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Alan Hovhaness

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Birth name Alan Vaness Chakmakjian
Birthplace Somerville
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Birth date 8 March 1911
Death date 2000/06/21
Death year 2000
Ethnicities Armenian, Scottish

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

He was born as Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville, Massachusetts to Haroutiun Vaness Chakmakjian, a chemistry professor at Tufts College, and Madeline Scott. (Upon his mother's death (1931), 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 Church in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1942 Hovhaness won a scholarship at Tanglewood to study in Bohuslav Martinu's master class, but left within a couple of days, angered and disillusioned with what he perceived as harsh criticism of his music by fellow students, which included composers Bernstein and Copland. Shortly afterwards he was encouraged by a Boston friend, the painter and mystic Hermon di Giovanno, to explore his Armenian heritage as a means for creative renewal. This he did, 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.

In one of many applications for a Guggenheim fellowship (1941), Hovhaness presented his credo:

"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 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. 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. In fact, the worthiest creative art has been motivated consciously or unconsciously by the desire for the regeneration of mankind."

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.

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 invokes 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."

Somewhat prophetic in worldly matters, Hovhaness stated in a winter, 1971, "Ararat" interview:

"We are in a very dangerous period. We are in danger of destroying ourselves, and I have a great fear about this...The older generation is ruling ruthlessly. I feel that this is a terrible threat to our civilization. It's the greed of huge companies and huge organizations which control life in a kind of a brutal way...It's gotten worse and worse, somehow, because physical science has given us more and more terrible deadly weapons, and the human spirit has been destroyed in so many cases, so what's the use of having the most powerful country in the world if we have killed the soul. It's of no use."

Significant compositions include:

  • Symphony no. 2 Mysterious Mountain, op. 132 (1955)
  • Symphony no. 4, op. 165 (1957)
  • Symphony no. 7 Nanga Parvat, op. 178 (1959)
  • Symphony no. 8 Arjuna, op. 179 (1947)
  • Symphony no. 9 St. Vartan, op. 180 (1949-50)
  • Symphony no. 15 Silver Pilgrimage, op. 199 (1963)
  • Symphony no. 19 Vishnu, op. 217 (1966)
  • Symphony no. 50 Mount St. Helens, op. 360 (1982)
  • Fra Angelico, op. 220 (1967)
  • And God Created Great Whales, op. 229 (1968?)
  • Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op. 123 No. 3 (1954)
  • Magnificat, Op. 157 (1958)
  • Lousadzak, Op. 48 (1944) [concerto for piano and string orchestra]

International Research Centre:

The Alan Hovhaness Research Centre is being established at the Yeghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Art in Yerevan. As of June 2008, it is estimated that some 3,500 individual Hovhaness research items (e.g. letters, manuscripts, scores, photographs, recordings, articles) have been collected.


  • Miller, Leta E. and Lieberman, Frederic (1998). Lou Harrison: Composing a World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195110226.

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