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Alan Hovhaness (Armenian: , March 8, 1911 – June 21, 2000) was an Armenian-American composer. He was among the most prolific of 20th century composers, his official catalog comprising 67 numbered symphonies (surviving manuscripts indicate over 70) and 434 opus numbers. However, the true tally is well over 500 surviving works since many opus numbers comprise two or more distinct works.
The 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."
He was born as Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville, Massachusetts, to Haroutioun Hovanes Chakmakjian (an Armenian chemistry professor at Tufts College who had been born in Adana, Turkey) and Madeleine Scott (an American woman of Scottish descent who had graduated from Wellesley College). When he was five, his family moved from Somerville to Arlington, Massachusetts. A Hovhaness family neighbor said his mother had insisted on moving from Somerville because of discrimination against Armenians there. After her death (on October 3, 1930), he began to use the surname "Hovaness" in honor of his paternal grandfather, and changed it to "Hovhaness" around 1944. He stated the name change from the original Chakmakjian reflected the desire to simplify his name because "nobody ever pronounced it right". However, Hovhaness' daughter Jean Nandi has written in her book Unconventional Wisdom, "My father's name at the time of my birth was 'Hovaness', pronounced with accent on the first syllable. His original name was 'Chakmakjian', but in the 1930s he wanted to get rid of the Armenian connection and so changed his name to an Americanized version of his middle name. Some years later, deciding to reestablish his Armenian ties, he changed the spelling to 'Hovhaness', accent on the second syllable; this was the name by which he later became quite famous."[page needed]
Hovhaness was interested in music from a very early age, writing his first composition at the age of four after being inspired by hearing a song of Franz Schubert. His family was concerned after this first attempt at composition, a cantata in the early Italian style, for his late-night hours spent composing and possibly for his financial future as an artist. He decided for a short time to pursue astronomy, another of his early loves. The fascination of astronomy remained with him through his entire life and composing career, with many works titled after various planets and stars.
His father took great pride in his son's precocious composing, and set up his first piano lessons with a neighborhood teacher. (He also learned violin, and earned a small income for a short time teaching violin to a neighbor's child.) His father helped to support him long into young adulthood through many difficult years. His father broke into tears when recognized by Alan from the stage of his successful Boston Symphony Orchestra concert in Symphony Hall (under their regular conductor, the renowned Serge Koussevitzky who conducted the orchestra from 1924 to 1949 and was a major sponsor of many contemporary composers worldwide).
He continued his piano studies, first with Adelaide Proctor and then with Heinrich Gebhard, a student of Theodor Leschetizky, who was a student of Carl Czerny whose teacher was none other than Ludwig van Beethoven, making Hovhaness a fourth-generation student of Beethoven. By age 14, however, he decided to devote himself to composition. Among his first and most important influences were the recordings of Gomidas Vartabed, an eminent Armenian composer who had survived the Armenian genocide. He composed two operas during his teenage years which were performed at Arlington High School, and the composer Roger Sessions took an interest in his music during this time. Following his graduation from high school in 1929, he studied with Leo Rich Lewis at Tufts and then under Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1932, he won the Conservatory's Samuel Endicott prize for composition with a symphonic work entitled Sunset Symphony (elsewhere entitled Sunset Saga). In July 1934, with his first wife, Martha Mott Davis, he traveled to Finland to meet its greatest composer, Jean Sibelius, whose music he had greatly admired since childhood. The two continued to correspond for the next twenty years.
In 1936, Hovhaness attended a performance in Boston by the Indian dance troupe of Uday Shankar (with orchestra led by Vishnudas Shirali), which inspired his lifelong interest in the music of India. During the 1930s (until 1939), he worked in FDR's federal WPA's Federal Music Project.
Hovhaness married six times; the first marriage was around 1934, the last 1977. The daughter from his first marriage (his only child) was named Jean Christina Hovhaness (born June 13, 1935) and named after Jean Christian Sibelius, her godfather and Hovhaness's friend until his death at 92 in 1957.
Destruction of early works
During the 1930s and 1940s, Hovhaness famously destroyed many of his early works. He later claimed that he had burned at least 1000 different pieces, a process that took at least two weeks; elsewhere he claimed to have destroyed around 500 scores totalling as many as a thousand pages. In an interview with Richard Howard, he stated that the decision was based primarily on Sessions' criticism of his works of that period, and that he wanted to make a new start in composition.
Hovhaness became interested in Armenian culture and music in 1940 as organist for the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, remaining in this position for about ten years. In 1942, he won a scholarship at Tanglewood to study in Czech composer Bohuslav Martin's master class. During a seminar in composition, while a recording of Hovhaness's first symphony was being played, Aaron Copland talked loudly in Spanish to Latin-American composers in the room; and at the end of the recording Leonard Bernstein went to the piano, played a melodic minor scale and remarked, "I can't stand this cheap ghetto music." Apparently angered and distraught by this experience, he left Tanglewood early, abandoning his scholarship and again destroying a number of his works in the aftermath of that major disappointment.
The next year he devoted himself to Armenian subject matter, in particular using modes distinctive to Armenian music, and continued in this vein for several years, achieving some renown and the support of other musicians, including radical experimentalist composer John Cage and choreographer Martha Graham, all the while continuing as church organist.
