Musical Selection: Mount St. Helens Symphony

Composer: Alan Hovhaness (U.S., 1911-2000)

Alan Hovhannes
Hovhaness wrote "Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God…Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and the spiritual world.” (CD program notes, Telarc CD 80604)

Alan Hovhaness was born in Massachusetts in 1911 to an Armenian faterh and Scottish mother. Both parents were very concerned that their particular heritage would be continued through their son. This multicultural conflict may have influenced Hovhaness in his international multicultural musical and compositional interests. It also may have influenced his love of nature. As a boy, he could escape the tension that he experienced from these agendas by walking in the mountains. He began to compose at the age of seven. His early music reflected his preference for Armenian medieval liturgical music. As an adult he also cultivated an interest in Indian, Japanese, and Chinese music. His music blends the mystical music of the West with the Oriental traditions and his personal love of nature. He wrote over 67 symphonies, and many piano pieces, fugues, and choral pieces. Their titles reveal his mindset: "And God Created Whales,” "All Men Are Brothers,” "Mysterious Mountain,” "Celestial Fantasy,” and others.

The "Mount Saint Helens Symphony” was a major classical hit when it was released. Its sweeping melodies and dynamic use of percussion were ideally suited to the digital recording techniques that were replacing analog recording technologies previously used.

Mount Saint Helens Symphony: Three Movements
I. The first movement …is in the form of a Prelude and Fugue, suggesting the grandeurof the mountain before its eruption on May 18, 1980. The opening theme with thehorns is followed by lyrical extensions and elaborations in long melodic lines, leading thegrand fugue "in praise of Mount St. Helens.” (A. Hovhaness CD program notes, Delos DE3171, 1993)

II. "Spirit Lake…attempts to capture the beauty of the lake before its violent destruction. Gently vibrating, liquid-sounding bells…waves of water, lead the expressive melodies for English horn and other solo winds. A lyrical duet for flute dissolves into vibrating bells. The watery sound expresses the memory of Spirit Lake, forever lost.” (A. Hovhaness, CD program notes, Delos DE 3171, 1993)

III. "Volcano…is the morning of May 18, 1980. A dawn-like hymn is heard in the horns over mysterious, murmuring, plucked basses…followed by a rising passage for solo flute. This is interrupted by a violent explosion in the drums. Eruption music…is heard in the brass- the power of molten forces beneath the mountain. Chaos is sounded by stormy strings and violent trombone glissandi, then a strict, blazing triple canon of 20 voices of winds, brass, and strings, followed by percussion. After the music of violence and destruction, the dawn hymn of praise…to the youthful pose and grandeur of the Cascades, the volcanic energy renewing the vitality of our beautiful planet, the living earth- the life giving power that builds power, that builds mountains, rising majestically, piercing the clouds of heaven.” (A. Hovhaness, CD program notes, Delos DE 3171, 1993)

Mount Saint Helens – The Event
After 123 years, Mount Saint Helens re-awakened in the spring of 1980. Magma pushed up into the volcano, causing earthquakes and small ash emissions that lasted for 6 weeks. A 300-foot bulge formed on the north side of the mountain.

The May 18 eruption was triggered by a magnitude 5.1 earthquake. The swollen north flank slid into the Spirit Lake basin and down the North Fork Toutle River Valley, forming the largest landslide in recorded history. A lateral blast produced a 650 degree F. rockladen current of ash and hot gas traveling at hundreds of miles per hour. This blast toppled 230 square miles of forest north of Mount St. Helens. A vertical column of ash erupted from the newly formed crater to a height of 15 miles. The ash was spread eastward by prevailing winds, encircling the Earth in just two weeks.

Lahars, dense mixtures of rocks and ash, mixed with the water and flowed down the volcano. Pyroclastic flows of fiery, broken rocks, 700 degrees F., gas and ash came down the slopes at 60 miles per hour. One man, Harry Truman, refused to leave his beautiful lodge on the shores of Spirit Lake. He assured the Forest Service that he and his cats would seek shelter in a cave near his lodge, if necessary. The explosion was cataclysmic. Campers and sightseers 20 miles away from the volcano perished in the explosion. Truman and his cats were buried under hundreds of feet of mud and ash.

When the ash cleared, Mount Saint Helens was 1,300 feet shorter. Spirit Lake was much larger and the lush green forest around it had been transformed into a blown down grey landscape. It was obvious that the powerful natural forces responsible for the Pacific Northwest’s famed beauty were not just ancient history, but an ongoing natural process. (USDA Forest Service)

Lesson Opportunities
1. Music Appreciation
Objective: The students will be able to identify the three movements of the symphony.
Materials: The recording (CD or iTunes)
Lesson: Play each section and encourage descriptions of each related to mood, tempo, instrumentation, etc.

2. Music-Science-Geology
Strategy: Use the music as an opportunity to explore the geology of volcanoes, earthquakes, plate tectonics, and Earth science.

3. Music-Geography
Objective: The students will locate the volcano. They will map how to get there from their area. They will also explore the Cascades Mountain Range.

4. Music-Art
Objective: The students will express their experience of the Symphony through art.
Materials: Clay, water colors, paper, crayons, etc. and photos of the volcano. Consider using crayon resist.

5. Music-Language Arts
Objective: Write persuasive paragraphs to convince Harry Truman to vacate his lodge. An alternative would be to write descriptive paragraphs comparing and contrasting the three movements of the symphony.