And God Created Great Whales, op. 229 no. 1

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            All accomplished composers find their own voices, and thus may be said to be “unique.”   But within this distinction, most are heard as part of a broader stream of musical style, often with familiar traditions, sound, and techniques.  Thus, for most folks Brahms is comprehended as following the path of Beethoven; late Stravinsky or Copland took up much of the direction of many of Schoenberg’s ideas.  However, Alan Hovhaness is refreshingly and often startlingly different from any path of preceding tradition.  He truly is one of a kind, sui generis.  While the major ethnic and musical influences upon his music are generally familiar, it is his unique personal artistic vision, combined with a diverse, mystic, and intense philosophical bent of reflection that pulls together a remarkable array of influences into one attractive body of work.  And it is a large one, over four hundred compositions, including more than seventy symphonies.

            He is an American composer, with an Armenian father and a mother of Scottish descent, who was born, educated, and grew into maturity in the arms of New England.  Born in a suburb of Boston, he studied at the New England Conservatory and with American luminaries of musical composition.  Early on, he was a student of the music of the Renaissance and other aspects of traditional European musical styles.  He had started composing at a fairly early age, and the style of these youthful works fell clearly into that traditional mode. But, along the way he was influenced by classical Indian music, as well as by an interest in meditation and mysticism.  These two divergent focuses came to an artistic collision, so to speak, in 1943, when he was a scholarship student at the famed summer classes at Tanglewood, home of the Berkshire Music Center.  There, in a class taught by Bohuslav Martinů, he felt deeply ridiculed by Aaron Copland, and rudely insulted by Leonard Bernstein.  The upshot of these deprecations was that he foreswore music of  (in his own words) “fads, artificial mannerisms and false sophistications.”  Meaning music that just about everybody else in the classical music world of the 1940s revered.  Basically, he more or less said: to Hell with all of these intellectuals and their closed society---I will go my own way.  Which he manifestly did.  Thereafter, he took his grandfather’s Armenian name, commenced an intensive study of Armenian music, and reinvented himself as an “Armenian” composer.  He later extended this interest into a broad study and integration into his own work of the musical traditions of Japan, Korea, Georgia, and of course, India.  Thus the color, rhythm, scales, modes, and layered textures of these cultures were combined in myriad ways to create his own inimitable style.  All of these non-Western influences became tools of expression for a mind that was profoundly committed to a mystic, evocative style that could be variously serene, other worldly, mystical, exotically majestic, ecstatic, or even nostalgic for an unknown time and place.  To this mix, he could nevertheless easily throw in a goodly dose of a Handel chorale or a Palestrina motet--and make it all work beautifully!  His was not a music of technique and artifice as an end within itself; he always was inspired by evocative landscapes, times, and philosophical concepts.  Thus we typically encounter compositions with titles such as, Hymn to Yerevan, Return and Rebuild Desolate Places, Mysterious Mountain, Nanga Parvat, and And God Created Great Whales.

            Hovhaness articulated straightforwardly an intent to avoid an emphasis on “small things while the great truths . . . [are] overlooked.”  Further:  “Music must become virile to express big things.”  These ideas and his deep engagement and respect for nature found perfect expression in his evocation of Genesis 1:21-- “And God created great whales, and every living thing that moveth . . . . )  Written in 1970, about the time that the composer moved to Seattle, where he spent the rest of his life, it celebrates the mystery and enormity of the humpback, bowhead, and killer whales.   Owing to the integration of actual recordings of these three species into the texture of the symphony orchestra, the work is an example of what is sometimes called “biomusic.”  While certainly a novelty for most, the concept is more common than one would think, and is encountered frequently in experimental music.  Probably the first example would have been the recording of a nightingale heard in Ottorino Respighi’s 1924 composition, The Pines of Rome.  In his “whale” piece Hovhaness skillfully juxtaposes layers of sound, in the manner of a Javanese gamelan orchestra:  light, higher register, repetitive rhythms accompanied by modal melodies in the middle layer, with dark, deep sonorities down below.  The whales then take the stage, followed by Hovhaness’s signature massive octaves and ripping trombone glissandi.  Washes of sonic glitter from the percussion, “tweeting” woodwinds, and string harmonics all add to the exotic evocation of the tableau.  After the whales leave, the orchestra again takes up a mélange of the composer’s favorite sonorities to complete a remarkable demonstration of the rich capability of the “old-fashioned” symphony orchestra to create stunning contemporary sounds.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan