HOVHANESS: Symphonies Nos. 4, 20 and 53 (John Wallace/ Keith Brion/ Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Wind Orchestra) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559207)
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Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)
Symphonies Nos. 4, 20 and 53 Trumpet Concerto The Prayer of St Gregory
Of Armenian and Scottish extraction, the Americancomposer Alan Hovhaness absorbed a variety ofinfluences during a prolific and distinguished career. Hestudied at the New England Conservatory withConverse, and, after some criticism of his early work byBernstein and Copland, turned to Armenian sources forinspiration. His later career brought wider influencesfrom the Far East, before a return to Western traditions.
A composer of considerable originality, he often madeuse of idiosyncratic instrumentation, not least for anumber of his 67 symphonies, part of a corpus of overfour hundred compositions.
Of the Symphony No. 4 for Wind OrchestraHovhaness writes: \I admire the giant melody of theHimalayan Mountains, seventh-century Armenianreligious music, classical music of South India,orchestra music of Tang Dynasty China around 700A.D., opera-oratorios of Handel.
"My Symphony No. 4 probably has the spiritualinfluences of the composers Yegmalian, GomidasVartabed, and Handel. It is in three movements. Thefirst movement, Andante, is a hymn and fugue. TheAllegro movement follows, ...as (wind choirs) developthe fugue in vocal counterpoint. The second movement,Allegro, is a dance-trio-dance form. The thirdmovement, Andante espressivo, is a hymn and fugue.
Allegro maestoso in a 7/4 meter is a final hymn andfugue over bell sounds."The symphony, composed in 1958 for the AmericanWind Symphony of Pittsburgh, is the first of AlanHovhaness's eight wind symphonies. Theinstrumentation is that of an expanded symphonyorchestra wind section. Extensive solo passages aregiven to the bass clarinet, contrabassoon,marimba/xylophone, oboe and English horn. Quartets ofhorns and trombones figure prominently in the openingmovement. Solo melodies are modal, while theharmonic character is essentially tonal employing majorand minor triads in unusual, but satisfying relationships.
Bell sounds which dot the final contrapuntal hymn andfugue are essentially atonal, positioned against triadicharmonies.
In his Symphony No. 20, 'Three Journeys to a HolyMountain', the composer has essentially composedthree very different pilgrims' marches. He writes: "Thefirst movement is in the spirit of Armenian religiousmusic in three great melodic arcs, the last having themood of a spiritual". The opening clarinet choirsuggests a barren landscape and employs an orientalharmonic device called the dragonfly, in whichconsonant open harmonies and triads are periodicallytouched and then released by temporary dissonances.
The first of three arcs begins with a noble, hymn-liketrumpet statement. Clarinets return for the second time,again with their dragonfly utterances. A second arcstarts with solo English horn. It is a warm, rolling,reverent and fully developed slow march. Once againthe dragonfly returns to intersperse the arcs, now withflutes added and leading to the final melodic arc in thestyle of a grand and noble spiritual. Clarinets and flutesreturn for a final time to complete the movement. "Thesecond movement is a long melodic line completed nonharmonicallyand unisonally over held drones inOriental style." Suggesting a fresh start in this collectionof pilgrims' marches, a solo alto saxophone plays adance-like figure, joined on and off with othersaxophones and lifted along by the rhythms of apercussion ostinato. Clanging chimes announce grandunison trumpets intoning a prayer/sermon, punctuatedwith primitive clashing cymbals. The final section is afetching dance, with solo oboe and clarinet sectiongracefully moving forward above bouncing timpani andbass drum figures. "The third movement is in the formof a chorale and fugue: at the climax of the fugue, thechorale theme powerfully returns, interspersed withmany-voiced canon interludes."Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain wascommissioned by the Ithaca NY High School Band in1969 and is scored in vocal style using the numerousdoublings found in larger wind band ensembles. In factthe work is enriched by the use of many multiples ofsome instruments (clarinets and brass), just as multiplestrings function in the orchestra. Prominent solo linesare given to the English horn, alto saxophone, sectionclarinets and oboe.
Of his Symphony No. 53, 'Star Dawn', for Band thecomposer writes:"The thought for the symphony initiated with aphrase from Dante, "star dawn", which suggestedtraveling in space. Bells symbolize the stars, longflowing melodies create a sense of journey, and greatchorales symbolize humankind. My life-long interest inastronomy has suggested the thought and hope that wemay colonize Mars. As we overcrowd the Earth, wemust eventually confront this issue. Mars, althoughcold, seems to have a climate which may make thispossible."The symphony is cast in two movements. The firstcommemorating the journey and the second, arrival.
Star Dawn was commissioned by Charles D. Yates, forhis San Diego State University Wind Ensemble, andwas completed in 1983.
Hovhaness writes of his Return and Rebuild theDesolate Places as follows:"1. In the form of a netori or short prelude. Throughmysterious clusters, the solo trumpet sounds like aprophet of doom. It is the voice of Cassandra. Suddenlyterror strikes with fury and devastation, ending withdark glissandi of moaning trombones.""2. Inspired by a portrait of the heroic priest,Khrimian Hairig, who led the Armenian people throughmany persecutions. It is a melismatic hymn of thebuilders of the temple, who follow the sound of thetrumpet, which is the cantor, or inspired messenger. Thepriest-like melody is in the form of three arcs: 1) TheChalice of Holiness, 2) The Wings of Compassion, 3)The Triumph of Faith. The people emerge from theirdark caves rejoicing."Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places wascommissioned for a performance by the American WindSymphony Orchestra of Pittsburgh and was firstpublished in 1965. In support of the solo trumpet, theinstrumentation is scaled for a small orchestral windsection.
"The Prayer of St Gregory was an intermezzo in myreligious opera Etchmiadzin. Saint Gregory, theIlluminator, brought Christianity to Armenia around theyear 301. This music is like a prayer in darkness. StGregory was cast into the pit of a dungeon where hemiraculously survived after about fifteen years afterwhich he cured the King's madness."In this case the solo trumpet functions as a cantor, orpreacher. The large wind band responds as thecongregation. The band version of the work was firstgiven in 1972 by the trumpet-player Gerard Schwarz,with Keith Brion and the North Jersey Wind Symphony.Keith Brion