Alan Hovhaness; Prolific Composer

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Alan Hovhaness, a prolific composer who melded Western and Asian musical styles to create a unique melodic blend of his own, died Wednesday in Seattle. He was 89.

Hovhaness, the longtime composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony, died at Swedish Medical Center, said Gerard Schwarz, the orchestra’s musical director. Schwarz said Hovhaness had suffered from a severe stomach ailment for the last three years.

“His music reflects the kind of gentle, wonderful soul that he was, but also has the turbulence that one sees in an eruption of a volcano or a tremendous thunderstorm,” Schwarz said.

Hovhaness wrote more than 400 pieces, including at least nine operas, two ballets, more than 60 symphonies and more than 100 chamber pieces.


His works include “Lousadzak” (1944), for piano and orchestra; “Wind Drum” (1962), a music-dance drama; “And God Created the Great Whales” (1970); and “The Way of Jesus” (1974), a folk Mass.

Heavily affected by nature, Hovhaness’ work reflected his concern for the environment.

“I love mountains,” he told a reporter for Ethic Newswatch some years ago. “They’re symbolic of the meeting of Earth and heaven, man and God. They’re also symbolic of the mountains you seek within yourself.”

Financed heavily by Fulbright and Rockefeller scholarships, Hovhaness traveled extensively through India, Japan and South Korea in the 1950s and ‘60s. He studied music there, and found that his compositions got a better reception there than in the United States.


Hovhaness was born Alan Vaness Chamakjian in Somerville, Mass., in 1911. His mother was Scottish and his father was an Armenian chemistry professor.

He demonstrated musical precociousness at an early age, devising his own method of notation by age 5. Three years later, when the family moved to the Boston area, he began studying piano with Adelaide Proctor and later took instruction from Heinrich Gebhard.

In 1932, he went to the New England Conservatory on a scholarship and for two years studied composition there with Frederick Converse.

His early compositions were thoroughly Western. But the influences of Eastern musical styles became more evident after he attended Bohuslav Martinu’s master class in composition in 1942 at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood.

Hovhaness was the first Western composer asked to write music for an orchestra consisting entirely of Indian instruments. He served for six months as composer-in-residence at the University of Hawaii and became a composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony in 1966.

A vocal critic of musical snobbishness, he once said that his greatest regret was his own destruction of hundreds of pieces of his early work after he was severely criticized by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

“My purpose is to create music,” Hovhaness said, “not for snobs but for all people--music which is beautiful and healing, to attempt what old Chinese painters called spirit resonance in melody and sound.”

Hovhaness is survived by his wife, Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness, and by a daughter, Jean Nandi. Funeral services are private.