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Alan Hovhaness

By Martha Hinrichsen

Mrs. Alan Hovhaness very much regrets not being here tonight and extends to each member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters her deep gratitude for honoring her husband in this way.

I would like to thank Virginia Dajani for giving me the truly great honor of presenting this tribute to Alan Hovhaness as I have very fond memories of him. He and my father, Walter Hinrichsen, had a deep respect and admiration for one another and Walter was extremely proud to be entrusted with what he called Alan’s “masterpieces.”

A fervent champion of his works not just because he was Hovhaness’ publisher but because Walter Hinrichsen felt personally connected to Alan and his music, their relationship became very close and Alan felt quite “at home” at Peters—so much so he asked Walter Hinrichsen if he could keep his mail there. He had his own file cabinet section and I remember fondly his almost daily visits to his mail drawer. He would come in quietly, mysteriously almost—so quietly that sometimes we didn’t know he was there until we suddenly saw him emerge from the stockroom having made his weekly check on the inventory of his publications. He had to be sure the level was going down—not standing stationary! Even after Alan moved to Seattle, we remained closely in touch with him and his devoted wife, Hinako Fujihara.

Alan Hovhaness was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1911. The combination of an Armenian father and Scottish mother acted as converging cultural streams that shaped his compelling hybrid compositional style. His unique voice combined the accents and inflections of East and West, and of times Ancient and Modern. Weaving through this quietly powerful blending of cultures was a deep and reverent love for nature as Spirit manifest. Five of his 67 symphonies were inspired by mountains.

He began composing by age four and by the time he was a teenager he had written two operas. His father, a chemistry professor, disapproved of music composition, which led the young Hovhaness to compose primarily late at night, a habit he retained through his entire career. In Seattle, he would write from dusk to dawn as the sun rose over the nearby Cascade Mountains—and sleep until noon, according to Hinako.

Hovhaness studied composition with Frederick Converse at the New England Conservatory and from 1948 to 1951 he taught composition at the Boston Conservatory of Music. Following this, he moved to New York City with a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and continued to compose prolifically. Involving himself deeply in New York’s musical life, he befriended Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Virgil Thomson, as well as many committed performers and conductors. During his illustrious career, Hovhaness was the recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships, a Rockefeller grant, and a Fulbright scholarship. In the early 1970s he settled permanently in Seattle and, in 1977, became a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. This same year he married Hinako Fujihara and they lived together, overlooking the inspirational Cascade mountains until his death on June 21, 2000. For over 25 years, he was a much beloved figure in the musical life of the Northwest.

When Hinako and I were together last week, I asked her which of Alan’s nearly 500 works were most important to him—and why. She answered “each one was important to Alan because each work reflected what his heart and voice felt at the time he was composing and this is what made every single work uniquely important to Alan.” She went on to say that he considered himself to be a contrapuntalist and orchestral composer—hearing the entire orchestra in his mind as he composed. Hovhaness’ music rarely transgressed the boundaries of conventional tonality and a strong Eastern influence. The early embrace of his Armenian heritage, along with religion and his profound connection with nature, became the musical focal point of his compositions. Of his own work, he has said, “I’ve used all techniques, including 12-tone technique. But I believe melody is the spring of music. The human voice was the first instrument, and I believe that all the different instruments are voices as well. So I want to give them melodies to sing.”

Following the 1944 premiere of Lousadzak, which caused a reaction reminiscent of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Lou Harrison claimed that the evening

“…was the closest I’ve ever been to one of those renowned artistic riots…. In the lobby, the Chromaticists and the Americanists were carrying on at high decibels. What had touched it off, of course, was the fact that here came a man from Boston whose obviously beautiful music had nothing to do with either camp.”

John Cage remained among his staunch admirers, and once described him as “a music tree who, as an orange or lemon tree produces fruit, produces music.” When asked by Don Gillespie in 1984 why he persisted in following a muse so distant from the musical climate of that time, Hovhaness answered with the directness that characterizes his life’s work: “I’m stubborn. I guess I have to do what I like. And that’s the main thing.”

I know that Hinako is with us in spirit and she especially wanted me to read the poem she wrote for Alan as a closing tribute to her beloved husband.

In the Midst of Sunset

August 7, 2001

A wonderful feeling of gratitude came over me
In the grocery store parking lot in the midst of sunset.
You married me and shared your life with me—
What a magical period when you were with me, in this world.
I am lucky I came in the same era you were in;
Just thinking about it, my tears flow.

I lost you, but you gave me a life
Simply, you were with me and shared all you were.
What a legacy you planted in me.
I am finding myself each day and realize what a gift you gave to me.
I love you forever.

Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 8, 2001.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters