A scene from a production of "Gariné"

Dikan Tchouhadjian at 180: An Occasional Series by Gerald Papasian


PARIS — The 180th anniversary of the birth of Ottoman-Armenian composer Dikran Tchouhadjian will be marked in March. The author, an actor, musician, producer and director, is director of the Dikran Tchouhadjian International Institute in Parish. Tchouhadjian was the first composer of operas in the Ottoman Empire, who has been relegated to the forgotten pile.

“Leblebiji Hor Hor Agha” (aka “Gariné”) is perhaps the most widely known and loved opera-buffa among of Dikran Tchouhadjian’s works. Written in Constantinople in 1875, it has been produced innumerable times since its creation within and beyond the former Ottoman Empire. It was first produced by Tchouhadjian’s own musical theatre company (1874-6) then by actor managers such as Serovpe Benklian (1878-1888) and Arshag Benlian (1910-1923) and many other Armenian, Turkish, Greek, German or other companies in different languages. The latest performances were presented in France and the UK in French and English produced in their integrity by this writer during the years 2010 and 2015. Most recently, the Baronian State Theatre in Yerevan has staged its own ‘adaptation’ of the opera-buffa (2016) which in my opinion would not have met with Tchouhadjian’s approval had he been alive.

And yet, the amazing and sad part of the story is that the original 1875 scores as written by the composer (conductor score and complete orchestra material, including full original librettos) seem to have completely disappeared from the face of the earth.

Initially Leblebiji Hor Hor Agha’s complete score belonged to a rich Armenian, Elazar Melikian, who had bought the rights from Tchouhadjian himself and kept it in his possession in Constantinople. Melikian used to receive royalties for every performance. The last we heard of these scores are in memoires and articles by contemporaries informing us how Serovpe Benklian’s operetta company lost money during their second tour in Egypt in 1888 and was forced to pawn the scores in order to have enough money to travel back home with all his company members.

Fortunately, Benklian had secretly (and illegally) copied Melikian’s scores before 1888. Right after that period, during the terrible years of Sultan Abdul Hamid the Second’s reign, many works were forbidden in Constantinople, including Leblebiji. Instead, Benklian produced it in Smyrna, not disclosing the opera’s title; once in 1892, once in 1894 and one last production in Egypt before dying there 1900.

The evidence indicates that these last performances must have been based on Benklian’s “stolen” copies. Melikian was forced to keep silent, scared of Hamid’s law. This illegal action towards Melikian’s rights, were a risk that Benklian wouldn’t have taken had he recuperated the scores from Egypt.

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It looks like the original scores are still somewhere in Egypt to this day.

No one knows what happened to Benklian’s copy either.

Perhaps it is lost somewhere near the Pyramids as well.


What Has Survived

All we have in our hands are four copies of piano scores (i.e. vocal scores with no orchestral accompaniment) reproduced after Tchouhadjian’s death (1898) by his students, Haroutyoun Sinanian (one copy dated 1910, made in Constantinople commissioned for performances by an Armenian cultural association in Baku, Azerbaijan) and Smpad Kessedjian (three copies dated 1911, 1916 and 1920, prepared in London).

Topics: Middle East

In Armenia, productions of the opera buffa (since 1943) are exclusively based on Sinanian’s piano score made for use in Baku and orchestrated by well-known Soviet Armenian composers of the period.

Yet there are dissimilarities between Sinanian’s and Kessedjian’s copies, which are both supposed to derive from a single source. In addition, some musical numbers are missing or altered from one score to the other, with the major difference being that Sinanian’s version sounds more “European” while Kessedjian’s is more “Oriental.”

Kessedjian’s scores arrived late in Yerevan from Rio de Janeiro and no one bothered to investigate them to see if there were not interesting differences to add or change for future productions.

These four copies are now found at the Art and Literature Museum in Armenia.

Full Conductor Scores

As far as complete scores with full orchestration (called conductor scores) are concerned, we have information about two existing copies, both “unavailable” for comparative research purposes so far.

The first belonged to an Istanbul-based musician, Jirair Arslaniants, who claimed that he owned the original 1875 conductor score. In 1997, in Istanbul, he told this writer that he had bought them from an old conductor, Georges Ougnadian, who used to work with Arshag Benlian’s company during the first decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he refused to hand it out to anyone. Despite many efforts of persuasion, the score was finally “lost” after his death in December 2009. Perhaps his widow will be kind enough to let us know one day where it is. It would have been interesting to see if it was actually Tchouhadjian’s hand or yet another copy made by unknown hands. All we can say for now is that thanks to a recording made in 1975 for Turkish National Television and conducted by Arslaniants, we understand that his score was closer to Kesssedjian’s “Oriental” version.

The second complete conductor score is a 1920 copy made by Elazar Melikian’s son, Aram Melikian. It is in the private collection of conductor Vatche Barsoumian in Los Angeles. It remains unobtainable for the time being. I had the opportunity to see Melikian’s copy of the conductor score and it is similar to Sinanian’s vocal scores in the “European” version.

