Tone Poem Tuesday

In honor of yesterday’s 40th anniversary of the major eruption of Mt. St. Helens, a musical work devoted to that very mountain. Alan Hovhaness was an American composer of Armenian descent, and he was very prolific, eventually producing over 500 numbered works in his almost 90 years (and in reality more than that, as when he was a young man he purposely destroyed his entire output to that point in an effort to start again). In 1982 he composed a symphony, his fiftieth, that was inspired by Mt. St. Helens and the 1980 eruption that destroyed its Alpine grandeur and reduced it to a moonscape of rubble. Hovhaness lived in Seattle at the time, so he was about as close to the mountain as I was in Hillsboro (he might have actually been farther away). The piece is in three movements, which Hovhaness described as follows:

When Mount St. Helens erupted on the morning of May 18, 1980, the sonic boom struck our south windows. Ashes did not come here at that time but covered land to the east all across the State of Washington into Montana. Ashes continued to travel all around the world, landing lightly on our house a week later, after their journey all around our planet. In my Mount St. Helens Symphony I have tried to suggest a musical tribute to the sublime grandeur and beauty of Mount St. Helens and the surrounding majestic Cascade Mountains.

The first two movements are evocative of the mountain itself and of Spirit Lake, while the third is most clearly a depiction of the violent cacophony of the May 18 eruption. I don’t tend to hear specific things in program music when I listen to it, even if supplied with a program by the composer, but it’s not hard to pick up on Hovhaness’s mysticism and is willingness to depict that mysticism through interesting orchestral effects. I haven’t heard a lot of Hovhaness, and in general he’s the kind of composer whose music I find more interesting than emotionally affecting, but this piece is certainly interesting and it does musically depict a sort of naturalistic majesty.

Here is the Symphony No. 50, Mt. St. Helens, by Alan Hovhaness.

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