A Bridge Between East and West | Pushing the Wave

A Bridge Between East and West

Opinion, 29 March 2024
by L.A. Davenport
Majestic Northern Ireland-The Causeway Coast
The majestic Northern Ireland coast. Alan Hovhaness was often inspired by natural beauty and the spiritual transcendence it can evoke.
It’s been a while since I wrote about music, but this week I wanted to give shout-out to a 20th century composer who, despite his broad appeal and the evident appreciation that his music engenders, is not widely played or discussed.

And yet I revisit his music again and again, most often when I am travelling for work. I turn to him in the quiet hours, when I need to be taken on a journey, not through force, but by being carried away from myself and all that surrounds me, into a place of reflection and contemplation.

Alan Hovhaness was born in 1911 and died at the dawn of the 21st century. He rejected much of what constituted ‘contemporary music’ in the 1930s and 1940s and developed, despite initially being deeply misunderstood and maligned, into one of the most talented and prolific composers of his era. The official catalog of his works lists 67 numbered symphonies and well over 500 surviving works, spanning the entire range of musical forms.

His work is profound and meditative, highly melodious and often moving. Moreover, he had an ability to not only bring together but also entirely mix eastern and western musical styles, absorbing the traditions of his Armenian and Scottish ancestries alongside those of India, Hawaii, Japan and South Korea.

In the notes accompanying the 1958 recording of Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 132 ‘Mysterious Mountain’, conducted by Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Oliver Daniel writes that the work is “not a sensational piece but rather a spiritual one.”

He continues: “As with much of Hovhaness’s music, it is individual, original and powerful.”

“Despite his affinity for the Orient, this is not an Oriental work. If its calm suggests the meditative quiet of the East, it may also suggest such tranquility as Thoreau found at Walden. If one seeks musical relationships, one might find them with the romantic symphonists in size, scope and sonority; with the earlier baroque classicists for polyphonic mastery; and with the choral masters of the Netherlands for almost vocal-sounding harmonic structure and modal flavor."

And if that all sounds a little overwhelming, and perhaps a tad too intellectual, Daniel quotes critic Hubert Roussel, who remarked in the Houston Post after the symphony’s premiere in 1955, that "Hovhaness produces a texture of the utmost beauty, gentleness, distinction and expressive potential.”

“The real mystery of Mysterious Mountain is that it should be so simply, sweetly, innocently lovely in an age that has tried so terribly hard to avoid those impressions in music."

Hovhaness himself said the piece is not centred on or inspired by a specific peak, but he feels rather that “mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man's attempt to know God,” adding that they are “symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds."

It is this marriage of the earthly and the divine that characterises so much of Hovhaness’s works.

Naxos, one of my favourite classical music record labels, has chalked up a sizeable tally of recordings in recent years, including a reasonable number of his symphonies, scored for a remarkable range of ensembles, and several of his concerti, alongside assorted pieces.

I go back again and again to Symphonies No. 53, Op. 377 ‘Star Dawn; No. 22, Op. 236 ‘City of Light’; and No. 48, Op. 355 ‘Vision of Andromeda’, among others.

But today I reached for a disc that contains Symphony No. 1, Op. 17, No. 2 ‘Exile’, commemorating the flight of the Armenians from Ottoman atrocities after the First World War, and Symphony No. 50, Op. 360 ‘Mount Saint Helens’, which explores the 1980 eruption with a mix of hauntingly mystical beauty and violent power.

Sandwiched between those is the Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, Op. 211, one of a number of his pieces inspired by Japan and its culture. It creates the sounds of traditional instruments via the unconventional use of the modern symphony orchestra, all set to original melodies, and with wonderfully evocative results.

If you are not familiar with the works of Alan Hovhaness, I would urge you to step into his world and experience a musical landscape like no other. He was, and remains, a unique voice in the classical tradition, and for me is a both a bridge between east and west, and a light in the darkness that can occasionally threaten to overwhelm us.
It has been a busy week here, with my next book, Escape, The Hunter Cut, available to pre-order on more and more stores ahead of its launch in early May, and work continuing apace on the upcoming collection Pushing the Wave 2017–2022. That particular work has undergone a series of transformations in recent weeks that are slowly turning it into a much better work but may, as a result, mean I need to push back the launch by a few weeks. Let’s see how it pans out.

I have also been hard at work on a new collection of novellas and short stories, with inspiration drawn from all sorts of directions; and the play I have been developing since July last year is, finally, taking shape.

There is a strange, slightly mystical moment when everything falls into place with a creative piece, a point when it is no longer an edifice I am chipping away at in the hope it becomes something, but starts to take on a life of its own and become an entity in its own right. I sense that moment close at hand with the play, and I am looking forward to it with an increasing sense of excitement.

That is not all I have going on, but I shall keep the rest under my hat, for now.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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A Bridge Between East and West | Pushing the Wave