THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee)
Birth of Alan Hovhaness
(March 8, 1911)
Armenian American composer Alan Hovhaness is said to be one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century.
He was born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville (Massachusetts), on March 8, 1911. His father, Haroutioun Chakmakjian (1878-1973), was a professor of chemistry at Tufts College and author of a popular English-Armenian dictionary, as well as onetime editor of Hairenik. His mother, Madeleine Scott, was of Scottish ancestry, and did not especially approve that he learned about Armenian culture from his father. Until her death in 1931, the composer would sign his earliest music as Alan Scott Vaness.
Alan Hovhaness was a precocious composer who already penned operas by age 14. After initial studies at Tufts College, he studied composition at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston. In the 1930s, he composed mostly chamber music in Western modes of expression.
He would shift to a fusion of Western and Eastern music in the 1940s, starting with his job as organist at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, where he was exposed to the Armenian liturgy and the works of Komitas Vartabed. “It was through Komitas that I got the idea of saying as much as possible with the fewest possible notes,” he would write later. He got rid of most of his earliest music, and started anew to seek out his Armenian heritage. His “Armenian period” lasted from 1943 to 1951, and was benefited from the performances of important works and rave reviews in the mainstream press. The Friends of Armenian Music, a committee headed by pianist Maro Ajemian and her sister, violinist Anahid Ajemian, were instrumental in supporting him in various capacities. Maro Ajemian performed and recorded many of his works.
After a three-year stint at the Boston Music Conservatory (1948-1951), while he had married for the third time, Hovhaness gradually acquired considerable reputation. He received academic honors and a steady flow of commissions. He embarked on a more Western phase of writing and devoted himself to full-time composing. His Symphony No. 2 (Mysterious Mountain ) that premiered in 1955, brought him national recognition. MGM Records released 8 long-plays of all-Hovhaness records from 1955-1957. “Mysterious Mountain” was recorded in 1958 by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and became his most famous recording and most-performed orchestral work. To this day it is considered to be one of the best recordings ever made.
After a Fulbright research scholarship in India (1959-1960), Alan Hovhaness also visited and studied in Japan and Korea. He also visited the former Soviet Union in 1965, including Soviet Armenia. He shared his time between New York and Switzerland in the mid-1960s, while steadily maintaining his prolific output. He settled in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1970s. At this time, his music veered towards a more Western neo-romantic expression. In 1977 he married his sixth wife, Japanese soprano Hinako Fujihara. In the same year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1991 the American Composers Society and the Eastern Prelacy, by initiative of Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, celebrated the 80th birthday of Alan Hovhaness at Carnegie Hall. He directed his own works, including the premiere of his symphony No. 65 “Artsakh,” dedicated to the heroic fighters for the liberation of Karabagh and commissioned by the Prelacy.
The composer continued to be active until his 85th birthday. In 1996 his health suffered a marked decline. He passed away on June 21, 2000 at the age of 89. His official catalogue includes 67 symphonies and 434 works.