Prayer of St. Gregory Program Notes

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)
Prayer of St. Gregory

A native Bostonian, Alan Hovhaness’s early years span the streets of the city: he was born in Somerville, raised in Arlington, and educated at Tufts University and New England Conservatory. He worked as the organist for the St. James Armenian Church in Watertown to supplement his first compositions, and later taught at Boston Conservatory from 1948 to 1951. 
It was from Boston’s thriving Armenian community, however, that he gleaned the most inspiration for his work. Born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian to an Armenian father and Scottish mother, he began using the surname Hovaness, in honor of his paternal grandfather, as a way to reaffirm his Armenian heritage while in his twenties, adding the second “h” in 1944. He often felt ostracized by his fellow American composers personally and stylistically; apparently he was ridiculed by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland during his time at Tanglewood in 1942, leading him to cut short his stay there. He is instead known for turning to the music of other cultures, which he treated as exotic material. Much of his music is infused with his interest in spiritual matters; he wrote that he wished to “inspire all mankind with new heroism and spiritual nobility.”
Hovhaness’s Prayer of St. Gregory was originally written as the intermezzo of his 1946 religious opera Etchmiadzin. The subject of this short piece is St. Gregory the Illuminator, who brought Christianity to Armenia in the early fourth century. The story of St. Gregory tells of his being cast in a pit for twelve years by his enemies; he miraculously survived and was called out to heal the mad king.
Hovhaness called his piece “a prayer in darkness.” Hushed yet fervent strings create an air of reverence, out of which a trumpet solo rises. All is gently expressive, with the solo line smoothly dissolving in and out of the strings: St. Gregory’s supplication for guidance through his moment of despair.