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Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), Acclaimed as one of America’s most often performed and prolific composers, he occupies a unique position among the major composers of the Twentieth Century.  Born on March 8, 1911 to Haroutiun Hovhanes Chakmakjian, an Armenian American professor of chemistry at Tufts College and Madeleine Scott Chakmakjian of Scottish descent and a Wellesley College graduate, Alan Hovhaness grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts and graduated from the Arlington High School in 1929. 


He began composing from the early age of seven. His first piece an opera, “Daniel” was written when he was in junior high school. He studied piano with Adelaide Proctor and Heinrich Gebhard, and later under Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory of Music (1932). He considered his main teachers Hermon DiGiovanno, a Greek mystic painter, and Masataro Togi, a great Gagaku musician of Japan.  In 1943 DiGiovanno guided him into the ancient world of Armenia, Greece, Egypt, and India.

During the 1940s, he earned a meager income as an organist at the St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he studied the art of ancient Armenian music, further expanding his interests in Eastern music and Eastern culture. Tragically, it was at this point in his life, that Hovhaness repudiated his early works, destroying most of them (about one thousand scores in all!). 

Later he became a professor at the Boston Conservatory of Music and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.   In 1954 he wrote the score for the Broadway play, The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets, and then two scores for NBC documentaries. His biggest breakthrough came in 1955, when his Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain, was commissioned for Leopold Stokowski's debut with the Houston Symphony. That year MGM Records released recordings of a number of his works.

            From 1966 until his death in 2000 he was composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. As a tribute to his musical genius Hovhaness received numerous awards from American institutions, such as the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright Scholar, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Hovhaness’ compositions exceed 500, including 9 operas, 2 ballets, and 67 symphonies. Summing up Hovhaness’ rich musical career Time Magazine wrote “No other American composer has absorbed the breadth of musical history as Hovhaness nor has or been temperamentally equipped to express his response to it so naturally.”

His music is accessible to the lay listener and often invokes a mood of mystery or contemplation. Boston Globe music critic Richard Buell wrote: "Although he has been stereotyped as a self-consciously Armenian composer (rather as Ernest Bloch is seen as a Jewish composer), his output assimilates the music of many cultures. What may be most American about all of it is the way it turns its materials into a kind of exoticism. The atmosphere is hushed, reverential, mystical, nostalgic."

As part of its Armenian Diaspora Music Project, the Armenian Cultural Foundation initiated the idea of developing the Alan Hovhaness Collection in 2009 on the occasion of and concurrent with erecting a memorial dedicated to the composer in his hometown Arlington, Massachusetts in 2009.

           The Alan Hovhaness Collection catalogue presented here is one of the four largest and most comprehensive collections of documents on the life and artistic legacy of the world renowned composer. The other three centers with major holdings are the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., University of Seattle in the State of Washington, and the International Alan Hovhaness Research Center in Yerevan, Armenia.

Click here for The Alan Hovhaness Collection.