration. In the Vishnu symphony, there are three very distinct textures of which most of the work is comprised. None of them is new to Hovhaness’ language, but they are used here with remarkable consistency.

The first, and most striking is the previously mentioned aleatoric writing. Hovhaness’s free-rhythm experiments now include wailing horns, brutal trumpet fanfares, and blazing masses of bell sounds. These passages can be either the center of attention or provide background, often in the harps and celesta, for other melodic material. Their pitch content ranges from completely modally diatonic, to polytonal, to 12-note cluster. When this technique is used as the musical foreground, players repeat their figure over and over again for a specified length of time (usually 10-25 seconds), swelling from ppp to fff and back down. The clouds of sound then move on to a new color.

A kind of unmeasured canon is also often employed. Three or four instruments play the same long melody without bar lines one after another in staggered entrances. The approximate harmonies that result are facilitated by the modal consistency of the melodic writing. Hovhaness often scores this sort of passage for one instrumental family. For example, the solo group might consist of three flutes, three trumpets, or three solo violins. At other times, mixed woodwinds are used. A background of sustained strings or murmuring harps and celesta is always present to fill out these sections. The final main textural element in Vishnu is long unison melody played in strict rhythm. These areas make a marked contrast to the metrically free sections of the work. While they vary widely in scoring and character, they all share a non-harmonic setting, are played over drones, and are accompanied by some sort of percussive coloration.

Needless to say a symphony made up of music of this kind does not, like the majority of Hovhaness’s symphonic output, resemble a traditional Austro-German symphony in the slightest. To write an interesting composition lasting half an hour using only these elements is an accomplishment in itself. To fully appreciate the musical content of this symphony is not easy: one must be prepared to listen sensitively and completely melodically. To follow the subtle dialogue of small but definite changes in the way these textures are employed as the work progresses is not a task for the wandering mind or ear. The form of Vishnu is entirely continuous, rarely looking back at old material explicitly. The senza misura passages and free canonic sections are organized around five main melodic movements, each of which is completely modally consistent within itself and serves as a stable “island” among the other more improvisatory parts of the symphony. The main tonal center of the piece is clearly F, where it begins and ends, and the five main melodic “islands” are centered on F, A, D, F, and F again.

Vishnu begins in chaos with dark, growling repeated figures in the low brass. Clouds of wild, rhythmless sound erupting in every part of the orchestra follow in succession. The music first settles down at reh. 9 in a free canon in the flutes, and then at reh. 13, the first main melodic “island.” Here, a simple singing tune is played in dialogue by the low winds and horns. Accompaniment is provided by a drone F and the colorfully dissonant marking of downbeats by the harp, celesta and glockenspiel. The mode employed here is an interesting one, and one used with some alteration throughout much of the work: F, G#, A, Bb, C, D (or Db), Eb. The raised second scale degree (G#) in some ways resembles a split third when heard harmonically, but the effect is softened considerably because the ear is accustomed to its melodic use. A canonic commentary on this first main melody follows in the flutes at reh. 21.

Senza misura passages break out again, even more furiously. Interspersed is another free canon, more tuneful than the previous. It is presented twice: first rather mournfully by the oboes in D natural minor (reh. 30) and then more peacefully by the flutes in F Lydian (reh. 37). More filigreed examples of this canonic technique are then presented in three solo violins and mixed woodwinds. The next main melodic “island” (reh. 46) is a grandiose march in 7/4 time. Set in A natural minor, it is played by dovetailing trumpets and strings a gargantuan five octaves deep. The melody ends by landing decisively on D, and a third main melodic section based around this center pitch follows shortly after at reh. 52. This movement takes the form of a lively dance tune, first played in the strings over a raucous, metrically shifting accompaniment in the timpani and bass drum. A canonic treatment follows in the winds. The next area of free sounds includes a fantastic series of split third chords (derived from the mode discussed earlier) whose roots are superimposed onto the descending augmented triad F-Db-A. Because of some interesting overlap, the resulting cluster contains only six pitch classes: C, Db, E, F, G#, and A.

