Alan Hovhaness

Alan Hovhaness (March 8, 1911 – June 21, 2000) was an American composer. He was one of the most prolific 20th-century composers, with his official catalog comprising 67 numbered symphonies (surviving manuscripts indicate over 70) and 434 opus numbers.


He was born as Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville, Massachusetts, to Haroutioun Hovanes Chakmakjian (an Armenian chemistry professor at Tufts College who had been born in Adana, Turkey) and Madeleine Scott (an American of Scottish descent who had graduated from Wellesley College). When he was five, his family moved from Somerville to Arlington, Massachusetts.


A Hovhaness family neighbor said his mother had insisted on moving from Somerville because of discrimination against Armenians there. Hovhaness was interested in music from a very early age, writing his first composition, a cantata in the early Italian style, at the age of four after being inspired by hearing a song of Franz Schubert.


His family was concerned for his late-night hours spent composing and possibly for his financial future as an artist. He decided for a short time to pursue astronomy, another of his early loves. The fascination of astronomy remained with him through his entire life and composing career, with many works titled after various planets and stars.


By age 14 he decided to devote him to composition. Among his early musical experiences were Baptist hymns and recordings of Gomidas Vartabed, an eminent Armenian composer. He composed two operas during his teenage years which were performed at Arlington High School, and composer Roger Sessions took an interest in his music during this time. Following his graduation from high school in 1929, he studied with Leo Rich Lewis at Tufts and then under Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory of Music.


In July 1934, Hovhaness traveled with his first wife, Martha Mott Davis, to Finland to meet Jean Sibelius, whose music he had greatly admired since childhood. The two continued to correspond for the next twenty years. In 1935, Hovhaness named his daughter and only child from his first marriage Jean Christina Hovhaness after Jean Christian Sibelius, her godfather and Hovhaness’s friend for three decades.


Hovhaness became interested in Armenian culture and music in 1940 as organist for the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, remaining in this position for about ten years. In 1942, he won a scholarship at Tanglewood to study in Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s master class.


During a seminar in composition, while a recording of Hovhaness’s first symphony was being played, Aaron Copland talked loudly in Spanish to Latin-American composers in the room; and at the end of the recording Leonard Bernstein went to the piano, played a melodic minor scale and remarked, “I can’t stand this cheap ghetto music.”


In 1951, he moved to the New York City where he became a full-time composer. He also worked for Voice of America where he joined as script writer, director, composer and musical consultant for the Near East and Transcaucasian sections. He lost this job when Dwight D. Eisenhower became the U.S. President in 1953. From 1959 to 1963, as part of his research trips, he visited India, Hawaii, Japan and South Korea.


He studied Carnatic music in Madras (India) and learnt playing Veena. Simultaneously, he also created a score for Carnatic orchestra Nagooran. All India Radio broadcast this work in 1960. He passed away in Seattle due to a prolonged stomach ailment. He was survived by his wife coloratura soprano Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness and daughter Jean.