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Thursday, June 22, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Composer Hovhaness dies at age 89

Seattle Times music critic

Seattle's musical man of the mountains, composer Alan Hovhaness, died yesterday afternoon at Swedish Hospital, of multiple causes after a long period of ill health. He was 89.

Mr. Hovhaness' career belied the adage that composers are never appreciated in their lifetimes. Championed locally by such institutions as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Northwest Chamber Orchestra and internationally by groups from Armenia to Korea who commissioned his work, Mr. Hovhaness saw his music celebrated in many concerts and a lengthy discography.

One of the country's most famous and prolific living composers, Mr. Hovhaness always said his music was inspired by nature, particularly by the mountains whose names found their way into his best-known compositions - "Mysterious Mountain" and his "Mount St. Helens Symphony," both recorded by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gerard Schwarz.

A reverence for all of nature was one of the composer's guiding principles. He employed recorded songs of the humpback whale for another well-known work, "And God Created Great Whales."

"Even though we all knew he was very ill, this news still just hits you," Schwarz said of Mr. Hovhaness' death.

"I've known Alan since 1963, when I first recorded a piece of his, and I was in the (New York) Philharmonic when Andre Kostelanetz was commissioning his music. Alan was amazing; he was one of the great composers of our time.

"He wasn't an innovator, like Stravinsky or Schoenberg. He wasn't trying to change the world. He was trying to add beauty and sensitivity to the world.

"He cared deeply about goodness and about nature, and he has had a tremendous impact.

"Throughout it all, even in the times when his music wasn't so fashionable, he stuck to his thinking and to his distinctive style, which had a passion and also a great reserve. He stood out."

In poor health for the past five years, Mr. Hovhaness was attended tirelessly by his wife of 23 years, Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness.

"I just wanted to do things for him," explained the woman who was the composer's muse since the mid-1970s.

"For me, the most important thing was to take care of Alan. My goal was to help him see the year 2000, and many of the doctors didn't think he would make it."

Mr. Hovhaness was born in Somerville, Mass., on March 8, 1911, to an Armenian father who taught chemistry at Tufts College and a mother of Scottish descent.

Originally named Alan Vaness Chakmakjian, the composer later dropped his surname and added a few letters to his middle name, making it into the Armenian form of "John."

Quiet and shy, with a craggy and strong-featured profile and enormous hands, Mr. Hovhaness was always modest about his attainments, which also included conducting and playing the piano.

Often, his compositions didn't live up to his own standards; as an adult, he destroyed an enormous amount - some 1,000 pieces - of his early music.

Mr. Hovhaness' own theory was that his self-criticism resulted from his disapproving parents, who did not wish him to become a composer.

As a youngster, beginning around age 4, he wrote music by night, when he couldn't be seen, developing a nocturnal habit that persisted throughout his life.

"I was a secret composer all through my teens," he once said.

"My family thought writing music was abnormal, so they would confiscate my music if they caught me in the act. I used to compose in the bathroom and hide the manuscripts under the bathtub."

As an adult, Mr. Hovhaness would arise in the early afternoon, doing his best work after the sun went down, and composing throughout the night. As the sun rose behind his beloved mountains - he liked to live where there was a good view of the Cascades, as there is from his South Seattle home - the composer would close his notebooks and scores and head for bed.

During his waking hours, Mr. Hovhaness' pen was never still.

He took musical sketchbooks with him everywhere, and wrote down musical themes as they occurred to him, whether he was sitting outside a department-store dressing room waiting for his wife to emerge or pushing a cart down a supermarket aisle.

The result was a volume of work that stunned most observers.

Not since the days of Haydn has any composer written so much.

Mr. Hovhaness wrote thousands of works, including symphonies, oratorios, operas, ballets, choral works, concertos, chamber works, songs, piano music and works for ethnic instruments such as those in the Korean Ah-Ak orchestra.

This prolific ability had its disadvantages. Publishers were hard-pressed to keep up with his output, and in his later years, Mr. Hovhaness once injured himself in a fall when he tripped over one of the many stacks of scores in his basement.

His great output allowed him to become one of the few composers in recent history to make his living entirely from writing music, rather than taking a university or church job.

Royalties helped; so did the commissions from the many musical groups and artists such as Jean-Pierre Rampal, Leopold Stokowski and Andre Kostelanetz, who have championed his music.

Profoundly influenced by the philosophies as well as the music of other countries, Mr. Hovhaness was among the first Western composers to make use of multicultural elements in his work: classical music of South India, orchestral music of T'ang Dynasty China, Korean and Japanese influences, as well as the music of Russia and Europe.

Mr. Hovhaness adapted many of these forms into his scores, which kept to a strong tonal center and were often serenely simple in style.

Mr. Hovhaness was proud of the singing ability of his wife, Hinako, and wrote several works featuring her high coloratura soprano. He called her "my inspiration - along with the mountains."

Proud of his Armenian heritage, the composer was feted on his 80th birthday in 1991 by the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, which organized a New York gala in Carnegie Hall with the American Composers Orchestra, conductor Karel Husa and a lineup of major Hovhaness scores including the world premiere of his Symphony No. 65 ("Artstakh").

Included in the program were admiring quotations from such sources as Carl Sagan (who used Mr. Hovhaness' music in the "Cosmos" TV series), Keith Jarrett, William Saroyan, Dominick Argento, John Cage and several others.

"I have to do it my way," Mr. Hovhaness has said.

"I've always believed in melody, even when it isn't fashionable. I think it fills a need.

"My purpose is to create music, 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."

Mr. Hovhaness is survived by his wife, Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness, and by a daughter, Jean Nandi, a Berkeley harpsichordist. Funeral services will be arranged privately, according to Mrs. Hovhaness, who added, "We have not had time yet to think about a memorial. His real memorial will be in his music."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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