The fourth main melodic section, which appears at reh. 64, differs from the others in that it is not so much an “island” as an archipelago. It is constantly being interrupted by interjections of wild senza misura sound. At one point, the melody even continues in the winds and brass on top of a whirling cloud of sounds in the strings. Because this is the only time such an overlap occurs in the symphony, the effect is immediately striking – almost like seeing double. The melodic material here is expansive and proclaimed by much of the orchestra, first in 7/4 and then in 5/4. The music has also returned to its original mode and pitch center of F. After this melody exhausts itself, a final cloud of bell sounds brings the piece to its final melodic “island.” At reh. 80, a somber melody in 12/8 using the same mode based on F (with the change of a lowered sixth scale degree) is presented, again in dialogue, between various solo winds and brass. The accompanying harp part almost verges on harmonic function, hovering back and forth subtly between I and iv. Another canonic section in the flutes follows, this time written in rhythm (reh. 84). Rising lines are constructed in such a way that a strange succession of consonant harmonies inherent to the original mode result from the imitation. Three short, questioning phrases in English horn, oboe, and bassoon invite an answer from the first flute, which descends gently from Eb, to D, and then to C. At the same moment the solo flute finally comes to rest on its C, muted violins gently play a pure F-Lydian cluster in eight-part divisi. In all its bright and gentle glory, this chord sounds for the world like a tonic resolution, and holds until the end of the work. A final free canon in the flutes at reh. 89 is a peaceful echo of what was played ff by the trumpets at reh. 76 a few minutes before. In the last bar of the symphony, the celesta’s radiant polytonal interference finally ceases, and the murmuring of harps and gentle string sonority fades slowly to silence.

Hovhaness’s influence from the East is manifested in this symphony’s essentially non-harmonic language and modally consistent melodic style. The general aesthetic is Eastern, and for lack of a better word, “static” not dynamic. In addition to this overall aesthetic influence, many of the specific musical techniques that Hovhaness absorbed over the years that he studied in Asia are present. Despite the symphony’s Indian theme, it is essentially a mixture of Indian and Japanese techniques. The free canon technique that plays such an important role not only in this symphony, but also in much of Hovhaness’s music from around this time, actually comes straight out of Japanese Gagaku court music. Hovhaness explained this connection and also his admiration for these “contrapuntal” Gagaku compositions in a lecture at Elmira College in 1967, around the time he composed Vishnu. What Hovhaness refers to is described briefly in William Malm’s Japanese Music: “At the end of the introductions to certain Koma-gaku pieces the melodic line is taken up by the various winds in what amounts to a short stretto, each beginning at a slightly different time.” While this is a rare occurrence in traditional Japanese music, Hovhaness took the idea and ran with it, making use of it in a variety of ways. The most arrestingly beautiful instrument in the Gagaku ensemble, the sho, also influenced Hovhaness’ composition greatly in this symphony and in other works. The sho is a small and delicate mouth organ that provides harmonies consisting of shifting modal clusters of up to six notes. Hovhaness most often imitates this sound with the Western orchestra using high strings in rich divisi. In Vishnu, the first example of this kind of writing occurs at reh. 30, where the violins gently sustain a cluster of D, E, F, G, A and Bb. This beautiful carpet of heavenly sound serves as a background for many of the senza misura canons, just as it would in Gagaku. In the same 1967 lecture, Hovhaness also referred to another sho-related technique called “dragonfly.” Here, some notes are sustained while other dissonant notes touch them lightly and are then released, like a dragonfly landing on the surface of the water. A wonderful example of this, embellished with Hovhaness’s own polytonal touch, occurs in the strings at Reh. 38.

The odd numbered rhythmic cycles, of which Hovhaness was also fond, come straight out of Indian practice. When employed alongside a melody that works within the confines of the bar, these figures create a complex but generally easy to perform polymetric music. There are two instances of this in Vishnu. During the vivacious melodic section at reh. 52, the timpani plays in a 9 ˝ beat pattern and the bass drum plays in a 7 bar pattern. These numbers ensure that the rhythmic patterns do not line up in the same way in relation to each other or in relation to the barlines until after many repetitions. A subtler example occurs during the final melodic section at reh. 80. Here the bass drum and tam-tam both play softly beneath wind soli in 7 and 13 beat cycles, respectively. A final Eastern element to be found in the symphony is the Indian style known as jhala. David Courtney concisely explains this instrumental technique as it occurs in traditional Indian music: “Indian stringed instruments are noted by a few special purpose drone strings called chikari. These strings are never fretted, but are struck whenever the tonic needs to be emphasized. The jhala is a fast paced alternation of main melody string and chikari.” Essentially, this translates into a melody and drone being played by a single instrumental line. For Hovhaness, jhala was most effective instrumentally when played on mallet percussion or piano. While he employed it almost exclusively in some compositions, jhala only makes a small but interesting appearance in Vishnu at rehs. 75 and 79. Here, five jhalas in different modes are played simultaneously in free rhythm by glockenspiel, vibraphone, and chimes. Hovhaness was not only interested in shedding new light on previously existing techniques from the East, but also constantly sought to work with his own material in different ways. He was a composer in the habit of borrowing melodies from his older pieces and reworking them in new settings. Often it seems that he wished to give melodies he thought especially deserving a grander and nobler casting. At least two of the main melodic sections in Vishnu were derived from earlier works. The melody in the lively dance section at reh. 52 that has been discussed several times was originally part of a short opera called The Travelers Op. 215, written the year before Vishnu in 1965. In this sparse but elegant parable dealing with youth and old age, the melody serves as a central chorus representing youthful vigor before the inevitable prospect of death. It is sung in canon to a charming text of Hovhaness’s own composition.

