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Bela Bartok & Alan Hovhaness: First Recordings, 1947​-​49

by Maro & Anahid Ajemian and friends



Maro and Anahid Ajemian’s father Leon Minas Ajemian (b. Nov. 3, 1886) was from Bilecik, Turkey, 120 miles (200 kilometers) south of Constantinople / Istanbul. He was a physician. His wife Siroun (b. 1890) was a pianist who had studied at the Paris Conservatory. Their first daughter Maro was born in Lausanne, Switzerland on July 9, 1921. A year later, they emigrated to New York City where their second daughter Anahid was born on Jan. 26, 1924.

Both daughters were child prodigies. At age 6 Maro was awarded four medals as a distinguished talent by the Institute of the Musical Arts (the forerunner of Julliard). She had, by that time twenty-five pieces in her repertoire including works by Handel, Mozart, and P.E. Bach, and she had composed a piece titled “The Fairy Dance,” dedicated to her grandmother. She was given a scholarship by Dr. Frank Damrosch (b. June 1859; d. Oct. 1937) to attend the Institute and graduated at the age of 11. She received a post-graduate diploma at the age of 18, having trained with Carl Friedberg (b. Sept. 1872; d Sept 1955), a disciple of Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.

Anahid began playing piano at age 4 but switched to violin at age 7. The two performed publicly as a duo by 1933. By the age of 15, Anahid was a soloist with the Plainfield Symphony Society and had performed Mendelssohn’s Concerto by the age of 17 at which time she was studying at the Graduate School of the Julliard Institute under Edouard Dethier (b. Aug. 1885; d. Feb. 1962).

At her debut recital at the age of 21 on March 14, 1942, Maro Ajemian gave the U.S. premiere of Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, signaling her initial interest in performing Armenian concert music. Several years later, around late 1945, she met the Boston-born composer Alan Hovhaness (b. March 1911; d. June 2000). Meeting Hovhaness began a fruitful decades-long collaboration. Her work took on a strong intellectual inclination toward both the avant-garde and the music of composers interested in "non-Western" source material. On March 10, 1946, she presented a concert of Hovhaness’s work at Symphony Hall in Boston in collaboration with her sister Anahid and flutist Phillip Kaplan (b. Boston 1914; d. Dec. 2009). Among the eight pieces performed were one named for Anahid, “Psalm and Fugue,” “Tzaikerk (Evening Song),” "Avak, the Healer,” “Vahakn,” “Yeraz,” and “Lousadzak (Coming of Light)”

She eventually recorded “Lousadzak” several times. Its first recording was, in fact, the first record she made although it was not, strictly speaking, a commercial release. It was made as a V-Disc, part of a series of 12" 78rpm recordings made from 1943 until 1949 for release only to U.S. military servicemen. Recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1947, the disc opens with an announcement by George Avakian (b. 1919; d. 2017), who was then best known as a Yale-educated jazz critic and researcher and one of the first people to produce reissues of 1920s jazz for the 1940s marketplace. (Around the same time Leopold Stokowski recorded Hovhaness's First Symphony "Exile" for the Office of War Information, released in a tiny edition as three 12" 78rpm discs.)

Ajemian also recorded one other recording of Hovhaness’s “Prayer for St. Gregory” for V-Disc (absent from this collection) and then for RCA-Victor a 12” 78rpm disc played by both Maro and Anahid Ajemian with Aram Khatchaturnian’s “Chant Poeme” on one side and the then-obscure Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok’s “Rondo No 1" and “Bulgarian Dance No 1” from Mikrokokosmos (composed ca. 1926-39) on the other, released around the Summer of 1948 by which time George Avakian had married Anahid Ajemian.

Meanwhile, at a 1946 Carnegie Hall concert of Hovhaness's works, Maro met the composer John Cage (b. Sept. 1912; d. Aug. 1992). Impressed with her, he composed his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano for her to play. After adding to and revising it over several years, he ultimately dedicated it to her. She, meanwhile, gave it its first performances in New York and Philadelphia. She made the first recordings of Cage's work, his “Three Dance for Two Pianos,” on a set of 12” 78rpm discs for Moses Asch’s pre-Folkways Disc label along with works of Hovhaness, in 1947. She ultimately performed the entire 70-minute “Sonatas and Interludes” at Carnegie Hall in 1949 and released a recording of it as a two 12” 33rpm set in 1951, which has subsequently been reissued several times.

