Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is unique in the history of western music. An American-born composer, of an Armenian father and a Scottish mother, an author of more than 500 pieces of music (including 70 symphonies), a friend of musicians and dancers such as John Cage and Martha Graham, and a teacher to composers such as Dominique Argento and John S. Hilliard, his music blends a tremendous variety of styles: western tonality, aleatoric music, renaissance polyphony, Armenian folklore, carnatic and hindustani music, Japanese traditional music, etc without drifting into pure eclecticism or trivial orientalism. This curious personality, Eastern influenced and extremely prolific, is tempered by an unprecedented harshness. It often happens that composers destroy their own music if they consider it not good enough: Hovhaness had these cathartic moments at least three times in his life and eliminated almost one hundred opus numbers (including two operas, seven symphonies and innumerable chamber pieces).
Hovhaness was fundamentally a contemplative composer with no concern for his own “career”. After a promising debut, an early “romantic period” (in which he was compared to Sibelius), and a strong training (especially in counterpoint) with Frederick Converse, he refused a scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Revealingly, he wrote for a survey about American composers for the American Music Center in 1949: “It is best that no mention be made of my scholarships or education because my direction is completely away from the approved path of any of my teachers - thus the responsibility [for attitudes towards my music] will be inflicted to no one but myself”. Up until his forties, he was known as a “composer without performances” but at 41 the great Stokowsky decided to conduct his Symphony n. 2. It would be the beginning of a career, strongly protective of his artistic integrity: an attitude that he kept throughout his life. In the Sixties he began a series of trips to the East in order to study musical practices and to learn to play traditional instruments: all these experiences are strongly present in his scores.
His peculiar musical attributes, the originality of his writing, his deep love for Nature, his pure spirituality, his complete detachment from the Avant-gardes, and his isolation in his search for “his own” music make Alan Hovhaness one of the most important outsiders of 20th century: in a period of academicism and institutionalisation of contemporary music, he is vital.
Piano sonatas and sonatinas
A pianist facing Hovhaness’ works risks losing himself among sonatas, sonatinas, suites and other pieces. In this huge body of music we can find classical sonatas forms, aleatoric pieces, suites in ancient style, and ancient forms (like fugues or canons) completely revisited in an eastern style. Any performer wishing to expand his repertoire and to promote Hovhaness music has many different choices: to play some works taken from a specific period, to select only some compositions following their music features, or to study only certain kinds of compositions. We followed the latter path, even though, as Wayne David Johnson points out in his thesis (see bibliography), Hovhaness’ choice of titles like “sonata” or “sonatina” can be “rather puzzling”. The reasons for this choice are:
Many recordings of piano music are available but not as an organic set. The simplest thing is to select a particular example representative of a particular type of composition.
Choosing the “sonata” form, we can show a broad chronological span of Hovhaness’ output, from the first sonata (Ricercare) dating 1935, to the last (Katahdin) dating 1987.
This chronological span also reflects Hovhaness’ attitude towards styles. In this way a complete recording of his sonatas can give a full overview of Hovhaness’ stylistic featuresWe hope that this work will bring Hovhaness to his rightful place in the piano’s repertoire.
In this CD
Sonata Bardo op. 192
This sonata is inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The word “bardo” refers (as marked in the score) “to the After Death State”. The first movement is based on the blocked key technique (used by Ligeti) and on subtraction technique (used, for instance, by Nono: starting from a cluster the player must release one note by one in order to obtain the melody). The second movement, in jhala style, is a small composition in which two voices are moving in two different meters. The sonata ends with the meditative Hymn to Amida in which the use of harmonics and large melodic lines demonstrate a typical feature of Hovhaness’ writing.
Sonata Mt. Ossipee op. 299 n. 2
This “mountain” sonata was written in 1935 but published in 1977. The four short movements alternate slow episodes with fast, toccata-like ones.
Sonata Journey to Arcturus op. 354
Written in 1981, it is one of his most complicated and long sonatas. The structure is in six movements. After an opening Lullaby, based on an ostinato accompaniment, we find a fugue in the “vibration style”. It means that both the subject and the countersubject are written in repeated notes: this gives to the fugue a strange sound, far removed from common counterpoint (even though the fugue is written in an old fashion style). The third movement is a Nocturne (not dissimilar to Field or Chopin in mood) with an interesting middle section imitating the kanoon: one of Hovhaness’ attempts to bring different playing techniques to piano writing. The following jhala for star journey is one of the most hypnotic, repetitive and long jhala Hovhaness has ever written: nine sections, with different talas (rhythmical structure of the bass drone), dissonant intervals, and a puzzling harmony for a true Hovhaness masterpiece. After the simple Love song, another (shorter) Jhala for Arcturus ends this huge sonata dedicated to the journey to a very distant star.
Sonata Mt. Belknap op. 299 n. 1
In my opinion this is the most difficult of Hovhaness’ sonatas: long, technically demanding, and complex in construction. The structure of the first movement is in sonata form, but the total freedom in the use of tonality is remarkable: the sonata starts in f sharp minor and ends in e minor. The following Presto is a virtuoso toccata with some influences from Prokovief and Bartok. The final movement, also in sonata form, is based on a semitone interval clearly exposed at the beginning and exploited in all its possibility with remarkable imagination and ability. This sonata should be included in any common piano repertoire.