SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC presents the Celestial Fantasy, Op. 44, composed by Alan Hovhaness, performed below by members of the Israel Philharmonic, David Amos conducting.
About the Composer:
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) grew up in the Boston area. His father, a chemistry professor at Tufts, was from Armenia, and this heritage profoundly influenced the composer’s music. In the ’40’s, he worked as an organist at an Armenian church and was struck by the unique harmonies of the Armenian liturgy, especially in the choral music of priest-composer Komitas, a martyr of the Armenian genocide whom Hovhaness described as “the original minimalist.” Hovhaness studied composition briefly with Martinů at the Tanglewood Institute in 1942, but felt alienated by the competitiveness of his fellow students Bernstein and Copland and left before the summer was through. Shortly after this disappointment, Hovhaness came into contact with Hermon di Giovanno, a painter and mystic, who opened the composer to a world of mysticism and spirituality. Hovhaness received fellowships (including the prestigious Guggenheim) to travel to India, Japan, Hawaii, and Soviet-controlled Armenia. He often incorporated the music he heard and the sights he saw abroad into his compositional style.
About the Piece:
Hovhaness’ travels, his spirituality, and his Armenian ancestry coalesced to forge in his compositions deep connections to nature, the past, and the divine. The Celestial Fantasy epitomizes these influences: his visits to Armenian heritage sites in the U.S.S.R. introduced him to the hymn-like tune which opens the piece; his spiritual beliefs are clearly encapsulated in the title; and the piece is dedicated to St. Nerses, a poet and priest who led the Armenian church in the 12th century. Like the “minimalism” of the Armenian church music to which he was so attracted, the Fantasy is repetitive and hypnotic. It is very dark in color: the strings play with a low center of gravity, and move in unisons or octaves to create a thick texture. The Fantasy centers on the hymn-tune heard at the very beginning of the piece — not an actual Armenian hymn, but definitely reflecting the style and modal harmony (bleh, music theory) of traditional Armenian music. The hymn is transformed throughout the piece — for example, Hovhaness sets it for different instruments (first cellos, then violas, and so on), and by two minutes in he has turned the simple theme into a complex fugue (think Bach) — so the entire time, we hear this same melody over and over, sometimes obscured by layers of sound, sometimes floating on top of the orchestra. True to the text Hovhaness marked at the top of the score — “noble and heroic” — the piece ends with the most glorious chord in the history of forever. Absolutely celestial.