Komitas 150: A Canadian Tribute
A multi-faceted celebration of the 150th birthday of Father Komitas, a composer and pioneer of ethnomusicology, who was widely admired for combining traditional music and the progressive musical trends of his time. Musical arrangements and artistic direction by Serouj Kradjian
While curating the program, I decided to primarily focus on creatively depicting his sometimes joyful and mostly difficult life journey through his songs and instrumental music. The songs I’ve chosen represent his love for village life and nature, the joyful songs and dances at weddings, his devotion to music for children, his life as a priest, his special relationship with French composer Claude Debussy, his agony during the Genocide, and falling silent as a result. Of course, all his “hits” such as Tsiranee tsar, Krunk, Garun a, Antuni, Keler-Tsoler, Hoy Nazan, Surb-Surb are included, alongside lesser known songs such as the Children’s Prayer, which he composed during his deportation and which ended up being his very last composition.
WATCH LIVESTREAM OF THE CONCERT AT KOERNER HALL HERE: https://vimeo.com/429648429
Composer, singer, ethnomusicologist, choir conductor, and pedagogue Rev. Father Komitas was born Soghomon Soghomonian in Keotahia, Ottoman Empire, in 1869. Orphaned very young, he was sent to the Kevorkian Theological Seminary in Etchmiadzin, the spiritual center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Because of his singing prowess, he developed a keen interest in the liturgical music and folk songs of his native land. A few years later, he took monastic vows, was ordained a “Vartabed” (celibate priest), and, as is the practice in the Armenian Church, assumed a new name, Komitas.
In 1896, Komitas was sent to Berlin on a scholarship to study at the State Conservatory of Music. On the recommendation of violinist Joseph Joachim, he studied composition privately with Richard Schmidt, who encouraged him to cultivate his interest in folk music in addition to mastering his knowledge of Western music, and completing musicology and philosophy courses at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University.
On his return to Etchmiadzin in 1899, he notated and developed the medieval hymns of the Armenian Church, eventually arranging the entire Divine Liturgy for male chorus. He spent several years touring the Armenian heartland, listening to songs and dances of the peasants and eventually collecting and notating more than 3,000 songs. He also investigated the codes of the Armenian neumatic khaz system from the eleventh century. Thus began his vocation in ethnomusicology, before the term was even invented.
By 1904, he would finally enjoy the fruits of his labor. After initial concerts in the Caucasus, he took his choirs to Paris, Berlin, Berne, Geneva, Venice and other European centers, giving lectures and performances. Internationally renowned by now, Komitas became the first non-European member of the International Music Society, where he lectured and published his studies on Armenian music. During that period he met Marguerite Babayan, an accomplished singer and former student of Pauline Viardot, who championed his songs and was instrumental in introducing his music to wider audiences. She also introduced him to such prominent French composers as Debussy, Ravel, d’Indy, and Saint-Saëns.
When he moved to Constantinople in 1910 and founded the 300-member “Gousan” choir, he was at the pinnacle of his career. His contact with French and Russian music had further shaped and matured his compositional style, and the enthusiasm he generated in concerts and conferences was unprecedented.
On April 24, 1915, Komitas Vartabed was one of 300 Armenian intellectuals arrested and deported in the first stage of the Armenian genocide masterminded by the Turkish government, during the course of which some one and a half million Armenians perished. Due to the efforts of United States Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr., Komitas was one of the few to return alive, only to find out that he had lost everything—friends, students, and most of his life’s work. He succumbed to intense physical and mental anguish, became a ghost of his former vigorous self, and never composed or sang again. He died in a mental institution near Paris on October 22, 1935.
Who was the musician Komitas? He never composed an opera, symphony, oratorio, or concerto, but what he accomplished was greater. He purified Armenian music of all foreign influences and gave it back to its people, laying the foundations of a national music culture. And by some miracle, he did it at the right time, because that tradition would have been forever erased, because of the cultural destruction, as a result of the Genocide. This explains his rightful recognition as the “father of Armenian classical music.”
When devising the concept for this concert, my aim was to tell his story through his songs. The program starts with The Morning brings Light and two excerpts follow it from the Divine Liturgy, widely considered to be his masterpiece. Komitas describes Armenian folk dances as majestic yet flexible, and two dances, Yerangi and Shushiki, are included here. The folksongs that follow are by the peasant who sings about his life, work, and attachment to the land; he is captivated by nature, both picturesque and spiritual.
And yet, the fear of persecution is always present: This is expressed in Qui tollis peccata mundi by Tigran Mansurian, a living Armenian composer most associated with Komitas because his compositional style mirrors the musical path that Komitas established.
Komitas’ worst fears came true. And his Dle Yaman, which was previously a love song, becomes a lament, and a symbol for the victims of man’s inhumanity against man. “My heart is like those ruined homes” the first words of the song Andouni symbolize the mental state Komitas found himself in during the catastrophic aftermath of the Armenian Genocide. Incidentally when hearing this song years earlier, Claude Debussy is known to have said, “Had Komitas written only the song Andouni, he would have been recognized as a great composer.”
Back from his deportation, witnessing the horrors of Genocide, Komitas had already had a mental breakdown, which would confine him to a psychiatric institution for the rest of his life. Shortly before, he had composed, what would become his last song: Children's Prayer.
On April 9, 1916, there was a benefit concert held in Paris in solidarity with the Armenians. The participants included important French musicians of the day, amongst them Camille Saint-Saens, Vincent d'Indy and others. The program, which also included many songs by Komitas, also featured the world premiere of Claude Debussy’s Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison. This was a protest song for children against war and violence of the First World War. This also turned out to be the last song Debussy composed. Two composers with immense mutual admiration, united in in their destiny.
The second half starts with two songs of the hard-working peasant. The village girl, on the other hand, sounds naïve but she is also surprisingly bold and fearless, when singing about the man she loves, when she is complaining about her mother-in-law or having a wonderful time at the wedding. And yet, throughout it all, there is a boundless, solemn yearning for the homeland, as you’ll hear in The Crane.
Komitas had a particular passion for children’s music education at an early age, and he re-arranged many of his songs for children’s choirs. The Partridge, in particular, is still a very popular song among Armenian communities worldwide. The program ends with a group of folksongs about falling in love and heartbreak because of love.
Most of Komitas’ compositional output is for choir, and voice and piano. I was inspired to arrange and orchestrate these songs, when I learned, that before his deportation, he himself had been planning to arrange them for a larger ensemble to accompany the voice. I compared voice/piano and choral versions of each song, in order to stay true to his authentic musical style and harmonic language, the colors he tried to highlight in the piano parts of the songs, the simplicity he strived for, and the peculiar polyphony of his choir songs.
And throughout this journey, I discovered, that one doesn’t have to be of Armenian origin to be touched by his work. There is a mystical and a universally soul-stirring quality to his songs, with an air of blissful sadness and child-like simplicity that captures and moves the listener regardless of nationality, race, or religion.