Alan Hovhaness and Earth Day
With Earth Day this week, the 20th Century composer who could be its musical patron saint is Alan Hovhaness. This Thursday’s Symphony at 7 will have, along with Beethoven‘s “Pastoral Symphony,” Hovhaness’s “And God Created Great Whales,” a work first performed in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day celebrations.
April 22 is the 40th anniversary of this event to celebrate and raise awareness of the natural world and our need to protect it from pollution and destructive exploitation. What appeared to some in 1970 as purely a counterculture movement event (although it was much more than that), has come to be celebrated by 1 billion people in 191 countries.
Alan Hovhaness, American composer of Armenian and Scottish descent, was born in Massachusetts in 1911 and lived until 2000. He’s known for blending Western and Eastern sounds in his compositions, and for the mystical affinity for nature in some of his best-known works, such as: “Mysterious Mountain (1955),” the “Mount St. Helens Symphony” (1982), and the piece that premiered in the year of the first Earth Day, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970).
“Whales” was a commission from the New York Philharmonic for Andre Kostelanetz’s Promenade Concerts. The 12-minute piece was somewhat controversial for its use of electronically recorded whale songs as an integral part of the composition.
This overt blending of natural sounds (although the whales song recordings were manipulated for pitch and speed) and symphony orchestra caught the popular imagination at the time, and this music is now famous, or infamous, depending on who you ask. It was a great success at the time, fitting in, as it did, with the zeitgeist.
You can hear the whole work on Symphony at 7 on April 22.