Voice of Armenia:  the tragedy of Komitas

SOGHOMON SOGHOMONIAN was born in 1869 in Kütahya, an Armenian Christian enclave whose inhabitants suffered systematic oppression under the Ottoman yoke. Even those Armenians who could speak their ancestral tongue were forbidden to do so outside church. Soghomon’s father, a cobbler, sang and played the lute; his talented but melancholic mother – sixteen when she gave birth to him – wove carpets, composed songs, and wrote poetry.  Soghomon was in his infancy when she died; his father turned to drink and also died prematurely. School friends remembered Soghomon as a waif wandering the streets; one recalled ‘a thin, malnourished, serious, kind little boy’ who in winter would come to school hungry, and frozen blue.

He had one great asset – a strikingly beautiful voice, spotted when he was eleven by an emissary charged with finding orphan singers for the choir at Etchmiadzin Abbey, which was then, as it still is, the spiritual centre of Armenian culture. There he quickly shone as a singer of both church music and Turkish folk songs; he became the seminary’s comedian, specialising in mimicking the songs and dances of different regions. And with a succession of brilliant teachers he began his lifetime quest to document the folk music which had permeated his childhood.

He went out into the fields, and listened to the songs of the pilgrims who came to Etchmiadzin; at that time the Armenian language encompassed dozens of dialects, with a corresponding number of musical styles. Despite having no knowledge of music theory he began harmonising these songs for a student choir; when he was seventeen he enlisted his fellow-students as co-researchers. He also embarked on a parallel quest to crack the code governing the khaz notation system of the early Armenian Church. Success in this would allow its canticles to be performed as they had been before their exposure to Persian, Turkish, and Kurdish influences: his goal was to distil the essence of the Armenian sacred tradition.

Sevak Avanesyan playing Krunk (Komitas) in Shushi St.Ghazanchetsots Cathedral

Like all victims of broken homes, he needed a support framework: he made Etchmiadzin his home, and took orders as a vartabed, celibate priest. It was traditional that ordinands should be given a new name, and the one he took, Komitas, was to honour Komitas Aghayetsi, a composer-priest of the seventh century. And it was as Komitas Vartabed – or Notaji Vartabed, the ‘note-crazy priest’ to the villagers whose songs he hoovered up – that he was henceforth known to the world. At twenty-six he published his first collection of transcribed folk music, The Songs of Agn: wedding songs and love songs, lullabies and dances.

This caused ructions in the seminary, whose conservative members found it shocking that a celibate priest should sing and teach such things. He transferred to an outpost of the Armenian Church in more cosmopolitan Tbilisi, then went to study in Berlin, emerging after three years as a formidable scholar and an inspiring choral conductor. When the Berlin branch of the International Musical Society was formed he was invited to speak at its inaugural meeting, arguing that the Armenian khaz could serve as a model for the study of the ancient Roman, Greek, and Assyrian traditions.

Returning in 1899 to Etchmiadzin, he created a polyphonic choir and began writing the papers which would put him in the history books. He was now conducting his research on an industrial scale, giving his students paper and instructing them to write down the songs they heard when they went back to their villages; he spent his summers in the countryside, observing how songs were interwoven with life-cycle rituals. Texts thus caught on the wing were spelled out in all their improvised specificity; melodies were given with lists of tiny variations in pitch and rhythm; dances were broken down into prescribed movements for every part of the body. Ask a villager who was the composer of a song, he said, and you’d be given the name of the village star; ask that star, and he’d either give you another name, or shrug his shoulders. ‘All peasants know in some degree how to compose,’ he declared. ‘Nature is their infallible school.’ He writes of joining a village festival at midnight and watching as a round-dance song is constructed. It begins with a soloist giving a line repeated by the chorus, which is then answered by another line. As the dance gets animated the melody is modified again and again, and he notes down all the variants. Another soloist takes it up in pitch, after which yet another soloist takes over; finally the best singer in the village – bashfully protesting, yet burning to perform – gives the song its final shape. When it’s all over, he asks if they could sing the song in one of its intermediate forms, but they won’t – ‘because it wasn’t good’. He concludes: ‘A song, you sing it, and that’s all; why bother to ask who created it, where, when, and how? That day I noted thirty-four new songs.’

Komitas, pictured in 1902

IN CONTRAST to the emerging German school of ethnomusicology – which focused on technicalities of tuning and rhythm – Komitas took an anthropological view. And he brought to his researches an instinctive empathy, as in his account of an orphaned girl whom he spotted sitting on a roof making dung cakes for fuel. First he gives the melody, a complex vocal line involving oblique shifts in tonality, and its text with the refrain ‘Dear mother, you left me homeless, what shall I do?’  A second girl interrupts her and they start chatting, and when she leaves the first girl develops her song with even more artful figurations, until an old woman angrily tells her to stop and come down. ‘Over time,’ he comments, ‘this song will be forgotten, or be at best a vague memory, for the creation of songs for the peasant is as ordinary and natural as daily conversation is for us. If we don’t note down what is sung today, we won’t remember it later.’

