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Program Notes – April 22, 2006

Symphony no. 2 “Mysterious Mountain”

Alan Hovhaness (1911 – 2000)

Alan Hovhaness is almost certainly America’s most prolific composer, and his unique style also makes him as one of our most original. Born in Somerville, Massachusetts as Alan Chakmakjian, his father was Armenian and his mother Scottish. Even though he grew up in a typically American family, his childhood exposed him to the Armenian culture, both musically and spiritually. Even before he attended the New England Conservatory for formal training, he had begun composing. His works were influenced not only by the music of his father’s Armenian heritage, but even more so by his own personal fascination with mysticism and meditation.

While learning the craft of composition he fell under the spell of Eastern music (especially that of India) and found a way to blend this with his Armenian identity and traditional Western composition techniques, which led him to a unique and personal style. After leaving the Conservatory he wrote a considerable body of music, in forms ranging from choral to full symphony orchestra. He began to attract a lot of attention as an “up and coming” young composer. However, in summer of 1942 he spent some time at the Tanglewood Institute of the Boston Symphony, where he attended master classes in composition. His early works were severely criticized by Aaron Copland and Lucas Foss, which shook his confidence. As a result, he destroyed or withdrew many of his existing works, and set out to re-think his compositional style. After reflection, he began to compose again, mostly in “miniature” forms. This second period lasted until the early 1950’s, and once again re-established his reputation.

Gradually, he realized that the miniature forms he currently employed were too restricted – as if the artist’s palette held too few colors for the pictures envisioned. Hovhaness thus returned to large-scale forms, including the full orchestra, but still based on the musical language he had developed after Copland’s devastating criticism. His Symphony no. 2, subtitled Mysterious Mountain (written in 1955) was his first symphony as a mature composer.

His fascination with Eastern philosophies and meditation carries over to his music. Almost all of his works have a spiritual character. Although it is sometimes religious, it is seldom liturgical. Frequently his works invoke spirituality rather than overtly representing it. It is as if he wants the listener to explore his inner self rather than participate in the formal beliefs of others. Many of his works are inspired by natural subjects, and cross over the metaphysical boundary between the universe of perception and the universe of mystical imagination. He was especially fascinated by the solitary mountain, whose rise toward its peak was a metaphor for ascent toward something unknown, but transcendentally great.

Hovhaness employs a number of non-traditional compositional techniques seldom used by composers before the twentieth century. Most of his harmonic language is based on modality (unusual scale patterns underlying the music of many Eastern cultures, which differ from the traditional Western major and minor scales). Rather than dissonance, he employs Western consonant chords, but with a few notes changed to give them an “exotic” sound. In the hands of other composers, these techniques often lead to music that is confusing and hard to like at first hearing.

Not so with Hovhaness. He has always been concerned that his music have an overriding beauty in its first aural impression. With only occasional exceptions, his exoticism is restful and meditative rather than harsh and chaotic. His Second Symphony is a perfect example. Evoking images of transcendental grandeur, it was chosen to provide much of the background music for the acclaimed PBS Television series Cosmos, in which Carl Sagan explored the mysteries of the universe, whose “billions and billions of stars” are metaphorically equivalent to the Mysterious Mountain evoked by this mystical American composer.

Excerpts from “Susannah”

Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926)

The story of Susannah, originally part of the apocryphal portion of the Old Testament Book of Daniel, has inspired various artists throughout history, such as Titian’s masterpiece “Susannah at the Bath”. Carlisle Floyd, fresh from his musical studies at Syracuse University, had just accepted a teaching position at Florida State when he also fell under Susannah’s spell. The ensuing opera, which is generally accepted as his masterwork, won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award for best new opera of 1956. A case can be made for calling it the greatest traditional opera ever written by an American composer (with acknowledgements to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Hanson’s Merry Mount).

In the original story, two well-respected elders of the church spied on a young maiden at the bath. Her beauty filled them with desire, which they acted upon. When she refused their advances they threatened to denounce her to the community for seducing them, unless she bent to their will. Still she refused. When they carried out their threat at a public trial, Susannah was condemned to death on the basis of their lies. Before her execution, though, the Prophet Daniel questioned the elders and cleverly elucidated the lies in their story, thereby saving the innocent young girl.

Floyd’s Susannah (for which he wrote his own libretto) updates the original story, setting it in the fictional town of New Hope, Tennessee. Susannah is a simple teen-ager living with her brother Sam. The women of the community, jealous of her beauty, consider her evil – “the Devil’s in her,” reads a line in the opera – but she is guilty of nothing more than naïve innocence. One day several church elders, while looking for a site to conduct baptisms, espy her bathing in a stream. Initially they are captivated by her unclothed beauty. Eventually, however, the hypocritically condemn her for her sin: nakedly exposing herself for anyone to see (in the privacy of her privat bathing spot, of course, which had been secret until they stumbled upon it!)

The preacher calls on her to confess her sins, but she refuses – believing that she has done nothing wrong. The church elders denounce her as evil, and force her only friend (a young boy) to lie, saying that Susannah had seduced him. The community decides to officially shun her until she repents publicly. Eventually, the emotional pressure wears her down and she attends a revival meeting. The preacher is captivated at first sight. He follows her home and attempts to seduce her. Weary from her experiences, she give in to his advances. The next day, mortified at what he has done, the preacher tries to convince the congregation that Susannah has been innocent all along. However, without revealing his own indiscretion he has little success.

