Alan Hovhaness – Saint Vartan Symphony

Saint Vartan Symphony LP front cover
Saint Vartan Symphony LP back cover
Saint Vartan Symphony LP side 1
Hovhaness with wife Elizabeth Whittington

The Saint Vartan Symphony, premiered in NYC in 1951, belongs to Alan Hovhaness‘ so-called “Armenian” period (1943-51), when the US composer, born 1911 in Massachusetts to an Armenian father, explored the rich heritage of Armenian music traditions, with works like Lousadzak, 1945, or the opera Etchmiadzin, 1946. During the 1940s, working as an organist in an Armenian church in Watertown, MA, Hovhaness got to know the Armenian modes and monody, as well as the pioneering work of composer Komitas Vartabed. In 1951, Hovhaness had relocated to NYC and got in touch with the Armenians Anahid Ajemian and George Avakian working for Columbia, Mercury and MGM Records, for which he would release several LPs.

In Saint Vartan, the ancestral form of the symphony have been atomized to accommodate for short traditional dances (“Bar”) and songs (“Yerk”). Thus, with its 24 short movements, the symphony is closer to a set of preludes or variations than a regular symphonic work. Moreover, most parts are written for very small ensemble, up to a mere duet on some parts, with or without string section, while the full orchestra only appears  in the finale. A surprising feature on some tracks is the use of a “walking bass”, adding a kind of pulse to the music’s substratum, as well as saxophone – unusual additions from outside the classical canon. The symphony alternates between joyous, pastoral dances and mourning laments, as if to evoke the joys and sadness of the various episodes of the Christian Armenian people’s fight against the Zoroastrian Persian invader, in 451 AD. In any case, the Saint Vartan Symphony gets rid of the traditional 4 movements of the classical, Italian symphony canon: allegro/adagio/scherzo/allegro. In a final analysis, though the music is based on traditional songs and academic orchestrations, the whole is a highly hybridized form of music only comparable to Lou Harisson’s gamelan excursions.

Part I
01 Yerk (1:40)
02 Tapor (1:00)
03 Aria (3:04)
04 Aria (2:05)
05 Aria (1:19)
06 Bar (1:42)
Part II
07 Tapor (2:41)
08 Bar (:43)
09 Bar (1:46)
10 Estampie (1:26)
Part III
11 Bar (:30)
12 Bar (1:08)
13 Aria (1:52)
14 Lament (2:36)
15 Estampie (1:20)
Part IV
16 Yerk (To Sensual Love) (2:05)
17 Aria (To Sacred Love) (3:40)
18 Estampie (2:15)
19 Bar (2:20)
20 Aria (:37)
Part V
21 Bar (:34)
22 Bar (:47)
23 Bar (:35)
24 Estampie (3:39)

The M.G.M. Chamber Orchestra
Carlos Surinach, cond.
William Masselos, piano
Vincent J. Abato, saxophone
Neal di Biase, trombone
Theodore Weis, trumpet

Total time 41:30
LP released by M-G-M Records, USA, [1956?]


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14 Responses to “Alan Hovhaness – Saint Vartan Symphony”

  1. 1 Janas February 18, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you very much

  2. 2 David February 18, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    “In any case, the Saint Vartan Symphony gets rid of the traditional 4 movements of the classical, Italian symphony canon: allegro/adagio/scherzo/allegro” – isn’t that the GERMAN symphony canon? Has any other symphony got as many as 24 movements like this one?

    It’s been commented elsewhere that Vartan is NOT programatic, so doesn’t represent any Armenian historical events despite its title.
    Have owned this disc since the mid 1960s. Much of the ensemble’s writing seemed wholly unconventional, if not avant garde, for the early 1950s. By the way, the composer’s centennial is right now, 2011. Go to

  3. 3 continuo February 18, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    @Janas: You’re welcome.
    @David: the Italians created the 4 movements of the symphony as we know it and the Germans (or Austrians) adapted it to the string quartet (Haydn, Beethoven). But I can’t think of any other symphony with as much as 24 movements. On the other hand, the shortest symphony is probably Rued Langgaard’s 6mn long, 11th Symphony, composed 1944-45.
    I would not call Saint Vartan “avantgarde”, for it doesn’t transcend any of the genres it joyously mixes.
    Congratulations for the centennial website and the wonderful

  4. 4 Evan Lindorff-Ellery March 5, 2011 at 5:37 am

    Why is he holding a sho ? Is this featured on this recording ? Are there any recordings for sho by Hovhaness ? Great picture, but I don’t see the connection.

    In any case, I am looking forward to the recording.

  5. 5 continuo March 5, 2011 at 8:48 am

    I guess you wouldn’t notice if he was holding an electric guitar.

  6. 6 Evan Lindorff-Ellery March 5, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    (?) Yes I would have. Whatever.

    A bit off topic — my apologies ! — but do you know any of his compositions that involve the sho ? I am simply wondering, as this picture sparked my interest.

    If he was holding an electric guitar, I probably wouldn’t be wondering if any of his compositions involved the electric guitar ( due to my lack of interest in the electric guitar relative to the sho), but I would be wondering why the picture was included, other than to simply show a picture of him. Now I realise there is no connection, which is fine. None of this really matters, though.

    Thanks for your response.

  7. 7 continuo March 5, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Hovhaness did not compose for the sho, as far as I know, but he obviously played with the instrument, as the picture clearly shows.

  8. 9 The Irate Pirate April 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Thank you! Hovhannes is great!

  9. 10 continuo April 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Agree with you. More to come soon from this wonderful composer.

  10. 11 lynnfish July 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Several movements from Saint Vartan Symphony appear to be reworked from other pieces of this composer, confirming the music does not tell a continuous story, or is even programmatic. There is another MGM disc (King Vahaken/Is there Survival?) which has the same musical content as some Vartan movements.

    Was Vartan originally conceived as “symphony”? It was published much later, around 1960. Would be interesting to see the concert program of its premiere!

  11. 12 just some guy February 7, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Hovhaness wrote a sonata for ryuteki and sho in 5 movements.
    It is most often played on regular western equivalents (organ and flute)
    He also wrote for traditional Korean instruments, and for sitar

  12. 13 kramden May 6, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    A thousand thanks for the re-up on this!

  13. 14 continuo May 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Re-uploaded by Max on April 21, 2012.

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