Armenian peasants had no concept of art-song, music for its own sake: Komitas was acutely aware that as old customs died out, so would the songs associated with them. One of his most striking commentaries is on a ploughing song from a mountain village in the Lori province, where work begins at nightfall, and where the plough is a medieval leviathan requiring twelve yoked oxen and the menfolk from several families.

The ploughing and the song begin with an invocation to God, and an exhortation to the animals and the boys who will ride on their yokes. The key lines and refrains combine religiosity with practicality, but into these the singers weave comments on everything they see, whether it’s slackers (human or animal) or people they see passing by – a woman lighting her lamp, another fetching water from a well. The meticulous thoroughness of Komitas’s musical analysis in terms of scale, rhythm, and word-setting would meet the most stringent demands of present-day ethnomusicology, and his conclusion has a lovely symmetry. As he triumphantly shows, everything is based on the number five, whether it’s the pentasyllabic poetry, the number of lines in the melody, the phrases in each line, or the beats in a bar.

He sums it all up with a poetic justification for these quasi-scientific exertions: ‘The day has rested and the night is ready for work. Two seas have served each other – the bright blue of the sky and the vigilant black of the earth. The moon has risen above the stars to plough the rows of clouds. Above is life that moves the mind and heart, below is a world of effort. The peasant awakes, the plough takes heart and encourages him, tearing the field, piling up waves of soil to right and left. The whole team is breathing heavily, the oxen are murmuring, the men are shouting, the breeze is whistling, the flowers are whispering, the brook is plashing. Meanwhile the plough-wheel creaks and whimpers… The dark and light of the peasant’s life, his labour and his hopes, give birth to our beautiful song.’

The first few years of the twentieth century saw Komitas’s fame dramatically spreading. His magnetic power as a conductor and his lectures in Berlin, Venice, and Paris (where he founded other choirs) bolstered his reputation as the voice of Armenian music: he invoked Wagner’s example as the man who ‘gave a national music to Germany’, though he took care not to draw any musical parallels.  One of his biggest fans in Paris was Debussy, who declared that one song arrangement alone (an exile’s lament entitled ‘Antuni’) would have been sufficient to earn him a place in the pantheon of composers.

All the photographs of Komitas at this time show a dapper gent with neatly-chiselled features, burning dark eyes, and a shy demeanour, forming the still centre of group after group of students and choristers. He lived ascetically, sleeping on the floor without mattress or pillow, and he preserved a striking humility, signing his choral arrangements ‘harmonised by Komitas Vartabed’, rather than the ‘composed’ which would have been more accurate. Yet he spent his thirties at war on two fronts. One of these was the simmering conflict with his conservative superiors, who did all they could (including drastically cutting his salary) to stymy his efforts to promote his beloved folk music, and to realise his dream of founding an Armenian music conservatory. The other war was private: an agonising struggle with his celibate conscience over a passionate affair with the charismatic Armenian singer Marguerite Babayan who championed his songs.

Komitas was so desperate to escape the claustrophobia of Etchmiadzin that in 1910 he accepted an invitation to create an Armenian choir in Constantinople, which had not yet had its name changed to Istanbul, and where there was a big Armenian community and a Westernised intelligentsia. He did this with justifiable anxiety, knowing he was moving to the heart of an empire which had permitted the massacre of thousands of Armenians in the multi-ethnic Turkish town of Adana just one year previously; he left most of his belongings behind, to be forwarded only if he decided to settle. In Constantinople he created a 300-voice mixed choir, and began rallying the city’s Armenian intellectuals, but the old problem resurfaced, with conservative Armenian clerics trying once again to halt his performances, and denouncing him to the Turkish secret police as a political subversive. Defiantly he went on performing, and counter-attacked by accusing the local Armenian clergy of singing the austere Armenian canticles as though they were Turkish party songs. In 1911 he made a triumphant tour of Egypt, where he sang and clowned to the delight of expat Armenians, and where he created yet another local Armenian choir. ‘Last night he brought Mount Masis [Ararat] to us,’ enthused one Armenian writer in Cairo. ‘Who said mountains cannot walk?’


POLITICS, HOWEVER, were now closing in. The Ottoman ban on the Armenian language had reflected the Turks’ hope that the Armenians would become assimilated. But the Armenian activists’ push for a homeland within the Ottoman Empire, plus their cultural renaissance – exemplified by their triumphant celebration of the fifteen-hundredth anniversary of their alphabet in 1913, for which Komitas composed a song – put paid to that idea. Komitas was now so fashionable a figure in Constantinople that he was even invited to participate in a fundraising concert for the Turkish military.

But the noose was tightening: the Young Turks, whose goals were sharia law and Turkic racial purity – some things don’t change – were now viciously in the ascendant. With the outbreak of the First World War, in which Turkey was soon encircled by Allied forces, a state of emergency was declared, and the ‘Armenian question’ was tackled, as the Young Turks thought, once and for all: all Ottoman Armenians were ordered to surrender their ‘weapons’, kitchen knives included, while popular anti-Armenian sentiment was stoked up on the streets.

