By Michael Church
Sunday, April 24, was Easter Day, but for Armenians it is also Genocide Remembrance Day. This is when Armenians all over the world will gather to commemorate the anniversary of the 1915 Genocide in which 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey were either slaughtered, or died on forced marches into exile. For Armenians, music is memory. And whenever they gather to honour their dead, the songs they sing are by the composer who speaks for the soul of their nation, Komitas Vardapet. He himself was a victim of the 1915 persecution and though he survived physically, he was driven into madness by it. Outside Armenia he, too, has been swept under the carpet of history.
Komitas’s output was modest: 80 choral works and songs, arrangements of the Armenian mass, and some dances for piano. But as his better- known compatriot, Aram Khachaturian, acknowledged, he single-handedly laid the foundations for Armenia’s classical tradition. And as a collector and arranger of folksongs, he did for Armenia what Bartók did for Hungary, turning simple material into bewitchingly sophisticated polyphony. After a Komitas concert in Paris, Claude Debussy declared that on the basis of a single song, he deserved to be recognized as a great composer. Yet many classical musicians barely recognize his name.
I first became aware of Komitas’s existence when recording the Armenian Chamber Choir in Yerevan in 2001. I was intrigued by the songs’ vibrant strangeness: folk melodies so deftly arranged that the raw beauty of the originals glowed the more brightly.
Soghomon Soghomonyan – his original name – was born in 1869 to Armenian parents in Turkey, where the Christian minority endured routine discrimination. His parents (who both died when he was young) were noted singers: he inherited their gift and was talent-spotted at 12 by an Armenian bishop and enrolled at the Echmiadzin seminary near Yerevan. There, he was the class comedian who could mimic the songs he found in villages on the slopes of Mount Ararat: even in his teens he was a pioneer ethnomusicologist. Using the notation he had learned in the Armenian liturgy, he wrote down what he heard, devised three-part arrangements and formed a student choir to sing them.
Soghomonyan’s appetite for songs was voracious — one day, he noted with pride, he collected 34. His account of the ploughing song he found in the Armenian village of Lori reflects a remarkable ear: in his transcription, music, movement and complex social relationships are seamlessly interwoven. In another village, he observed a girl singing to her dead mother: her plangently disordered song, he wrote, “expresses the sadness of her lot and her inner world. If other orphans had heard it, they would have joined in. But after a while, that song would be forgotten. Because for the peasant, creating a song is as ordinary and natural as casual conversation is for the rest of us.” As an encapsulation of the essence of folk music, this could still not be bettered.