Productions after Tchouhadjian’s, Benklian’s and Melikian’s Deaths

A few days after Tchouhadjian’s death in 1898, a budding actor-manager in Bulgaria, Arshag Benlian, who had originally fled the 1894-96 Hamidian massacres in the Ottoman Empire, began producing operettas including simplified versions of the popular “Leblebiji.” He returned to his hometown, Constantinople, in 1909-10 heartened by the downfall of the Sultan and the new regime of the Young Turks. He continued a very successful career as the director and lead actor of his new operetta company until his premature death in 1923 at the age of 47.

It is still a mystery as to what scores were used for all those productions, including future ones by many companies.

Could the score used by Arshag Benlian, at least for his Constantinople productions between 1910 to 1923, be the one Jirair Arslaniants had bought from the conductor G. Ougnadian? After all, Ougnadian was Arshag Benlian’s conductor during that period. If the original scores are to be considered lost in Egypt, it would mean that the scores used by Benlian/Ougnadian were perhaps the illegally copied ones by their predecessor Serovpe Benklian, and not the original 1875 opus as Arslaniants used to claim.

The mystery will remain unsolved until Arslaniants scores are discovered one day.

Drawing Conclusions

The fact remains that in the absence of the actual source, i.e. the composer’s 1875 opus written in his own handwriting, all sorts of post-1890s productions based on existing scores, later lost ones, adaptations or re-orchestrations by known or unknown copyists, cannot be authenticated definitively in order to affirm that they represent the unmodified music as created by Tchouhadjian himself and not “touched up” by other musicians.

One last hope remained to find an authentic score

When we first began to plan a production of “Leblebiji” under its Armenian name, “Gariné,” in Paris, all we had in our hands were photocopies of the above-mentioned piano reproductions made by Tchouhadjian’s students, Sinanian and Kessedjian.

For the reasons mentioned above, there was no way we could compare them with an “original” to decide which score was closest to Tchouhadjian’s intentions. But …

In a 1926 article about Dikran Tchouhadjian, published in Téotig’s Almanac for All in Venice, Paris-based musician Noubar Alixanian writes that the “so-called ‘Leblébiji Hor Hor Agha’ performances played for years in Constantinople and elsewhere are merely copies, since the original authentic [score] is found in Paris at the Joubert publishing house to which it was sold.”

His statement confirms that most performances after the 1890s were “questionable,” so to speak.

The chase was on!

Joubert has not existed since World War II. We found out that its archives were inherited by another important publishing house Warner/Chapelle. But nothing existed in the listings of the archives under the name of neither Tchouhadjian nor the title “Leblebiji” or any other name known by us. Yet, back in 1904, a blurb in an Armenian monthly called Anahid, suddenly put us on the right track. It announced an operetta by Tchouhadjian called “Fleur d’Orient” (we suspected it to be a French title for Leblebiji) that was to take place in a Parisian theatre the next season. Apparently it never happened, but the announcement mentioned two names for its French translation. Pierre Anmeghian, who we knew was the French translator of “Leblebiji” in 1887 (Constantinople) and a new name, non-Armenian this time, Daniel Jourda.

Back at the archives we finally asked the right question: “What do you have under the name of Daniel Jourda?”

The key to the discovery: a French author.

A piece called La Loi du Chéri was found under the name of Daniel Jourda! The more than 110-year-old box was opened and there it was: the complete orchestra material of “Leblebiji Hor Hor Agha.”

This was in 2010. We were able to get our hands on the entire Joubert manuscripts only in 2015 after long and painful negotiations and with considerable personal financial sacrifices by this writer.

The Joubert Box

The Joubert box contains no conductor’s score but the complete orchestra material in separate books for each instrument. It simply needs to be gathered, like a puzzle, and create its full conductor’s score in a computer: meticulous and hard work, but feasible for any musician.

There are the three preludes for each act and 19 musical numbers (excluding one mezzo soprano aria found only in Kessedjian’s copy) and one scene (found only in Sinanian’s copy). The box also contained three handwritten piano scores and two French librettos under the title: “Léblébidji ou la loi du chéri” by Daniel Jourda. Over all it is closer to Kessedjian’s “Oriental” score as far as the harmonies and some musical numbers are concerned. The “novelty” is that some completely new music is added especially in the great waltz of Act II.

Tchouhadjian had come to Paris in 1891 hoping, in vain, to produce his latest opera, “Zemiré” (translated in French by Pierre Anmeghian). Before leaving Constantinople, he had reworked and enriched the music “To present it in its best form to the sophisticated Parisian audiences.” He must have reworked “Leblebiji” for the same reason. In fact, his orchestration corresponds to the arrangements of full orchestras that existed at the time in France. About 40 years later, after the death of Tchouhadjian’s widow in Paris, his archive was sent from France to Armenia. It included his opera “Arsace Secondo,” but not a trace of “Leblebiji!” It had obviously remained in Paris.