Susannah’s brother returns home from a trip. Learning what the preacher has done, he takes his revenge with a shotgun. The church community forces Sam to take flight, and then vows to make Susannah flee from the valley. At the end, her innocence destroyed and her mind deranged from her experiences, she stands her ground and refuses to be driven from her home.

For today’s performance, Roman Pawlowski’s transcription combines the Prelude with three songs that establish moods for several scenes in the opera. His synthesis weaves a spell that shows the simple beauty of Floyd’s music.

Symphony no. 2, op. 43

Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

Jean Sibelius is so strongly identified with Finnish nationalism that it is surprising to learn that he was of Swedish descent (his family had emigrated from Sweden). In fact, he didn’t even learn to speak Finnish until his early teens. His original name was Johan, but he later adopted the French-sounding “Jean” to affect an image of aristocracy in contrast to his peasant origins. Nevertheless, his music personifies Finland in a way that no other composer has ever done. Indeed, few composers of any nation have ever come to represent their homeland more than Sibelius has for Finland. Many of his tone poems were inspired by the semi-mythological national epic tale, the Kalevala. His incidental piece Finlandia (performed a few years ago by the Immaculata Symphony) was deliberately composed as an outright appeal to Finnish patriotism. The Symphonies, too, universally portray the Nordic character of his homeland.

Although Brahms is usually cited as the composer who had achieved the fullest command of his powers before tackling a symphony, Sibelius equally deserves this description. When he first began to compose symphonies he had already written more large-scale orchestral music than Brahms had at the same stage of his career. His works included a massive five-movement cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra (based, of course, on the Kalevala) which was essentially symphonic in form and scope. A prolific writer of songs, he had already developed his skills at inventing a memorable melody and adapting its development for a full orchestra. This technique became the cornerstone of his symphonic composing, at least for his early symphonies. He was more than ready to embark on the path that eventually led to acclamation as one of the world’s greatest Romantic era symphonists.

Sibelius completed seven symphonies. If one includes the cantata Kullervo – essentially a symphony – he was one short of the number nine, which enumerated the symphonic career of so many major composers. Ironically, after he ceased composing (one short of the fateful number) he lived for almost another fifty years!

Sibelius approached each of these seven symphonies differently, deliberately exploring the universe of expression available in the Romantic symphonic form (which was far less contrained than in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn). The range of musical territory covered in his symphonic journey is arguably more than any other composer, excepting Mahler. Yet, somehow, the entire output is cut from the same cloth. He developed one of the most unmistakable and characteristics styles of all major composers. His music has come to embody the northland, especially Finland.

Alone among his symphonies, the Second Symphony has always been described in programmatic terms. Commentators in his own time, as well as the modern era, have interpreted this work in nearly the same way. In a review immediately after the premiere (conducted by Sibelius, himself) the respected Finnish conductor and musical scholar Robert Kajanus described the symphony as a musical projection of the political situation in Finland, under Russian rule at the time: “The Andante second movement acts as an overwhelming protest against all the wrongs which threaten in our day to deny the sun its light and our flowers their scent.” Considering that Finlandia had already been deliberately intended to arouse patriotic feelings, it is hard to avoid this interpretation.

The bassoon solo in the second movement practically drips with pathos, perhaps portraying the suffering of the Finnish people under the yoke of Imperial Russia. The third movement is a frenetic scherzo, which Kajanus described as “… a picture of hurried preparations. Everyone does his bit, every fibre vibrates …” The ending of the scherzo gradually transforms from a feeling of frenzy to an awakening. There is an unmistakable sense that something big is about to happen. The music continues without pause into a fourth movement which presents consecutive episodes of oppression and struggle to overcome. Both themes are set in minor keys, with the dramatic tension building gradually until the theme representing oppression is transformed into a glorious major-key finale. It is difficult to hear this ending and feel anything but the triumph of underdog heroes against impossible foes – David and Goliath, set in Nordic timbres. (As a brief aside, it should be pointed out that the glorious melody expressing this victory is played by only two instruments: the first trumpet and the first trombone. The rest of the orchestra is “merely” a splendid tapestry of background for their proclamation).

A friend of Sibelius, after reading Kajanus’ analysis, wrote that “It does not matter whether Sibelius was thinking of other things. It is clear that the feelings are so deep and strong that these things [Kajanus’ interpretation] can be found in the music … it fetches its strength from a wider area than that which is clear in the mind of its creator.” Sibelius steadfastly denied originally intending any patriotic interpretation. When he heard of this analysis he praised his friend’s insight, but left the matter unresolved with a cryptic statement: “He is right about the mind of the artist. There is a funny thing about this. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than heaven ever dreamed of.”

What did the composer really intend? Who knows? The music must stand alone on its own merits. However, whatever the programme (if there really was one) might be, the music speaks to the most fundamental elements of human struggle against overwhelming odds – and its ultimate, inevitable triumph. For the author of these notes, this is one of the greatest symphonies ever written.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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