His music is accessible to the lay listener and often evokes a mood of mystery or contemplation. The Boston Globe music critic Richard Buell wrote: "Although he has been stereotyped as a self-consciously Armenian composer (rather as Ernest Bloch is seen as a Jewish composer), his output assimilates the music of many cultures. What may be most American about all of it is the way it turns its materials into a kind of exoticism. The atmosphere is hushed, reverential, mystical, nostalgic."
He was born as Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville, Massachusetts to Haroutioun Hovanes Chakmakjian, a chemistry professor at Tufts College, and Madeleine Scott. (Upon his mother's death (October 3, 1930), he used the surname "Hovaness" in honor of his paternal grandfather, and officially changed it to "Hovhaness" around 1940.) Alan was interested in music from a very early age, and decided to devote himself to composition at the age of 14. He studied at Tufts and then the New England Conservatory of Music, under Frederick Converse.
He became interested in Armenian culture and music in 1940, as the organist for the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1942 he won a scholarship at Tanglewood to study in Bohuslav Martinů's master class. However, Martinů had a serious fall in the early summer which made it impossible for him to teach. Instead, the composer's seminar which Hovhaness attended was led by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. While a recording of Hovhaness's first symphony was being played, Copland talked loudly all the way through it, and when the recording finished, Bernstein remarked "I can't stand this cheap ghetto music." Hovhaness was angered and distraught by his experience at Tanglewood, and quit early despite being on scholarship. The next year he devoted himself to Armenian subject matter, in particular using modes distinctive to Armenian music, and continued for several years, achieving some renown and the support of other musicians, including John Cage and Martha Graham, all while continuing as church organist.
In one of many applications for a Guggenheim fellowship (1941), Hovhaness presented his credo:
- "I propose to create an heroic, monumental style of composition simple enough to inspire all people, completely free from fads, artificial mannerisms and false sophistications, direct, forceful, sincere, always original but never unnatural. Music must be freed from decadence and stagnation. There has been too much emphasis on small things while the great truths have been overlooked. The superficial must be dispensed with. Music must become virile to express big things. It is not my purpose to supply a few pseudo intellectual musicians and critics with more food for brilliant argumentation, but rather to inspire all mankind with new heroism and spiritual nobility. This may appear to be sentimental and impossible to some, but it must be remembered that Palestrina, Handel, and Beethoven would not consider it either sentimental or impossible. In fact, the worthiest creative art has been motivated consciously or unconsciously by the desire for the regeneration of mankind."
- There is almost nothing occurring most of the time but unison melodies and very lengthy drone basses, which is all very Armenian. It is also very modern indeed in its elegant simplicity and adamant modal integrity, being, in effect, as tight and strong in its way as a twelve-tone work of the Austrian type. There is no harmony either, and the brilliance and excitement of parts of the piano concerto were due entirely to vigor of idea. It really takes a sound musicality to invent a succession of stimulating ideas within the bounds of an unaltered mode and without shifting the home-tone."
However, as before, there were also critics:
- The serialists were all there. And so were the Americanists, both Aaron Copland's group and Virgil's. And here was something that had come out of Boston that none of us had ever heard of and was completely different from either. There was nearly a riot in the foyer [during intermission] - everybody shouting. A real whoop-dee-doo.
- (Miller and Lieberman 1998)
In 1948 he joined the faculty of the Boston Conservatory, teaching there for three years (his students including the jazz musicians Sam Rivers and Gigi Gryce), then in 1951 took up composing fulltime. During the 1950s he branched out from Armenian music, adopting styles and material from a wide variety of sources. In 1954 he wrote the score for the Broadway play The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets, and then two scores for NBC documentaries.
His biggest breakthrough to date came in 1955, when his Symphony No. 2, Mysterious Mountain, was premiered by Leopold Stokowski in his debut with the Houston Symphony. A common misconception is that Mysterious Mountain was commisioned for the Houston Symphony, but such a statement is false . That same year, MGM Records released recordings of a number of his works.
From 1959 through 1963, Hovhaness conducted a series of research trips to India, Hawaii, Japan, and South Korea, investigating the ancient traditional musics of these nations and eventually integrating elements of these into his own compositions.
Perhaps also prophetic in worldly matters, Hovhaness stated in a winter, 1971, "Ararat" interview:
- "We are in a very dangerous period. We are in danger of destroying ourselves, and I have a great fear about this...The older generation is ruling ruthlessly. I feel that this is a terrible threat to our civilization. It's the greed of huge companies and huge organizations which control life in a kind of a brutal way...It's gotten worse and worse, somehow, because physical science has given us more and more terrible deadly weapons, and the human spirit has been destroyed in so many cases, so what's the use of having the most powerful country in the world if we have killed the soul. It's of no use."
- Symphony no. 2 Mysterious Mountain, op. 132 (1955)
- Symphony no. 4, op. 165 (1957)
- Symphony no. 5 Nanga Parvat, op. 178 (1959)
- Symphony no. 9 St. Vartan, op. 180 (1949-50)
- Symphony no. 15 Silver Pilgrimage, op. 199 (1963)
- Symphony no. 22 City of Light, op. 236 (1970)
- Symphony no. 24 Letters in the sand, op. 273 (1973)
- Symphony no. 50 Mount St. Helens, op. 360 (1982)
- Fra Angelico, op. 220 (1967)
- And God created great whales, op. 229 (1970)
- Gagne, Cole (1993). Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810827107.
- Harrison, Lou (1945). Alan Hovhaness Offers Original Compositions. New York Herald Tribune, 18 June 1945, p. 11.
- Michaelyan, Julia (1971). "An Interview with Alan Hovhaness." Ararat: A Quarterly 45, v. 12, no. 1 (Winter 1971), pp. 19-31.
- Howard, Richard (1983). The Works of Alan Hovhaness: A Catalog, Opus 1-Opus 360. Pro Am Music Resources. ISBN 0912483008.
- Miller, Leta E. and Lieberman, Frederic (1998). Lou Harrison: Composing a World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195110226.
- The World of Alan Hovhaness (from KPFA's Ode To Gravity series, aired 28 January 1976; includes an interview with the composer by Charles Amirkhanian recorded in late 1975)