Monday, January 9, 2012

Beyond Nine: Shostakovich and Hovhaness

Note: This is Part 11 of my series on the greatest classical symphonies ever composed, begun two years ago. Click the keyword “Classical Music” at the end of this post to see the entire series and other writings on music. I’ll conclude with Part 12 sometime in the future.

The competition among Great Tenth Symphonies is rather sparse. Gustav Mahler did not live long enough to complete his Tenth, though a substantially finished opening movement along with four fragmentary movements remain for admirers to ponder. The 23-minute opening Adagio movement is wonderful to enjoy by itself and is occasionally performed today. Both Haydn and Mozart wrote Tenths, of course, but these were early efforts in far more extensive catalogs of work and are simply not very notable in and of themselves.

But, comparative lack of competition does not diminish the power and splendor of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Great Tenth (1953). It is, in fact, one of Shostakovich’s greatest symphonic achievements and certainly one of the masterworks of 20th century classical music.

For some reason I can’t grasp, I enjoy listening to this symphony best on a cold, clear sunny day and I generally experience it on such days in mid-winter. It begins with a slow, solemn, approaching melody of strings. It feels like a thunderstorm far away but moving closer. For now things are peaceful and open. This opening string section of the first movement is an inspiring piece despite (because of?) the brooding undertones that make it so utterly modern.

In the first crescendo the entire orchestra slowly erupts, repeating the melody the strings introduced but now harshly, as if the thunderstorm arrives, then passes. This enormous, rich and bold 25-minute opening continues to develop with the most delicate pieces for winds supported by minimalist string pucks transforming into a rather complex period where various winds and horns are featured supported by subtle percussion. Very interesting music in which to listen. A gradual build up again leads to a more violent orchestra, less melodic but more textured and occasionally outright loud. This loud period extends for several minutes and transforms into a complex, almost triumphant procession. The build-up is gradually repeated, but on the last repetition there is no eruption and the movement ends quietly with a flute, calling.

The second movement is more stately, formal, and somewhat dance-like. The entire orchestra is used to drive the symphony forward with a short, stirring 4-minute movement. Horns roar near the conclusion. The third movement returns to calm and contemplative interplay of strings. An oboe then softly introduces a stronger string section sharply punctuated by a five-note french horn which proclaims a melancholy yet promising theme.


Further into this movement the orchestra becomes a dance band reminiscent of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. This is a delightfully light and romantic moment that ultimate works itself into a frenzy before coming back to the five-note french horn (this time accompanied by several horns) towering over everything. Heroic. It is truly one of my personal favorite moments among many favorite moments of symphonic music.

The fourth movement is a very complex piece, beginning, again, with confident, brooding strings before an oboe introduces a wonderful extended period where Shostakovich presents and examines a variety of consecutive pensive orchestrated moments. This is sustained for five minutes until the pace quickens and a spritely episode is presented for several minutes. At about 8 and half minutes the final theme begins to establish itself. A crescendo of powerful orchestration which leads to two climaxes over five and half minutes, the second ending the symphony on a high note.

Admittedly, this is not a very technical examination. But, long-time readers will know that I am a musical amateur, completely untrained. My description of Shostakovich’s Great Tenth is a naïve appreciation of it and is chiefly emotional. It is one of my most treasured symphonies and, as I mentioned in the beginning, I usually listen to it at least once every year.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 (1971) is also worthy of note. The first movement is child-like with chimes and flute. It is very light, if at times authoritative. Shostakovich freely mixes the basic theme from the William Tell Overture in with the lighthearted composition. The second movement is heavier, opening with brass before moving slowly onward, almost adrift at times, through various sections of the orchestra. A solo trombone is nicely featured at one point. Following a brief crescendo by the entire orchestra there is a wonderful interplay of vibraphone and bass. That movement ends quietly and is taken up by an absurdist, playful and brief third movement. A distinct heaviness returns in the fourth movement. This final part of Shostakovich’s final symphony strikes me as a wonderful summation of his life’s work. Halfway through the almost 16-minute movement, there is a magnificent struggle expressed in full orchestration. Yet the symphony ends in subdued fashion with an extended, very melodic tone, fading with accompanied chimes and percussion similar to how it began.

Alan Hovhaness is perhaps one of the lesser known composers in this series. But, he enjoyed a long and very successful career up until his death in 2000. He is noted in this “Beyond Nine” post primarily due to his prodigious output. He created an astonishing 67 numbered symphonies. Highly unusual in this modern time when most composers explore symphonic music outside the strict “symphony” definition.

An interesting side-note. The quantitative record for the most symphonies ever composed, surpassing even Haydn, belongs to the still-living composer Lief Segerstam. To date he has written some 253(!) symphonies. That is almost mind-blowing in itself. Most of these symphonies are of extremely short duration, of course, coming in at less that 20-minutes total, like much of Mozart’s early works. What I have heard I haven’t particularly cared for, but perhaps more research is needed on my part. If nothing else, Segestam’s work is another indication that classical music is anything but stagnant or dead.

I find much of Hovhaness to be highly satisfying, however. Of the symphonies I own by him many I cannot compare in this series. From the beginning, I have only considered symphonies that are composed with “full orchestration.” This disqualifies many works. Another living composer I enjoy, John Corigliano, created a wonderful Symphony No. 1 (1991). But, it did not make the short list of the Great Firsts with which I began this series. Corigliano’s Second (2000) and Third (2004) symphonies are even better and are highly recommended as fine examples of modern composition. They do not fit this series, however, because the former is written for “string orchestra” and the latter for “large wind ensemble.” In other words, they are symphonies that do not use the entire orchestra.

