Alan Hovhaness - Complete sonatas and sonatinas Vol.7 (Code: TAUKAY 151)


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 features

We hope that this work will bring Hovhaness to his rightful place in the piano’s repertoire.


In this CD

Sonata “Mt. Shasta”, op. 299 n. 3

This sonata opens with a typical Hovhaness slow movement (Adagio Misterioso) : long chords pedals supporting a flamboyant melodic line, calm parts alternating with more dramatic ones, and after the climax (a tremolo in the upper part) a small cadenza leading into an ending that unfolds the perfect natural modal ground of the entire piece. 
Then, a Minuetto follows. It is written in modern dorian mode and thus expresses Hovhaness’ neoclassical side. The exquisite composition in a “false” eighteenth century style is slowly modified during the Trio which introduces reminiscences of Prokofiev.
The ending movement is the Hymn to Shasta (Adagio Maestoso). It is a majestic musical construction as can be heard in other hymns composed by Hovhaness (Hymn to Chocorua to name only one). The main theme is announced with solid chords, followed by a sort of mirror canon with faster arpeggios. The theme is heard again through a canon form interchanged with the arpeggios exploding into a triumphant conclusion. This is surely one of the most accomplished of Hovhaness’s works.


Sonata “Lake Sammamish”, op. 369

“Lake Sammamish” is a classical Hovhaness sonata written in the eighties. This piece of music is made of more than three movements, includes jhalas, fugues, all blended in an original composition. The opening Allegro assai is a small quasi-sonata piece based on an oriental scale: the middle development section passes into the reprise uninterruptedly.
The following movement Allegretto espressivo combines a first part dominated by  meditative chant and a fugato with repeated notes (typical of Hovhaness’ production in this period). The two voices Fuga demonstrates an impressive talent in countersubject writing. The subject returns in the modes of a-e-b-a-g-d-a alternatively in the upper and in the lower part and this whole musical part is accompanied throughout by different countersubjects (at the third, sixth, with syncopations, etc.). The writing points to a fugue closer to the ancient “ricercare” style than to the baroque one.
After a mysterious Jhala, an amazing Largo (with free tonal disposition of chords) leads us into the final Jhala, which takes its inspiration from an oriental scale and uses the piano resonances. A solid sonata that discloses the whole range of Hovhaness’ late writing.


Sonata [juvenile, op.22]

The sonata op. 22 is not to be found in the official catalogue of Hovhaness’ work. It is a juvenile work that luckily survived the “destruction phases” the composer periodically went through. Composed in 1938 and dedicated to Martha Mott (at the time, wife of the composer) it consists of three long movements. The first one, Adagio Lamentando, unravels the personality of a young composer attempting to reconcile his love for meditative moods with the classical sonata form. This effort creates a tremendous tension. A gloomy accompaniment of a fascinating theme opens the piece. The first section alternates some canons that tone down the contrast between the cantabile main theme and a strong octaves mouvement. The middle section (indicated with the Italian word “mistero” for “mystery”) starts with an obsessive,  regular and quiet figuration developing into a violent octave passage (Hovhaness uses here the Italian word “scassinare”, literally “break open”!) and then leading into the reprise of the theme. But the composer is only misleading the listener : a delicate arpeggios interlude extends the entire section that ends with a peremptory recapitulation of the beginning. The following Scherzo is a lunatic waltz. From the very beginning, Hovhaness plays with tonal ambiguity and entertains us with a humorous theme with small, and then increasing, chromatic variations. Time indications are extremely peculiar, changing suddenly from one measure to another (allegro, meno mosso, accelerando, poco meno mosso, etc.) throughout the whole piece of music. It creates a strange effect of irregular time stretching.
The final movement (Finale – Andante maestoso) is constructed upon the alternation of three elements : a melody harmonized by strong chords, a rhythmic ostinato and an extremely fast sequence of arpeggios in contrary motion. These three elements stop suddenly towards the end, with an ostinato inserted between long pauses. This serves as a moment to gather energy for the very end of the piece.
This severe sonata ranks among the best output of Hovhaness and gives a very important insight into understanding his following developments.

Nicola Giosmin


Selected Bibliography and Webography

Rosner Arnold, An analytical survey of the music of Alan Hovhaness. Ph. D. dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1972.

Wayne David Johnson, A study of the piano works of Alan Hovhaness. D.M.A. dissertation, University of Cincinnati, 1986

Wayne Johnson recorded Hovhaness piano music and worked in contact with Hovhaness himself: this research explains important features of Hovhaness piano music from the beginning to the Eighties.

An invaluable source of information on Hovhaness. It contains a detailed biography, some fundamental Hovhaness’ interviews, a complete list of works and recordings, a list of live performances, and a constantly updated and useful links page. Quotes from Hovhaness’ interviews are taken from this website.

The centennial page of Hovhaness, with all the related events.

Frank Perry, English musician, wrote this interesting page on Hovhaness.

Eric Kunze is an ocean physicist who compiled an impressive discography of Hovhaness.

Facebook page on Hovhaness, managed by Marvin Rosen, pianist, who also recorded Hovhaness’ piano music.



Nicola Giosmin is an Italian pianist, composer and researcher based in Paris.

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