Alan Hovhaness Symphony No. 8 Arjuna Op. 179 (1947)



Performers: Lynda Cochran (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ken Young (conductor)

This intriguing work was originally conceived as a double concerto for piano, timpani, and small orchestra, according to Brian Q Silver, an expert on Indian music. It was entitled Ardos, after a mountain in Armenia near the Lake of Van, and exhibits a confluence of Armenian and Indian melodic styles. According to Hovhaness, the piece was never properly performed because “the Armenians weren’t ready for it”. Much later the score was taken to India, with the only alterations being the change of title to Arjuna and a substitution of mrdangam for the timpani. The newly-titled work was ‘premiered’ at the Madras Music Festival on February 1, 1960. Handel Manuel conducted the orchestra with Hovhaness on piano. Written when Hovhaness was “writing Armenian music with an Indian slant”, the Indian newspaper critics heard it as being in the Indian ‘nata bhairavi’ mode, thus substantiating the composer’s claimed overlap of Armenian and Indian modes.

The work’s obscurity, compared to the better-known piano concerto Lousadzak, can be attributed partially to the fact that it was perhaps unwisely published as a ‘Symphony’ rather than the concertante piece it really is. It is one of Hovhaness’s most substantial Armenian-phase works, lasting around 30 minutes and scored for woodwind, horn, timpani, piano and strings. Its radicalness is typical of late 1940s Hovhaness, huge spun-out melodies, with virtually no harmony or modulation. The timpanist is used almost like a tabla accompanist, and as such may have more work to do than in any prior orchestral work. Some aspects of the work can be seen as early minimalism on a symphonic scale. Composer and friend Lou Harrison once recommended Ardos (as it was still then called) for a concert in Rome, calling it “20 minutes [sic] of the most shocking melodic adventure you can imagine, truly heroic and daring.”

– The Alan Hovhaness website

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