Symphony no. 2 “Mysterious Mountain”, mvt. 3 by Alan Hovhaness
Mysterious Mountain is one of the absolute apexes of twentieth-century music. In a way it seems like the musical equivalent of hipsters who like PBR and shitty hats, damn near dripping in what you’d like to think is irony for things like “tonal harmony” and “Baroque form.” But perhaps more than any composer not named Anton Bruckner, Hovhaness was a genuinely spiritual man whose compositions ultimately manifest the simple worship of life, nature, and beauty.
It wasn’t always this way, though. Hovhaness destroyed his entire early output, insisting on a fresh start for his compositional career. In 1942 Hovhaness went to Tanglewood to study in a master class being taught by Bohuslav Martinu, but he ended up leaving after a shitty experience: while a recording of his first symphony played, Aaron Copland apparently talked loudly in Spanish over it so people couldn’t hear and Leonard Bernstein allegedly went to the piano after it was over, played a minor scale, and said he was tired of this “ghetto music.” Just another friendly reminder that our heroes are fucking assholes, y’all.
I’m going to retroactively give Hovhaness the last laugh though, because Mysterious Mountain is better than anything either of those two legends of American music wrote, and by no small margin either. It is a perfect, succinct, magical piece. The opening movement is essentially an extended hymn, punctuated by dreamy interjections from the harp and celesta. The middle movement is a bad-ass double fugue that Bach would be proud of, the opening section maintaining the peace of the opening movement, the second section ripping shit up and generating enough energy to power a small city or whatever death machine makes us still care about Miley Cyrus.
But the real magic comes in the finale, which shares some stylistic similarities with the first movement, only on majesty steroids; it’s really a six-minute summation of Hovhaness’ mature style. It begins with a muted chorale in the brass in 7/4 with heavy emphasis on the mysterious thing from the title. After that it launches into what the composer referred to as a “giant wave” in the smoothest 13-beat pattern you’ll ever hear in your life, a bit of a synthesis of the previous movement’s struggle with the noble brass constantly fighting to stave off the frenzied insistence of the strings. This melts away and the gentle hymn-like feeling (and the scoring to match) of the first movement is back in full force, only this time the dynamic swells reach higher and the colors shine brighter. It ultimately builds to a powerful climax that recedes gently away into the ether, completely at peace.
In a work filled with many beautiful highlights, none tops the glorious woodwind chorale that serves as the fulcrum of the finale. It’s led by the oboe, but the support in the clarinets brings incredible richness. The bass clarinet in particular shows out like nowhere else this side of Mahler, providing a woodsy bass for the harmonies and, if that’s not enough, busting out the most breathtakingly gorgeous ascending line to cap the first large phrase of the chorale. I don’t imagine the bass clarinet to be all that awesome to play as a matter of course, but this would make it worth it.
There’s something to be said for going against the grain, even it runs the risk of being ridiculed. Hovhaness, to this day, is the subject of jokes about everything from the sheer size of his output (he burned damn near 1000 pieces from his early days too folks!) to the perceived simplicity of his music. But he has a sound all his own, and a sort of mystical style that is definitively linked to who he was as a man, and no amount of criticism can take that away. His music provides me with a great sense of peace, nothing more so than the finale of his greatest and most famous work.