Fall Concert - Inspired by Mountains
Saturday, November 19 · 8:00 PM, Cohan CTR
The Cal Poly Symphony kicks off its 2005-2006 season with two extraordinary musical responses to the natural world: Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, Pastorale. For Hovhaness, mountains were "symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds" - places where we attempt to know the Divine. Beethoven tried to spend more waking hours outside than in, taking long walks every day and spending summers in the countryside. His Sixth Symphony is an expression of his love of the world around him.
Hovhaness - Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain"
"Things which are complicated tend to disappear and get lost. Simplicity is difficult, not easy. Beauty is simple. All unnecessary elements are removed - only essence remains."
- Alan Hovhaness
Alan Hovhaness was born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian on March 8, 1911 in Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. Neither his Armenian father - a professor at Tufts - nor his Scottish mother encouraged him to study music. He gravitated toward music anyway, and began to compose very early, using his own notation. By the age of 14, he had decided to become a composer and wrote his first operas. To avoid parental reprimand, he had to compose at night, in the bathroom, and hide his works under the bathtub.
He went on to study at the New England Conservatory and at Tanglewood, but his main influences were outside the mainstream. As a young boy, he was drawn to the hills of New England, where he enjoyed long walks and had metaphysical experiences. All his life, he would seek out mountains, first by living in Switzerland and then in Seattle, where he made his permanent home.
His musical curiosity, at first fixed entirely on Sibelius, was piqued by what we might call 'world music' today. He listened to Armenian and Kurdish singers, and when he became the organist at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, came to know early liturgical Armenian music. At St. James, he studied the music of the composer-priest, Komitas Vartabed, from whom he "got the idea of saying as much as possible with the fewest possible notes."
At a time when Indian classical music was little-known in the US, Hovhaness was lucky to see Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar's brother, in Boston in 1936. This experience, coupled with his knowledge of Armenian music, led him on a path toward Eastern models.
Once Hovhaness realized his true direction lay in simplicity and Eastern models, he destroyed almost all of his music - several hundred works at this point. He devoted himself to creating music of pure melodic incantation, using non-western scales and little harmony. He also started including aleatoric sections, which he called "spirit murmur," where individual players repeated melodies with no attempt to stay together as an ensemble.
In the mid 1940's, Hovhaness' fortunes began to change. His music was championed by various instrumentalists and such eminent composers as Virgil Thomson. In 1951, he moved to New York and began composing full-time. He wrote for radio, dance (including works for Martha Graham), television and theater. His music became less strictly Armenian, and included more diverse influences such as Renaissance polyphony and Indian classical music. He also explored greater possibilities in harmony and timbre. His new found success reached a culmination in his most popular work: Symphony No. 2, or "Mysterious Mountain."
Mysterious Mountain was premiered by Leopold Stokowski with the Houston Symphony in 1955, and was an immediate success. Apparently, Hovhaness added the subtitle to the work on Stokowski's recommendation, but the title is apt. We should remember here the young Hovhaness, wandering the hills of New England, lost in metaphysical musings. To him, mountains represented "symbols, like pyramids, of man's attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds."
This Symphony is one of Hovhaness most Western works, inspired as much by Renaissance vocal music as by Eastern scales. While we do hear echoes of the East in the modes of many melodies, and in otherworldly celeste arabesques, we also hear two fugues, one of Europe's great musical legacies.
The first movement is mostly hymn-like, with a multitude of voices weaving their way around each other. Superimposed on the pure sound of this hymn are discordant plucked notes in the basses and ethereal flourishes in the celeste.
The second movement is a double fugue - Hovhaness once said that he composed fugues to occupy himself! The first fugue, inspired by Renaissance vocal music, is relaxed and fluid. The second is energetic and bustling. Near the end, the main melody of the first fugue is layered on top of the second fugue. The movement ends with tremendous energy.
After this climax, Hovhaness brings us a meditative last movement. We first hear hymns in the brass. Then a single melody is repeated, each time played louder and by more intruments. Like a huge wave, it crests and subsides before the movement returns to its contemplative hymn.