On his return from France, Tchouhadjian was too busy working on the Italian version of “Zemiré,” which was based on a politically harmless Arab fairy tale. He had a deal with a visiting Italian opera company to produce it in Constantinople. “Leblebidji” was forbidden by the censors anyway, as mentioned above. Better leave it in Paris for a second chance there. Having sent his wife and children to Paris to flee the 1894-96 Hamidian massacres Tchouhadjian died soon after in 1898, in Smyrna, alone.

As for why were the scores were sold to Joubert, and by whom, it remains a mystery. Considering the odd way they were listed under an undistinguishable title, with no other mention but Jourda as its author, it makes us suspect some foul play by the latter. This must have happened maybe after Tchouhadjian’s departure from Paris or even after his death; perhaps on the occasion of the projected 1904 French production mentioned in Anahid. Jourda must have somehow gotten involved in the project, “correcting” Anmeghian’s translation and claiming to be a co-author (instead as co-translator). My guess is that the 1904 production having been canceled, Jourda registered the opera under his name in the absence of claimants. Not only the title is changed but also all the characters’ names, thus Hor Hor becoming Bombor to give but one example.

Jourda’s “appropriation” may be mere speculation from our part. The one positive thing we could say about his attempt, if any, is that he must have really loved the piece to have wanted his name on it.

In the end, all this is relatively unimportant in view of the fundamental issue: the discovery of Tchouhadjian’s lost score.

Paris Score

Historically speaking, my assumption is that the Joubert scores were prepared sometime during the four years between 1887 and 1891 by Tchouhadjian himself for an eventual Paris performance which never happened. They are thus prior to the 1910, 1911, 1917 and 1920 existing scores. The reasons for that conclusion are the following:

Lyrics under the Joubert piano scores are written in French, word-for-word similar to Pierre Anmeghian’s 1887 translation completed in Constantinople. The lyrics are also in Tchouhadjian’s own handwriting. The score could therefore not have been prepared before that date.

Since Jourda’s changed lyrics do not appear on the scores, he must have made his changes and editing after Tchouhadjian returned to Constantinople in in February 1892. Therefore, the French score cannot be later than 1891 or latest January 1892.

The Joubert score is Tchouhadjian’s own orchestration.

The separate instruments’ material is obviously the work of copyists; however, one of the piano scores in the box is actually Tchouhadjian’s own handwriting. And it corresponds and is 100-percent compatible with the separate instrumental materials contained in the box. Both the composer’s handwritten piano score and the orchestration being the same, there can be no doubt about the authenticity of the music as a whole.

We can also add that according to musicologist Haig Avakian (Egypt), composer John Sarkissian (Canada) and opera specialist Olivier Podesta (France), who have all done extensive research work on Tchouhadjian’s works as a whole, the orchestration is stylistically speaking true to the composer’s techniques and methods.

As for the above mentioned two musical numbers not found in Joubert’s manuscripts, they can be safely added to the final edition of the opera since other copies of these songs exist in Tchouhadjian’s own handwriting on separate manuscript sheets stored at the Yerevan museum. They are definitely not Sinanian’s, Kesedjian’s or some other composer’s inventions.

This Paris version of “Leblebiji” may or may not be similar to the lost first opus of 1875, but it definitely is by far richer and more exciting in its harmonies, counterpoints or descants than whatever was re-orchestrated later by 20th century composers based on the only piano reductions available at the time. At this point it is important to say that all known versions (Sinanian’s, Kessedjian’s piano scores, Melikian’s conductor score copy and Arslaniant’s lost though recorded conductor’s score) may very well be authentic, changes made by Tchouhadjian himself. Suffice it to say that it was the usual practice in those early days for composers to adapt their orchestrations and make many changes in their music according to different orchestras and singers for presentations and tours. This was true especially in the case of operettas or “light operas” which did not enjoy the same requirements of accuracy and respect as more “serious” works.

Tchouhadjian was no exception.

But, since the “Paris version” is obviously “Leblebiji’s” final opus, we do not think it counts much to know if it corresponds to the 1st opus of 1875; nor Arslaniants’ “lost” score, nor Melikian’s 1920 “unobtainable” copy for that matter. That represents only an academic interest.

For production purposes, it is usually the last opus of a composition that is performed everywhere in the world.

We certainly hope that soon, perhaps in 2017, on the occasion of the 180th anniversary of Tchouhadjian’s birth, opera lovers will have the opportunity to enjoy, for the first time, Tchouhadjian’s comic masterpiece in its integrity and in his own wonderful orchestration as he intended.

The demanding work of coming up with a proper performance version of “Leblebiji Hor Hor Agha” in its authentic version is now in progress in France and Canada.

Story to be continued…


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