“Ring around the merry wheel, Let us pledge the festive meal, Tip the glass with song and laughter, Endless night is coming after. Ring around the merry wheel, Like a moth in summer feel, Joy in light and joy in flight, Sing before the endless night." The final melodic section of Vishnu was also built around preexisting material. It is a complete setting of the Lament for solo clarinet Op. 25. There is some confusion surrounding dates of composition in Hovhaness’s lower Opus numbers. In the 1940’s he destroyed a huge number of pieces in a now famous act of self-criticism. Later, in an apparent attempt to keep his catalogue in order, he sometimes composed works with the same title and opus number as the destroyed ones to replace the pieces that were lost. The Lament, if it is the original work that bore this name, could date from as early as 1935. The Vishnu symphony has yet one more outside association, possibly the most interesting one. In 1966, Hovhaness wrote the film score (one of only a handful he composed) for a CBS documentary about the life of Indian president Jawaharlal Nehru entitled Nehru: Man of Two Worlds. The music of this score overlaps with that of the Vishnu symphony in two places. The fierce brass music that opens the symphony becomes the accompaniment to footage of conflict between Hindus and Muslims during the partition of India. The lament that closes the symphony is played when Nehru’s funeral procession is shown. It is likely that Hovhaness had already written these particular sections of music before they became part of a film score. The lament theme was certainly preexisting. Given the Indian theme of the Vishnu symphony however, knowledge of these associations with certain sections gives the music added poignancy.

The title of this documentary, Man of Two Worlds, describes Alan Hovhaness with an uncanny aptness on more than one level. It is clear that, although he was coming at it from the other side, Hovhaness shared with Nehru a similar preoccupation with combining the traditions of the East and those of the West. Hovhaness once said that he was “an Armenian composer who went East instead of West.” The title Man of Two Worlds also describes him in a more profound way, as it did Nehru. From the way he behaved in life, it is clear that Hovhaness lived with one foot in a higher plane. He was famously spiritual, though his views were far from conforming to those of any specific faith. He once told the bewildered Seattle Youth Symphony in a rehearsal that “Berlioz was crazy and I’m crazy too. He was probably the incarnation of some Chinaman, and I’m back from Ancient Egypt 4000 years ago, and I want more mysterious sounds.” He often made references to “the angelic world – where music comes from, where those … better than we reside.” There are numerous such quotations, and Hovhaness seems to have been consistent in such beliefs throughout his long life. For him spirituality was, like music, not something over which to intellectualize, agonize, or start a revolution. It existed for everyone, binding everyone together and casting blessedness and mystery throughout the world. Hovhaness’ message is best summed up in the humble yet hopeful vision for humanity on earth he expressed in the notes for his Symphony No. 11, All Men are Brothers. “Let all unite on our tiny planet, our floating village, our little space ship as we journey across mysterious endlessness.”

Works Cited

Alan Hovhaness. Dir. Jean Walkinshaw. 1983. Videocassette. KCTS.

Berkofsky, Martin. “The Alan Hovhaness International Research Center Yerevan, Armenia.”

Courtney, David. “Jhala.” 1997. Jan 18, 2008.

Howard, Richard. “Alan Hovhaness Catalogue of Works.” Pro/Am Music Resources, Inc.

Malm, William P.. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle and Company, 1959. 100-104.

Nehru: Man of Two Worlds. Hertzberg, Sydney. March 6, 1966. Videocassette. CBS News.

Shirodkar, Marco. “About This Website.” “Overview of the Hovhaness Symphonies.” 2002-2008.



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