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Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain"

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Alan Hovhaness
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Truls Mørk, cello Sep. 29 - Oct. 1, 2005
© Richard Freed

Alan Hovhaness, one of the most prolific composers of the last century (67 symphonies, as many as five hundred other works in various forms), was also one of the most distinctive: over the years he developed, extended and refined an approach that was unmistakably his, and his alone. Following his studies with Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Hovhaness composed his earliest orchestral works in a style shaped by his admiration for Sibelius, and he even went to Finland for further study. By the time he turned thirty, though, he had abandoned that style (and destroyed much of the music he had composed earlier) in favor of a more personal one rooted in the music, the history and the religious lore of his Armenian forebears, while reflecting also his fascination with Gregorian chant and the music of the Renaissance polyphonists. Still later, in the course of his travels, he developed a similarly productive interest in the music and culture of Japan, India and other areas of Asia and the Pacific. By 1978, when the National Symphony Orchestra introduced his Symphony No. 36, which had been commissioned by Robert Bialek, with a solo part for the distinguished flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal), Hovhaness spoke of a "one-world lyricism" in his music, and remarked,

My new songs and symphonies are my flowering of melody, my final faith in endless beauty in a seemingly ugly world. . . The composer, as in old China, joins Heaven and earth with threads of sounds.

Those words might seem applicable to this earlier symphony as well, though the listener need not be too concerned with seeking any particular influence here, and would only be misled in looking for a literal significance to the work's title. Hovhaness, in fact, did not affix the title Mysterious Mountain until he had completed the score of his Second Symphony. The work, in any event, proved to be one of his most successful in any form. Three years after the premiere, Stokowski took the piece with him for his concerts in the Soviet Union, and at the same time it was recorded by Fritz Reiner in Chicago, having by then circulated among several American orchestras. The title Hovhaness chose for it did not allude to any scenic or literary stimulus, but quite the reverse: it represented what the music "said" to him once he had composed it. It had for him a certain spiritual significance, and indeed he might have chosen the same epigraph Carl Ruggles did for a shorter orchestral work of his own which he called Men and Mountains, a reference to a line from William Blake stating simply (but "mysteriously"), "Great things are done when men and mountains meet." Instead, he offered the following statement on the title and the music itself.

Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man's attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds. To some, the Mysterious Mountain may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet. To some, it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside--Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta or Grand Teton. . .

The first and last movements [of this work] are hymn-like and lyrical, using irregular metrical forms. The first subject of the second movement, a double fugue, is developed in a slow vocal style. The rapid second subject, played by the strings, with its own counter-subject and with strict four-voice canonic episodes and triple counterpoint episodes. . .In the last movement a chant in 7/4 is played softly by muted horns and trombones. A giant wave in a 13-beat meter rises to a climax and recedes. . . A middle melody is sung by the oboes and clarinets in quintuple beat. Muted violins return the earlier chant, which is gradually given to the full orchestra.

The atmosphere of "spiritual mystique" in this music is suggested here and there in terms that may remind the listener of certain more familiar works of roughly similar character. The outer movements and the first half of the middle one contain evocative textures not unlike those of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis , and the more energetic second half of the middle movement exhibits a similar bond with the concluding section of another Symphony No. 2, Arthur Honegger's intensely felt wartime work for strings and solo trumpet. This observation, however, is not to suggest any lack of originality on Hovhaness's part, but simply to note the distinguished confraternity in which the noble work so eloquently affirms his own membership.