Watching hostile demonstrations from his window, Komitas took refuge in work. Believing he had found the key to the ancient Armenian notation system, he arranged the entire Divine Liturgy for male chorus, and during an extraordinary burst of productivity in 1913-14 published suites of wedding and fortune-telling songs, plus six suites of peasant songs, and created yet another choir; he also made sketches for what would have been the first Armenian opera. Now universally acknowledged as the de facto ambassador for Armenian musical culture, he went back to Paris to deliver three lectures containing the summation of his research into both the sacred and secular traditions. Meanwhile his presence at official gatherings in Constantinople was still being used as a fig-leaf for the Turkish government’s pretension to cultural pluralism.

On April 24 in 1915 the genocide was triggered, with the arrest of 2,345 prominent Armenians suspected of having ‘nationalist sentiments’: parliamentary deputies and lawyers, doctors and journalists, scholars, and musicians including Komitas himself. It seems he meekly accepted his arrest as though he had long expected it, like the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial. The victims were initially treated so politely that many assumed their trouble would blow over, but, as with the Nazi roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942, the deportees’ treatment soon turned brutal: they were bundled into bullock carts, and driven without food or water to prisons in the remote countryside. Of the 291 men incarcerated in Komitas’s group, only forty survived: the rest were either clandestinely executed, or murdered by bandits, or died from starvation and disease. He himself was one of eight to be spared thanks to a mysterious telegram from the Ministry of the Interior (thought to have been inspired by the American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, who was one of his fans); Komitas learned of his release as he was celebrating mass for his imprisoned co-religionists.

He returned to Constantinople to find his house ransacked and his archive destroyed. He tried to salvage what he could of his work, but never recovered from the shock of his incarceration, and of what he had witnessed: post-traumatic stress disorder turned his brain and rendered him mute. Friends tried many ruses to help him recover, but his response was psychotic; after a spell in a Turkish asylum he was sent to a succession of psychiatric hospitals in Paris, where, after seventeen years of intensifying paranoia, he died. The Genocide may not have killed him, but it killed his creative spirit, and it obliterated much of the Armenian, Turkish, and Kurdish music he had so devotedly collected.

Two Armenian folk songs arranged by Komitas performed by the Ulysses Quartet:
It’s Cloudy and Song of the Little Partridge

WHAT WAS the impulse which drove his musical quest? His biographer, the Canadian-Armenian psychiatrist Rita Soulahian Kuyumjian, contends that his drive to uncover the roots of his musical heritage was essentially a private matter. It represented, says Kuyumjian, a sublimated attempt at mourning – and even symbolically resurrecting – the parents he had lost in childhood, with the remedy he applied to his own wounds helping to heal the wounds inflicted by history on the Armenian people as a whole.

This might help explain why his music has become the rallying point for the Holocaust Day observances which are faithfully marked by Armenians every year, all over the world. A glowing tribute from Aram Khachaturian – often erroneously thought to be the founding father of Armenia’s classical tradition – makes clear on whose brow that laurel should be placed: ‘Komitas’s music is of such stylistic purity, its language so sublime, that it is impossible to pass it by, impossible not to feel its closeness, or refuse its influence.’

‘It is difficult to make clear the uniqueness of Armenian folk music to foreigners, particularly Europeans,’ Komitas wrote. ‘Our folk songs and dance songs… portray an altogether different fervour, different sentiment, and different meaning from those of other Eastern traditions.’ He organised his findings with precision, distinguishing them geographically and according to social function; he recovered songs of the medieval gusan minstrels and ashug folk-poets with their Middle-Eastern modes, and he was the first to transcribe Kurdish melodies. Like Bartok he didn’t collect in the cities, because in his view the true Armenian tradition could only be found among the peasantry.

Thanks to YouTube we can listen to him singing some of his finds with piano and violin accompaniment. His voice has a restrained but expressive vibrato, long-held notes rounded off with delicate ornamentation. To listen to the three-part choral versions which he made of these monophonic songs is to understand why Debussy was so admiring. With their intricate polyphony they are miniature masterpieces, packed with drama incorporating shouts, laughter, and all the sounds of village life, as well as the hope and sadness of a community under the perennial threat of violent obliteration. His arrangement of the Lori ploughing song, with its melodic leaps and falls, its surges of power and sudden pianissimi, can make the spine tingle. Like Musorgsky, Komitas stipulated that the performance of his settings should remain faithful to the rhythms of speech.

The tragedy of Komitas’s life has a perennial attraction for Armenian film-makers and novelists, while droves of Armenian musicians have made their own arrangements of the melodies which he collected. These include the seven short dances, each from a different region of the country, out of which he created the little suite which is his only solo piano composition. The style of these miniatures is austere yet suggestive, evoking the instruments on which the dances would originally have been performed: the pogh flute (with which Komitas illustrated points in his lectures), the dhol and dap drums, the double-reed zurna, and the apricot-wood duduk oboe, whose mournful beauty is regarded as the expression of the Armenian soul.


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