For this same reason, many of Hovhaness’ works cannot be mentioned. He composed a number of highly accessible and entertaining symphonies that do not fit the mold of full orchestration. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of interesting “full” compositions worthy of the listener’s attention. I will mention some of them in chronological order.

Hovhaness is probably considered a mediocre composer by the classical elite. I am guessing this is the case, in part, because he tends to use the orchestra as a “big band” when introducing primary themes and melodies. That is, instead of creating rich textures with the differing orchestral sections or of pitting the orchestra against itself as is so common with, say, Shostakovich, the entire orchestra often plays the same notes in unison. I don’t mean to imply this is boring, however. The orchestration is just not very sophisticated even if the music itself is. Where Hovhaness shines is with his variations and explorations of his themes by many solo instruments usually supported by strings. In this regard, there are numerous memorable moments through his works.

One of his most famous symphonies is No. 2 (1955) subtitled “Mysterious Mountain.” Hovhaness expressed a life-long love of nature in general and in mountains in particular, composing many symphonic pieces basking in the inspiration of the green Earth and its heights. The Second is a splendid example of this and it remains one of his most performed symphonies.

His most “experimental” piece is the Symphony No. 19 “Vishnu” (1960). This 30-minute single-movement score explores the familiar contemporary territory of dissonance. It reminds me somewhat of Lutoslawski’s Great Third with all sorts of interesting and bizarre sounds ranging from blaring absurdity to buzzing stings to echoing chimes, harp, and Asian-sounding winds. The symphony is presented in various episodes. At one point it is a slow eastern dance. I say eastern because Hovhaness freely mixes original themes with traditional ones from India. At another point the symphony becomes a fantastic collection of winds playing alone in seemingly spontaneous, orchestrated improvisation, almost without structure. But, we are grounded when Hovhaness returns to his “movie score” style and the orchestra again plays as a band, repeating the earlier dance theme. Another episode features more buzzing string-play supported, again, by the winds and percussion playing notes all together. This gives way to the final episode (the last 6 minutes of the piece) where the strings are greatly muted and a bassoon with chimes, slow, deep percussion and other winds and horns allow the whole thing to just ease away in dream-like fashion. A really interesting and rewarding symphony.

Hovhaness continued to show progress in Symphony No. 22 “City of Light” commissioned by the City of Birmingham, Alabama in 1970. The liner notes of my CD summarize it as: “Music evocative of light and space, nature and spirituality, penetrates the heart with a directness and clarity unique to Hovhaness, although it is possible to detect his influences in the music of younger composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams.” Not a bad legacy to bestow upon us.

Hovhaness seems to have accelerated his devotion to the symphony as a form of musical expression in the later portion of his life. Before then he composed a variety of other musical forms including an excellent Cello Concerto (1936). But only ten years separates No. 22 and his Great No. 50 inspired by the Mount St. Helens volcanic event in 1980. I’d say completing twenty-eight symphonies in the span of a decade is indicative of a prolific concentration on the symphonic form.

The Great No. 50 (1982) begins in traditional Hovahness style. A simple orchestration, at times stating textured solo melodies, but always as a band with the entire orchestra, particularly the strings will all play the same notes most of the time. Still, there are many interesting solo juxtapositions against the movement’s band-like nature. The second movement begins magically with rapid chimes, xylophone, and slow percussion. A bassoon solo is passed along to several other flowing solo instruments that carry the theme through a steady bed of rarely leading strings. Its energy completely dissipates in the end into a comfortable silence.

The third movement of No. 50 is worthy of comparison with many other great symphonic moments I have written about in this series. It is Hovhanees’ crowning achievement. It begins with comfortable band-like strings supported by a restful, occasional solo chimes and a pleasing flute solo until, abruptly about 1 and a half minutes in, the percussion literally explodes with a loud pounding rage. Then the Horns erupt, the percussion continues to burst forth, the strings are frenzied. Horns and percussion offer crashing, absurd sounds. At about 3:15 the percussion takes over completely with a regimented pounding in an African style, filling the musical space completely.


This proceeds back to the full horns and percussion playing in a more organized fashion though still grand and crashing. The string section is a series of ripped repeated ribbons of sound creating a spherical effect. The percussion triumphs again and transitions to some splendid strings playing in a swinging, rhythmic fashion along with the beat. The Horns play their own vociferous tone as the strings continue to provide the nesting and the percussion pounds the original eruption. This carries on deep into the almost 14-minute movement. At about 8:30, more band-like string music segues to several horns and trumpets echoing a heroic theme. The trumpet, so symbolic of American classical composition, announces the final 4-minutes of the symphony which are surprisingly complex and rich, not band-like at all, in full orchestration leading to a satisfying conclusion.

Of his late work, Symphony Nos. 60 and 63 are also wonderfully entertaining pieces of music. No. 60 “To the Appalachian Mountains” (1985) is a 33-minute examination of themes previously developed by another American composer, Aaron Copland, though it certainly contains much that is distinctly Hovhaness. No. 63 “Loon Lake” (1988) is a two-movement work lasting slightly over 26-minutes. A short preamble, band-like of course, gives way to a beautiful bassoon theme, a calm in the mist. The extended second movement is carried dreamily along by lightly plucked strings and melodic flute. The movement then proceeds through numerous richly varied expressions ending with a triumphant trumpet.

I do not mean to imply that Hovhaness was a modern Haydn or Beethoven. He certainly cannot stand up in direct comparison with Mahler or even Shostakovich for that matter. But, Hovhaness created a remarkably large number of symphonies in a time when the traditional symphony was out of favor with most composers, who preferred numerous other forms for orchestral expression. A significant number of his symphonies are a great listen.

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