Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No.2


Also known by its original title Mysterious Mountains, Alan Hovhaness’ Second Symphony remains his most-recorded work to date. The three-movement work was composed in 1955 and was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony Orchestra in the same year. The original title does not refer to any particular mountain or mountain range, but “the whole idea of mountains.” 


The Music

Set into three movements, Hovhaness’ Second Symphony explores modal scales, experimental textures and timbres and colourful harmony.  


Movement I – Andante con moto

After the ominous opening hymn set in 10/4 time at the start of the first movement, the music begins to explore some beautiful lyrical melodies. Gliding lines are accentuated by glissandos on the harp and celeste, with shimmering harmonics from the upper strings also ringing clear. The celesta arabesques ripple above the rich and sonorous strings, with the woodwind adding modal solo lines at any given chance. In this movement Hovhaness explores the Phrygian mode. 


Movement II – Double Fugue

The carefully skilled double fugue second movement is predominantly pentatonic and lays its roots in Renaissance vocal music. Similarly to the opening movement, the second is also lyrical to begin with, as these melodic ideas are explored. The second fugue, largely taken from Hovhaness’ String Quartet No.1 practically fizzes with excitement. As the subject theme is explored and developed the music comes to a dizzying climax that is exhilarating and perhaps more often seen at the end of a finale movement. However, the second movement is concluded with a thrilling sense of unity around the orchestra.


Movement III – Andante espressivo

The final movement opens with a dark hymn which is then followed by an unusual 13-beat Indian-inspired chant. As fragments of melody from the previous movements rears its head during this movement, there is a constant state of staticism in this movement. The sparkling celeste again adds a dash of magic to the music, as solo woodwind take a lead on the melody. This all soon makes way for the final hymn, which finishes this symphony off in a contemplative style. 


Final Thoughts

Although now one of his most celebrated orchestral works, Hovhaness was not always the biggest fan of the work: 

“As to my Mysterious Mountain, my feelings are mixed – I am happy it is popular, but I have written better music and it is a very impersonal work, in which I omit my deeper searching.”


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Nikolai Myakovsky: Symphony No.10


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