Komitas Honored in Berlin

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

BERLIN — Every Armenian knows (or should know) Komitas Vardapet. He was the great musicologist, musician and composer who literally founded modern classical Armenian music and whose songs, dances and liturgical works play a prominent role in our musical culture. But perhaps fewer people know about the influence of Germany on his work. On September 5 in Berlin, a gathering of scientists, politicians and artists convened to honor Komitas, unveiling a bronze commemorative plaque at the Humboldt University, which was the composer’s alma mater.

The ceremony was moderated by Prof. Armenuhi Drost-Abgarjan, the leading Armenologist and director of the MESROB Center for Armenian Studies at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, who introduced the speakers, beginning with Prof. Jan Hendrik Olbertz, president of the Humboldt University. It was he who has led several joint Armenian-German projects over the years during his tenure as Minister of Culture of Sachsen-Anhalt, the state responsible for cultural, scientific and educational relations with Armenia. Representing the Republic of Armenia was Dr. Armen Martirosyan, ambassador to Germany.

Among the guests who had traveled to Berlin from Yerevan for the event was the Minister of Culture Hasmik Poghosyan, under whose patronage the project was carried out, in collaboration with Martirosyan, architect Karl van Suntum of the university and public relations director Petra Schubert.

As Poghosyan explained, a special competition had been launched for the design to artist Nara Mendelyan. When the plaque was ceremoniously unveiled, Archbishop Karekin Bekdjian, Primate of the Armenian Church in Germany, recited a prayer in Armenian and Manfred Richter, former dean of the Berlin Cathedral, offered a prayer in German.

As Drost-Abgaryan noted, “two renowned specialists of Armenian music and its links to oriental and European music had been invited from Germany and Armenia” — Dr. Regina Randhofer, musicologist from the Sachsen Academy of Sciences in Leipzig, and Prof. Mher Navoyan, musicologist and historian from the Yerevan State Conservatory named after Komitas. Randhofer, who specializes in the cultural history of the Mediterranean and Near East, teaches and conducts research at universities in Halle, Budapest and Jerusalem, among others. Navoyan, who has published numerous works on medieval Armenian music, is

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also the artistic director of the Geghard women’s ensemble from the Geghard Cloister, which presented folk songs by Komitas during the evening concert which concluded the festivities.

More than one speaker compared the significance of Komitas’s contribution in music to the contribution of Mesrop

Mashtots, the founder of the Armenian alphabet, to language. Born in 1869, Komitas displayed unusual musical talent at an early age and in 1881 went to Echmiadzin, where he studied singing, choir directing and composition at the spiritual academy, Geworgean Jemaran. At the age of 24 he became a monk and

two years thereafter was ordained a priest. In this period he worked closely with leading clergymen who were experts in Armenian music.

His years in Berlin, from 1896-1899, were to prove crucial. Supported by a church scholarship, he entered the Humboldt University and also studied piano and music theory privately. Thus he came

into contact with leading musicians and experts from the European tradition, among them, Oskar Fleischer, Heinrich Bellermann and Max Friedländer. In addition to lectures in music history, musicology, medieval church music, instrumental music, musical criticism and related disciplines, Komitas eagerly took part in folk music research. The young musical genius had already developed a passion for Armenian folk music and collected melodies far and wide. Fleischmann taught him aspects of musical notation, which was to aid him in deciphering the Armenian khazes (or neumes), an old sign system in which church music and prayers from the ninth to 16th centuries were annotated but which was no longer known.

Through his studies and contacts in Berlin, Komitas forged a symbiotic relationship with the German and European musical tradition, learning from his teachers and sharing his knowledge of Armenian music with them. He became a member of the Berlin International Music Society founded by Fleischer and, following his return to Echmiadzin in 1899, traveled widely in search of old traditional melodies, while working on the decipherment of the ancient notation. Komitas used his knowledge of European music to rework these liturgical and folk compositions, transforming monodic melodies into polyphonic form.

During his concert tours through Europe and the Ottoman Empire, Komitas again came into contact with other leading composers, like Ravel and Debussy. In 1910 he moved to Constantinople, where he founded a choir and, in 1915, was among the hundreds of Armenian intelligentsia who were brutally arrested and jailed. Though spared a worse fate through the intervention of then-US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Komitas suffered the psychological effects for the rest of his life, which ended in Paris in 1935. In the following year, his mortal remains were transported to Yerevan.

Although his published works include 14 volumes of songs and fold music, much of his groundbreaking achievement has been lost through the ravages of war and the Genocide. Navoyan estimates that among those works lost are about 2,000 collected folk songs as well as some original compositions and — most tragically — his work on the decipherment of the neumes. The fruit of two decades’ work, this major discovery would provide the key to reading thousands of medieval musical manuscripts written in this notation.

Despite the massive loss, what has remained of Komitas is immense in significance. By combining his extraordinary musical insight and talent with his profound study of other musical cultures, especially through his Berlin years, he succeeded in creating an utterly new music — modern classical Armenian music — which is not only noteworthy as a unique compositional method, but constitutes the foundation of a national school of musical composition. Through comparative analyses of Armenian music and that of other traditions — whether Eastern or European — and his original compositions, Komitas demonstrated that “the Armenians have an independent music.” In this sense, the comparison with Mesrob is not at all exaggerated. It is indeed a happy circumstance that leading personalities in the world of culture, education and politics from Germany and the Republic of Armenia have joined efforts to commemorate this brilliant individual and to recognize his symbolic value in elevating German-Armenian relations.

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