Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by mountains. I remember reading books about all the ranges and peaks of the world, and I could probably still rattle off the list of the highest peaks by continent that I took great pride in knowing (much like Rosie Perez in “White Men Can’t Jump,” I am overwhelmed with more useless goddamn information than any human being on this fucking planet). Having used to live in the Pacific Northwest, I miss having mountains around; it was nice to be able to just look through your windshield at Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams or Mt. Whatever (although I must confess that the trade of beautiful mountains for epic Midwest thunderstorms might be a push). Most of my family still lives in Tacoma, WA, where on any reasonably clear day you can get a look at what is easily the coolest yet most uncomfortably terrifying mountain in the world, Mt. Rainier. The Cascades have a remarkable number of gorgeous peaks. Small wonder, then, that the Northwest would be the settling place for music’s all-time mountain lover, Alan Hovhaness.
Hovhaness’ most famous work is his Symphony no. 2, known more widely by its subtitle Mysterious Mountain. Soon after its completion, Hovhaness offered the following explanation for his choice of title:
Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds. To some, the Mysterious Mountain may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet. To some, it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside–Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta or Grand Teton. . .
Mysterious Mountain is unquestionably a masterpiece, and one of the greatest compositions of the 20th century. It has a remarkably interesting structure. The outer movements have the powerful feeling of unshakable calm that comes with the destruction of musical time, and the sense of isolation and stillness is palpable. The inner movement is a meticulously executed double fugue that Bach would have been proud of, with a hymn-like tune floating through the orchestra in the first subject, and a frenzied electrical storm of activity in the strings in the second. Hovhaness was deeply conscious of the spiritual element of music, and strove to communicate that in his own compositions, and Mysterious Mountain succeeds in a way few other works of art do. This is music to be experienced, not just heard.
2. Double Fugue
3. Andante espressivo
Hovhaness would write several more works dealing with his metaphysical connection to mountains, including 7 symphonies. The most notable of these is the one about what is probably the most notable mountain in the United States: Symphony no. 50, Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens is one of many active volcanoes in the Cascade range (Mount Rainier is another) and is part of the pacific Ring of Fire. The volcano erupted on 18 May 1980, killing 57 people and causing well over $2 billion of damage. Alan Hovhaness was reportedly witness to the event, and he was inspired to create a work celebrating the mountain and its evolution.
The Symphony no. 50 occupies a similar sound world to the Symphony no. 2 in many ways. The first movement is a depiction of St. Helens itself, a breathtakingly beautiful landscape captured sonically in much the same way that the mysterious mountain was almost 30 years earlier, through the free-flowing hymn-like tranquility that Hovhaness is often associated with. Movement two is a representation of Spirit Lake, a lake near the mountain in which the reflection of the entire mountain could be seen (it was devastated by the debris from the eruption, and to this day is covered with tons of logs from the blast, but it has recovered substantially in 30 years). The music features Hovhaness’ other chief compositional characteristic, that being Eastern influences. Obsessive glockenspiel rhythms, extensive use of mallet percussion, and gong all play huge roles in the movement, and it glides gracefully along in a gentle almost-waltz feel. The finale brings the eruption itself, a cataclysmically violent outburst quite unlike anything I’ve ever heard, with intense forward momentum, especially in the percussion. However, even the destruction is only temporary, and the music gives way to a celebratory mood symbolic of the rebirth of the landscape, keeping with Hovhaness’ mystical conception of mountains.
2. Spirit Lake (Allegro)
3. Volcano (Adagio-Allegro)
Hovhaness is an easy composer to pick on, and especially when viewed in the context of his contemporaries, he is not often looked upon favorably; he seems behind the times. Early in his musical career, he was passionately devoted to the music of Sibelius, and in fact traveled to Finland to meet the famous composer in 1934 (they exchanged correspondence for the next 20 years). Hovhaness’ earliest works exhibit this devotion to Sibelius, but he eventually destroyed them. He sought his own style, and by the early 1940’s, he had begun crafting that style through his interest in Armenian culture and eventually in his journeys to Asia. Ironically, in his quest to escape the long shadow of Sibelius, he ended up emulating the Finn in the best way imaginable: by having a truly one-of-a-kind sound that was defiantly true to his musical and spiritual principles, no matter what was going on around him. Happy 100th, Mr. Hovhaness.