Music by Alan Hovhaness
2021 marks 110 years from the birth of Alan Hovhaness. An extremely prolific composer with more than 500 opus numbers, Hovhaness’ position is unique in classical music. Refraining from adhering to the European avant-garde, Hovhaness decided to delve into both classical polyphony and the eastern music traditions. Other influences he deemed crucial were Handel, Bach, Sibelius - and beyond music he loved to refer to philosopher Francis Bacon. Listening to Hovhaness, then, is to discover a world that is at one time unconventional and enticing.
During his long life Hovhaness explored several non-western cultures. A breakthrough in his production occurred in the 1940s with the so-called “Armenian period” and the rediscovery of the musical tradition of his father’s land. In the late 1950s and the 1960s he travelled extensively in the East - reminiscences of these trips are wonderful compositions such as the Shalimar Suite op. 177. The 1960s and 1970s saw a period of experimentalism and colorism until, in the later years, he reverted to a “much more classical” approach.
Hovhaness is a very well-known composer in the U.S.A., where he spent most of his life; unfortunately the same cannot be said of Europe. Beyond the many influences he expressed in his compositions, what is undisputable is the ability of his music to speak directly to the heart of the listeners. And this is what makes it a pleasure not only listening but also performing his compositions!
Music from Armenia
In the 1950s Khachatourian asked: “To feel oneself as a particle of his people, to be nurtured by the inexhaustible founts of its art, to be exponents of that people’s vital interests – is this not the supreme aim of every true artist?” (A. Khachatourian. National Music, in TAR 5, 4/20).
Since being introduced to Alan Hovhaness’ works by my dear friend Martin Berkofsky, I developed a fascination for Armenian music. This led me to include in my repertoire not only those compositions by Hovhaness that most reflect the bond he felt with Armenia (for example the 12 Armenian Folk Songs), but also the works of other composers that wished to immortalize the traditions of their country.
Place of pride goes, of course, to the extraordinary Komitas: “the greatest master of Armenian secular music” (R. Grigorian: Armenian music past and present, in TAR 5, 2/18). To Komitas, as Grigorian says, goes the honour of “recapturing the Armenian popular folksongs, of evaluating, purging, harmonizing and composing these songs, and what is most important of all, of founding a distinct Armenian School of Music” (idem).
Beside Hovhaness and Komitas, a third composer I love performing is Emanuel Melik-Aslanian. A native of Tabriz, Melik-Aslanian studied in Germany before being appointed at the Conservatoire of Tehran. Unfortunately in the western world his name is still little-known, but his music effectively conveys the atmosphere of his native country in a mesmerizing and captivating manner.
Religious Music for Piano Solo
Captivating, inspiring and unknown are three adjectives that well describe religious music for piano. It is an oxymoron to think of the piano as an instrument capable of expressing religious feelings - and that thought would not be unfounded. Since its final refinement by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the piano has always been on centre stage at courts, theatres and the palaces of the well-off. The huge pianistic repertoire we are acquainted with is a natural reflection of this vocation.
And yet within this huge repertoire there is a small island of compositions that shuns the theatres, the courts or the salons to look inwardly, at the soul of the composers. These compositions were not meant to be performed as part of a liturgy, of course, but they are the genuine response to a religious feeling.
Despite their beauty and distinctiveness, it is extremely rare to hear them in performances and even more uncommon to find on the market. Alessandra has a religious repertoire spanning from Bach to the contemporaries with many first performances (Calligaris’ Ave Verum or Tassone’s Seven Last Words of Jesus, for example). Her commitment to this kind of repertoire is pretty unique in the world of classical piano performance.
The Via Crucis is a work Alessandra has been performing for some ten years in almost eighty recitals across Europe. Do read on and find out what it is all about:
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Franz Liszt wrote the Via Crucis between 1876 and 1879. Already a minister of the Catholic Church, Liszt had been progressively absorbed by the composition of sacred works and by a quest for daring experimentations in music writing. The Via Crucis embeds both these characteristics: a profound religious feeling and a pioneering way of conceiving music (so much so that the composition was originally rejected by Liszt' chosen publisher).
What makes the Via Crucis exceptional is the inspiration: there is written proof that the series of paintings on the Stations of the Cross made by the German artist Johann Friedrich Overbeck, whom Liszt met when living in Rome, played an important influence during the compositional process.
To re-create the interlace between music and visual inspiration I have devised a live performance of Liszt' Via Crucis for piano solo (504a) with a video: here each of Overbeck's paintings is not merely displayed as a still image but is fragmented, re-assembled, cut-through and combined (where appropriate) with the words that would have been sung by the choir or the soloists if these were present. This visual support has been produced so as to be synchronised with the music and in such a way to aid the audience at an understanding of the structure of the work.
Important premières of the Via Crucis include the Franz Liszt Museum and Academy in Budapest and the Vatican Museum: the latter performance, recorded live, has been chosen by the EBU to be part of the Special Music day for Holy Week and Easter and broadcast(among others) in Germany, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal, Ireland, Denmark.