Alan Hovhaness: Symphony no. 2, op. 132, ‘Mysterious Mountain’

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under John Williams
(A playlist for the recordings of the three movements of this particular performance can be found here)

I’m learning that generally speaking, I don’t care much for subtitles of works. ‘Symphony number …’ is plenty, no? In some ways, it’s only one more way to build anticipation that may not always get fulfilled for the listener. For example, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata: I don’t blame Beethoven for that one; it came from a music critic at the time named Ludwig Rellstab, but those two sonatas  (13 and 14with that opus number (#27) are both labeled quasi una fantasia. Now that I can understand. It is a comment on HOW the music should sound or the feelings it should evoke, rather than an arbitrary or concrete label attributed to the abstract experience of hearing a piece that evokes different emotions for different people.

ANYWAY, this piece was not REALLY a commission but rather a request from Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski had conducted the US premiere of Hovhaness’ first symphony in 1942, and in 1955 was to make his debut appearance with the Houston Symphony, so he asked Hovhaness to contribute something for this event. He wrote an opening fanfare he titled To a Mysterious Mountain, but Stokowski wanted more. The composer then went ahead and gave Stokowski this full-blown symphony, arguably his most popular work to date out of his 67 published symphonies. This symphony was immediately well received, sounding as if some appreciated it as a breath of fresh musical air rather than the über-modern works that pervaded the scene at the time. Nearly two decades had passed after Hovhaness had written his first symphony that
he released his second, but I want to say that I read somewhere that after the instant roaring success of this piece, he immediately began on others.

So this Mysterious Mountain thing. I can see it in a few ways. There’s not a whole lot mysterious about it, although it does evoke some feeling of ethereal otherworldliness, although not related to a mountain necessarily. It also sounds naturalistic (a word that apparently exists), or evoking sounds and feelings of being in nature, which is apparently a theme in Hovhaness’ music. The idea of the mountain I suppose I can see… the music does climb and soar and there is a very broad feeling of viewing a panorama or ascending, but I still don’t feel it is very mountainous. The naming of the piece was also a request of Stokowski, saying something to the effect that “people love names.” The opus number 132 was also sort of arbitrary, as Hovhaness hadn’t actually catalogued his works at the time, but Stokowski said people love opus numbers, so it must have one. So we have not just Symphony no. 2, but also ‘op. 132’ and ‘Mysterious Mountain.’

In any regards, the work is beautiful. I am entirely unfamiliar with any of the rest of the composer’s works, but intend to remedy that. The first movement, as I have read, is in 10/4, and I counted it out to make sure. This gives the opening theme a huge sprawling, long, drawn-out feel, since the phrases themselves are broad and spacious, much like what a landscape would look like from an elevated vantage point. It sets a mood and begins to weave a tapestry, sets the sonic vocabulary and texture, one of a smooth, rich flowing, round, soft, but substantial wall (curtain?) of sound that pushes the listener along ever so gently. It is never brash or abrupt, there is nothing out of place that ‘pierces’ or rips this curtain, but it continues to build and develop. There’s no breaking of the fourth wall here. It’s all delicately balanced.

Apparently Hovhaness made an extremely thorough study of counterpoint in his 20s, and it shows in the second (and third?) movement(s). In the recording I have, the double fugue is counted as one movement, making this a three-movement symphony, while others split the two fugues, and make it a four-movement symphony. I rather like the three-movement configuration, since the two separate fugues don’t really constitute separate movements in my mind, but just contrasting A and B portions of one middle movement. And I must say, what miraculous fantastic beautiful contrapuntal writing this is. The first (slow) half sounds almost vocal in nature, like a chant, and the harmonious smooth texture of the strings in this passage, perfectly unified, also almost convey the feeling of one pipe organ (to me). It’s gorgeous and floating and almost sacred. It’s stunning writing. It reaches its cadence and instantly the fast portion of the fugue starts, and an entirely different energy presents itself. It feels almost like a chase scene as the sound races through the orchestra and bounces around with question and answers and echoes throughout the ensemble. They again sound like one unified organism, tightly woven and intertwined and proceeding toward a climax where wind instruments for the first time in this movement really present themselves outwardly. The end of the movement builds again to a climax as tastefully monumental as the first movement’s finish before the third begins. The climactic finish of the second movement leaves one feeling satisfied enough that you may be fooled into thinking it’s good enough to be the end of the piece, but there’s one more movement left in this concise, satisfying 18-ish minute symphony. Rather than a dramatic heart-racing finale, the third movement is more pensive in nature, with an again-hymnal opening and Eastern-feeling theme. The symphony is clean, concise, straightforward, pleasing, deceivingly simple, with much depth. It’s just quite enjoyable. But I’m also very interested in the composer’s take on his work from the standpoint of an artist.

He can’t even listen to it. He said:

“I remember hearing celestial ballet in my head as I lay down to sleep from writing the work. Later, I transcribed what I heard in my sleep. After I wrote it, then heard it again in my sleep, certain versions were wrong. So I corrected it. Now I cannot bear to hear it… It’s just certain parts move me. I go out of the hall whenever the piece is performed.”

He also spoke about how he is pleased this work got recognition and did so well, but he seemed to be surprised by its overwhelming success as compared with his others. He says:

“As to Mysterious Mountain my feelings are mixed – I am happy it is popular but I have written much better music and it is a very impersonal work, in which I omit my deeper searching.”

If this man has written much better music, then I have 60+ more symphonies to go find and listen to. I thoroughly enjoyed this, but it is interesting to hear an artist’s perspective on their own work. It has always interested me that composers write things they don’t particularly like, as here. Or maybe more commonly can’t play well themselves (Schubert suggested this of his Wanderer Fantasy as did Ravel of the third movement of his Sonatine [not so much suggested he couldn’t play it as much as just didn’t perform the third movement live]), and I’m sure there are others. Then there’s Alexander Scriabin, whose sixth and eighth sonatas made him shudder and cringe with fear. He is said only to have played a few bars of the sixth for some friends, but couldn’t bear to continue playing it. And yet, despite that all, he continued writing. Starving artist? Perhaps. And a different situation than the one here, but I can’t help but wonder what that thought process is like. Hovahness is a frightening prolific composer. He speaks in one interview of having destroyed thousands of works. He wrote every day (described composing like practicing your instrument; it should be done daily), and of having a fire going in the fireplace for weeks on end as he burned pile after pile of composition. So for this one to have remained must mean something, if nothing else than he respected Stokowski’s request. The relationship an artist has with his work is obviously different than the audience, and this one seems to be almost the polar opposite for the audience. It’s pleasing, serene, fulfilling, enjoyable, deceptively rich, and all around tasteful. Check this piece out. It could be the most enjoyable 18-ish minutes of your day.


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