Beethoven - Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral"
The premier of the Sixth Symphony took place on December 22, 1808, in Vienna. It was part of a marathon concert of Beethoven's music that also included the premier of the Fifth Symphony, the Choral Fantasy, Fourth Piano Concerto, movements from the Mass in C, and the concert aria "Ah! perfido." To make sure his audience was not left wanting, Beethoven also included a solo improvisation at the piano - a feat for which he was renowned. The music was terribly under-rehearsed, and the hall's heating had broken down. One wonders what those in attendance remembered of the whole affair.
With hindsight, we can say that they witnessed music that would deeply influence composers for generations. As late as 1872, Johannes Brahms would say, "I shall never write a symphony! You can't have any idea what it's like always to hear such a giant marching behind you." The giant, of course, was Beethoven.
Beethoven wrote the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies at the same time - the years 1807 and 1808 - and in them introduced new possibilities for unifying multi-movement works that later composers would grapple with for years: he made reference to a central motive in each movement of the Fifth - the motive, ta-ta-ta-TA, is possibly the most famous musical idea in our collective memory; the Fifth also follows an emotional trajectory from struggle to triumph that is widely imitated even to this day; the Sixth follows a general narrative, or story.
As can be seen, each movement of the Pastoral carries with it a descriptive phrase. Beethoven supplied these himself, but found it necessary to add a subtitle to the whole work: "more an expression of feeling than painting." This distinction is a crucial one. On the one hand, music can be used simply to imitate (paint) nature; composers before Beethoven had imitated barnyard animals, among other things, and composers after him (notably Richard Strauss) found musical expression for just about everything. However, music in these cases might be seen to be the servant of the image or story. Instead, music can suggest those emotions one feels while in nature. This seems to be Beethoven's main goal here.
The narrative of the Pastoral is a series of scenes: the arrival in the country, a scene by a brook, a village dance that is interrupted by a thunderstorm, and thankful feelings after the storm has passed. Surprisingly, this exact structure (and even similar descriptive titles) was used decades before, in 1783, by a certain Justin Heinrich Knecht. The Pastoral has become a staple of orchestral repertoire, while Knecht is largely forgotten - no doubt because of the power of Beethoven's music, rather than the story.
The first movement, "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country," does not begin so much as it comes within earshot. Over a drone in the violas and cellos, the violins spin out a brief, peaceful melody and then come to rest. What follows is the essence of this movement, if not the symphony: parts of this first, peaceful melody are repeated again and again. The effect is calming, almost hypnotic, and one senses the beautiful repetition of leaves on trees, or gently rolling hills. The process is best heard halfway through the movement, when a short melody is repeated no fewer than 36 times over slowly evolving chords. In such lazily unfolding music, the gentlest change in instrumentation, harmony or rhythm feels like glimpsing a whole new vista.
The second movement arose from sketches Beethoven made in 1803, when he was working on his Third Symphony. It was his habit to take long walks in the outskirts of Vienna, and work through his musical ideas on the trail, pulling out a sketchbook when inspiration came. That summer, he jotted down a theme and called it "murmur of the brook ... the more water the deeper the note." This theme became the gently undulating music of this movement. First played by second violins, violas and two muted cellos, this is both an evocation of rippling water, and the peaceful meditation of the artist by the brook. The movement ends with birdsong; Beethoven marks in the score that the solo flute is a nightingale, the oboe a quail, and two clarinets together are a cuckoo. While each instrument imitates the sound of each bird, this music also functions as a woodwind cadenza before the conclusion of the movement.
The third movement suggests a village dance, or rather two alternating dances: one is a playful dance in a quick three, and the other a rustic dance in two, where one can easily imagine raucous stomping and thigh-slapping. The festivities end abruptly, as one strains to hear the distant rumble of an approaching storm. When the storm arrives in full fury, Beethoven unleashes all of the dissonance that has been notably absent from the symphony so far, and also introduces instruments withheld until now: a piccolo, perfect for howling wind, trombones and timpani for thunder claps. With what is basically a small, classical orchestra, Beethoven is able to evoke the raw power and ruthless violence of nature.
As the storm passes, a rising flute line gives way to a shepherd's song. This song, faintly reminiscent of yodeling, is passed from the clarinet to the horn before the violins take it up at length. As Beethoven made clear in his writings, this last movement gives thanks to God for the passing of the storm, and for the beautiful creation that has emerged unscathed.
Notes: 2005, David Arrivée