When Maro and Anahid Ajemian made their first European tour in 1949, both were already married - Anahid (then about 25 years old) to Avakian and Maro (then about 28) to a chemical engineer named Lionel Galstaun. As virtuosi, their careers were already predicated both on their command of 18th and 19th-century European repertoire - Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart in particular - as well as contemporary American music, particularly that of Hovhaness, Cage, Henry Cowell, and their circle. At the height of their development artistically and professionally, tragedy struck on June 23, 1949, when both of their parents died along with 56 others in the crash of a Northwest Airlines flight from New York to Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, likely through George Avakian’s jazz connections, two 12” 33rpm LPs were released on the Dial label of recordings of significant works by Hovhamess and the recently deceased Bela Bartok. Dial’s chief Ross Russell had produced a series of superb, highly sophisticated bebop 78rpm discs over the previous few years, and he found that European labels were interested in issuing them. He swapped the rights to their masters for rights for a handful of very hip European recordings of contemporary classical recordings by the primary composers of the Second Vienna School - Schoenberg, Berg, Webern - and a few others for a new series of long-playing discs which he augmented with several recordings made in the U.S. - one by Olivier Messiaen and two by the Ajemian sisters - to the series. He released the first nine LPs of his classical catalog en masse in the Summer of 1950. Within a year, he released the last two discs in the series, Maro Ajemian’s first recordings of the Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, which were the only recordings from the series to have been reissued over the past 70 years.

Bartok’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussions” was composed in 1937 and premiered in Switzerland in 1938. Its American premier was at Town Hall in 1940, performed with the composer (b. March 1881; d Sept. 1945) and his wife Ditta (b. Oct. 1903; d. Nov. 1982) playing the piano parts with Saul Goodman (b. July 1907; d Jan. 1996) as percussionist, as he is on the recording presented here, recorded nearly a decade later, a few years after the composer’s death. Bartok was still rather obscure in the U.S.. This recording was, in fact, released just a few months before the Columbia three-LP collection of the Julliard Quartet’s recording of Bartok's complete string quartets.

Nearly contemporary with the recordings on this collection, in 1951 Maro and Anahid Ajemian commissioned a piece by Cage’s close friend Lou Harrison (b. May 1917; d. Feb. 2003), a student of Arnold Schoenberg, Henry Cowell, and Charles Ives. The piece, “Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra” was recorded with Leopold Stokowski conducting and initially released on RCA Victor in 1954 before being reissued by the Composers Recordings Inc. label which has kept it in print. It is an exceptional piece of American music and a forerunner of “world music.” I cannot recommend it highly enough.

From about 1954-57 Maro and Anahid Ajemian recorded a series of LPs for MGM Records. Their Julliard classmate Williams Masselos also recorded prolifically for that short-lived series, including an LP of the piano work of Hovhaness. At least one of Maro Ajemian's recordings for MGM, a set of recordings of the early 20th century French “Les Six” composers, was never released. Others of them, including definitive recordings by the 20th-century composers Ernest Bloch, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Alan Hovhaness, etc. have never been reissued.

By 1954, Maro Ajemian and her husband had moved to Berkley, California. She had a very productive career and was a champion of many composers, including many women. A friend of mine, Steve Smolian, related a story that when he ran a rehearsal room in New York City in the 1950s, he was charmed by the fact that Maro often kept comic books of the Archie and Jughead variety in her scores, and she would read them to pass downtime. She remained a champion of Alan Hovhaness's music throughout her life and developed a significant interest in the Armenian composer and, like Bartok, musical ethnographer Komitas Vardapet (b. Sept. 1869; d. Oct. 1935). She died at the age of 57 on September 18, 1978.

Anahid Ajemian and her husband co-founded a New Music concert series in New York. She co-founded the Composers String Quartet at the suggestion of Gunther Schuller (b. Nov. 1925; d. June 2015) at the New England Conservatory. She served on the faculty of Columbia University for many years and died at the age of 92 in 2016.


released July 23, 2023

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski.

Tracks 2-3 recorded at Carnegie Hall, Feb. 7, 1947.
Tracks 4-5 recorded Dec. 5, 1947 in New York City
Tracks 6-12 recorded ca. 1949 in New York City

Maro Ajemian, piano: tracks 2-10, 12
Anahid Ajemian, violin: tracks 4, 9, 11
Alan Hovhaness, conductor: tracks 2, 3, 11, 12
Saul Goodman, tympani & first percussion: tracks 6-8, 11
William Masselos, first piano: tracks 6-8
Abraham Marcus, xylophone & second percussion: tracks 6-8
Phillip Kaplan, flute: track 11

Thanks: Harout Arakelian.

Cover photo, l-r: Maro Ajemian, Alan Hovhaness, Anahid Ajemian ca. early 1950s via the New York Public Library's George Avakian archive.

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