Beginning in the mid-1940s, Hovhaness and two artist friends, Hyman Bloom and Hermon di Giovanno, met frequently to discuss spiritual and musical matters. All three had a strong interest in Indian classical music, and brought many well known Indian musicians to Boston to perform. During this period, Hovhaness learned to play the sitar, studying with amateur Indian musicians living in the Boston area. Around 1942, Bloom introduced Hovhaness to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a fine singer of Armenian and Kurdish troubadour songs, whose singing inspired Hovhaness.
In one of many applications for a Guggenheim fellowship (1941), Hovhaness presented his credo at the time of application:
However, as before, there were also critics:
Lousadzak was Hovhaness's first work to make use of an innovative technique he called "spirit murmur" &mdash, an early example of aleatoric music inspired by a vision of Hermon di Giovanno. The technique involves instruments repeating phrases in uncoordinated fashion, producing a complex "cloud" or "carpet" of sounds..
In the mid-1940s, Hovhaness' stature in New York was helped considerably by members of the immigrant Armenian community who sponsored several high-profile concerts of his music. This organization, the Friends of Armenian Music Committee, was led by Hovhaness's friends Dr. Elizabeth A. Gregory, the Armenian American piano/violin duo Maro Ajemian and Anahid Ajemian, and later Anahid's husband, pioneering record producer and subsequent Columbia Records executive George Avakian. Their help led directly to many recordings of Hovhaness' music appearing in the 1950s on MGM and Mercury records, placing him firmly on the American musical landscape.
In May and June 1946, while staying with an Armenian family, Hovhaness composed Etchmiadzin, an opera on an Armenian theme, which was commissioned by a local Armenian church.
Relocation to New York
In 1951 Hovhaness moved to New York City, where he became a full-time composer. Also that year (starting on August 1), he worked for the Voice of America, first as a script writer for the Armenian section, then as director of music, composer and musical consultant for the Near East and Transcaucasian sections. He eventually lost this job (along with much of the other staff) when Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Harry S. Truman as U.S. president in 1953. From this time on, he branched out from Armenian music, adopting styles and material from a wide variety of sources. As documented in 1953 and the 1954, he received Guggenheim Fellowships in composition. He wrote the score for the Broadway play The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets in 1954, a ballet for Martha Graham (Ardent Song, also in 1954), and two scores for NBC documentaries on India and Southeast Asia (1955 and 1957). Also during the 1950s, he composed for productions at The Living Theatre.
His biggest breakthrough to date came in 1955, when his Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain, was premiered by Leopold Stokowski in his debut with the Houston Symphony, although the idea that Mysterious Mountain was commissioned for that orchestra is a common misconception . That same year, MGM Records released recordings of a number of his works. Between 1956 and 1958, at the urging of Howard Hanson, needless to say an admirer of his music, he taught summer sessions at the Eastman School of Music long presided over by Hanson.
Trips to Asia
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. His study of Carnatic music in Madras, India (195960), during which he collected over 300 ragas, was sponsored by a Fulbright fellowship. While in Madras, he learned to play the veena and composed a work for Carnatic orchestra entitled Nagooran, inspired by a visit to the dargah at Nagore, which was performed by the South Indian Orchestra of All India Radio Madras and broadcast on All-India Radio on February 3, 1960. He compiled a large amount of material on Carnatic ragas in preparation for a book on the subject, but never completed it.
He then studied Japanese gagaku music (learning the wind instruments hichiriki, sh, and ryteki) in the spring of 1962 with Masatoshi Shamoto in Hawaii, and a Rockefeller Foundation grant allowed him further gagaku studies with Masataro Togi in Japan (196263). Also while in Japan, he studied and played the nagauta (kabuki) shamisen and the jruri (bunraku) shamisen. In recognition of the musical styles he studied in Japan, he wrote Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, Op. 211 (1965), a concerto for xylophone and orchestra.
In 1963 he composed his second ballet score for Martha Graham, entitled Circe.
He then set up a record label devoted to the release of his own works, Poseidon Society. Its first release was in 1963, with around 15 discs following over the next decade.
In 1965, as part of a U.S. government-sponsored delegation, he visited Russia as well as Soviet-controlled Georgia and Armenia, the only time he visited his paternal ancestral homeland. While there, he donated his handwritten manuscripts of harmonized Armenian liturgical music to the Yeghishe Charents State Museum of Arts and Literature in Yerevan.
In the mid-1960s he spent several summers touring Europe, living and working much of the time in Switzerland.
Hovhaness stated in a 1971 interview in Ararat magazine:
Hovhaness was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1951), and received honorary D.Mus. degrees from the University of Rochester (1958), Bates College (1959) and the Boston Conservatory (1987). He moved to Seattle in the early 1970s, where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1973, he composed his third and final ballet score for Martha Graham: Myth of a Voyage, and over the next twenty years (between 1973 and 1992) he produced no fewer than 37 new symphonies.
Continuing his interest in composing for Asian instruments, in 1981, at the request of Lou Harrison, he composed two works for Indonesian gamelan orchestra which were premiered by the gamelan at Lewis & Clark College, under the direction of Vincent McDermott.
Hovhaness is survived by his wife, the coloratura soprano Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness, who administers the Hovhaness-Fujihara music publishing company,  as well as a daughter, harpsichordist Jean Nandi.
Significant archives of Hovhaness materials, comprising scores, sound recordings, photographs and correspondence are located at several academic centers, including Harvard University, University of Washington, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington, MA, and Yerevans State Museum of Arts and Literature in Armenia.
Partial list of compositions
Films about Alan Hovhaness
Films with scores by Alan Hovhaness