HOW KOMITAS PRESERVED ARMENIAN FOLK MUSIC
14:16, 04 Mar 2015
In the 1990s, the duduk found its way into movie soundtracks, radio
playlists and record collections of the west. Yet as Cara Rosehope
writes, the music of Armenia’s national instrument might never have
survived the Armenian genocide were it not for Komitas–a priest,
musician, composer and so much more.
A report prepared by David Rutledge of ABC Radio National explores
the legacy of Komitas.
The Armenia of today is a tiny nation state in the Caucasus, but
historically Armenia stretched across eastern Anatolia, over the
Euphrates and Tigris rivers, past Mt Ararat, where Noah’s Ark is
said to lie, on into the Caucasus. It was a land rich in poetry and
song from towns and villages in a varied and often rugged landscape:
rural work songs, life-cycle ceremonial music, nature songs, love
songs and ancient epics, as well as the sung liturgies and prayers
of its Eastern Orthodox Church.
Komitas was born in 1869 to a musical Armenian family in Ottoman
Anatolia. Orphaned in childhood, his beautiful voice and skill with
Armenian church music led to his being taken in by the church in
Echmiadzin, the high seat of the Armenian orthodoxy. At the prestigious
seminary in Echmiadazin, Komitas received the best general and musical
education that eastern Armenia could offer, and there he began research
into Armenia’s national music which would last for decades.
As a student, Komitas developed an interest in folk music, and began
to methodically transcribe what he heard as he travelled through the
rural villages of Armenia. He used a 19th century Armenian notation
which captured the distinctive Armenian melodic modes, rhythms and
‘Komitas’ most important contribution to music was his collection of
folk music; they say he collected over 5,000 [songs],’ says Harold
Hagopian, a New York-based Armenian-American violinist, folk musician
and producer who runs a renowned world music record label.
‘Anybody who survived [the genocide] was five or 10 years old, they
were children … a few people, you know, old timers remember the
songs, and who knows if they remember them right, because, after all,
they were five years old.’
>From 1896 to 1899, Komitas attended a music conservatory in Berlin,
where he studied European music theory, musicology, Byzantine chant,
folkloric music, and also the music of Armenia’s neighbours,
which–like Armenia’s–is modal. He began to explore ways of
introducing harmonies to the monophonic music of his homeland while
maintaining its distinctively Armenian character.
‘Komitas is Armenia’s Bach, Schubert and Bartok,’ says Isabel
Bayrakdarian, an Armenian-Lebanese-Canadian opera singer and recitalist
with an international solo career. ‘Bach, with his sacred music
revolutionised the style of what was to come after him. He’s the
Schubert because he started something we never had: art songs.’
On his return to Echmiazin, Komitas began to write and arrange works
using the folk elements of Armenian music. The next two decades saw
the by now nationalistic Komitas studying, publishing, lecturing and
leading choirs in concerts across Europe and the Middle East, employing
both his knowledge of Armenian music and European musical theory. His
time in Paris between 1906 and 1909 was especially fruitful.
‘He met people like Debussy, who was also a nationalist–at that time
there was a very strong nationalist movement in music in Europe,’
says Harold Hagopian. ‘He said, “I can do the same thing, I can take
folk songs, folk melodies, folk scales, rhythms, and twist them around,
and write pieces.”
‘He established an Armenian national school of composition.’
After one of Komitas’ choir concerts, Debussy is said to have remarked:
‘Had Komitas only composed the one song, Adouni, even then, he would
have been recognised as a great artist.’
Despite Komitas’ considerable international artistic success, he
thought of himself in more modest terms.
‘Komitas thought of himself not as a musicologist, not as a composer,
but as a Khazaget, a person who is studying the khaz, the old Armenian
music notation system,’ says Professor Mher Navoyan, a musicologist
and Komitas scholar at the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan,
Komitas had also begun to study medieval Armenian church music. This
had been transcribed in a neume-like system of musical notation
which was no longer understood, and Komitas sensed that the music
from isolated Armenian villages could act as the key to their
understanding. In his published articles, he stated that his concern
was to filter out the influences of other Middle Eastern music and
to return to what he felt was authentically Armenian.
In 1910 Komitas moved to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman
Empire, and during a 1912 trip to Paris, he made his first foray into
recording onto wax cylinders.
In 1915 Ottoman Turkey entered WWI and, for the Ottoman Armenians,
everything changed. Genocide reduced the Armenian population in
the Anatolian heartland to almost zero. Komitas was among its first
victims. A century on, Armenia is one sixth of the size that it once
was, and the majority of Armenians live elsewhere in the world. For
most, all that remains of their homeland are the songs.
‘When I talk about Armenian culture, folk culture, that’s Komitas,’
says Hasmik Harutyunyan, a singer, educator, and folklorist.
‘Anything you do, anything you play, it’s connected to Komitas’
this folk culture is very important to us as a nation, as a people. We
think the folk culture is the road for us to go back.’
Since the genocide, Komitas’ reputation and importance to Armenia
has only grown. His work has also been the means to move forward from
the tragedy of the genocide.
‘For me, it was very important for the whole Armenian world that
Komitas was able to establish a new way of musical thinking,’ says
Professor Mher Navoyan
‘When we talk about his music, first, his artistic value is the
most important … Armenian people, they accept it as folk music,
and on the other side, it is the highest level of the Armenian school
Public Radio of Armenia has contributed to the preparation of the