Gomidas Vartabed: The Most Distinguished Armenian Musicologist (1869-1935)


By Father Zaven Arzoumanian, PhD

This year the Armenians worldwide are most worthily celebrating the 150th year of Gomidas Vartabed’s birth, the internationally distinguished Armenian talented musicologist of all times, who revived the Armenian art of music and placed it on highest pedestal. He stands the first who introduced the Armenian authentic music to the West through his performances in Paris and Berlin. Gomidas Vartabed studied at the Kevorkian Seminary in Holy Echmiadzin, went to study first in Tiflis under Makar Ekmalian, an Armenian composer and conductor, and soon after to Germany where he specialized in music and piano performance. He finally went to Constantinople at the dawn of the 20th century and organized unprecedented choral groups and numerous performances.

In his four accomplishments, vocal, instrumental, composition, and as a conductor of large choral groups in major metropolises in the Middle East, Gomidas’ talents radiated lights through the mirrors of a clear crystal as it were, ever illuminating both the Armenian generations and the European international art of music in the last one hundred years. Gomidas Vartabed was the unique musicologist who gathered our popular songs from ancient provinces of Armenia by hundreds, placing them on highest echelons, both in Armenia and Europe.

Double Fields

Gomidas cultivated double fields of music.  The Armenian Church music from ancient sign notes of music written above each word, known as khaz, by way of revising the performance of the Holy Mass which has always been the pride of our past generations, as it is today. The second field was the fertile land of Armenian ethnic music, kept in the dark at a very low key, for which Gomidas Vartabed felt most ambitious in touring remote villages and collecting those remnants personally, qualifying them before giving his seal of approval with a European touch, so that the entire world seriously and with admiration would recognize the ethnic nature of the Armenian folk music, now expressed in highest classical format from the very source of the Armenian people.

In his own words, Gomidas has stated quite simply that “One single and pure musical note is worth a thousand lectures, because a speech must be clearly heard, understood, and digested, in order to get some nutrition from it, and that requires some time, whereas a musical note penetrates directly in one minute.” He gave many lectures before international critics and composers, but he also sang, using the piano, and teaching the Armenian music transferring it from the East to the West. In his own words, “recently I read two lectures in the Conservatory of Berlin on the Armenian music in general. It was truly a success, as I added to it special data on the Eastern music. Both lectures revealed my reputation in front of the world of music as a qualified musicologist.”

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Internationally Acclaimed

Hearing his lectures, European music scholars elected Gomidas member of the International Musical Society. The focal subject of Gomidas has always been repeatedly, in speeches and in performance, the authenticity of the Armenian Music from its sources. The Chairman of the Society Oscar Fleischer wrote to Gomidas in 1899:  “By way of your in-depth lectures, you have taught us the one music that was a closed book for us, and that they can teach us further, the Westerners, a whole lot more.” While in Paris, Gomidas had lectured and conducted choral groups. Speaking in French, he had made it clear the underlying characteristics of the Armenian music through his melodic voice as stated by his contemporaries.

It was on October 1, 1906 when Gomidas Vartabed conducted a concert in the presence of a large audience full of French intellectuals. This is what we read: “Gomidas conducted a series of songs stirring the souls of French professionals himself accompanying on the piano when singing his melodious Diramyre     song.” In 1914 Gomidas was again invited Paris to deliver a lecture before the International Musical Assembly. Returning to Constantinople with great enthusiasm, Gomidas was looking forward to attend the 1915 Assembly, this time in Berlin, where he was invited to deliver a speech. The year for the Armenians was tragic as we know, and hundreds of intellectuals, among them Gomidas Vartabed, were rounded and sent into exile. Most of them were massacred, while Gomidas returned to Constantinople, but alas in mentally shaken condition that remained with him, leading to his eventual death in 1935, 20 years later.

Greatest Legacy

The greatest legacy of Gomidas Vartabed is his persistent research as he personally toured to meet with villagers all over Armenia to hear the songs as well as the ethnic dance music right from the source. He crystalized all he heard patiently, converting them into European musical notes, and saving all from final demise. Whatever we now have from Gomidas comprise the fruitful harvest of his talented treatment of those original songs.

One Consideration

People: Gomidas, Komitas

I wish to bring up an important case for consideration. Gomidas’ music is and has been all along so authentic that his music excels over and beyond the text and its significance, especially when soloists sing without paying attention to the words and phrases inherited from the past. This means that when they sing from Gomidas, they are always overwhelmed by the music, overlooking the words and the meanings. They concentrate on the music passionately, leaving the words in jeopardy, thus creating incorrect translation of the text, a case that has happened unfortunately.

One example is Gomidas’ famous song Andouni (Homeless) with its unmatched music, one in its kind, melancholic and sensational, expressed with variable half and quarter musical notes. The soloist no doubt sings correctly. However, when reciting the words in their local dialect of archaic villagers, one can easily miss a word or replace another unknowingly, paying attention only to the overwhelming music. Especially when we try to translate the Andouni, we miss the central point and do not see how the poor villager had left his home and went far away, feeling totally homeless. He recalls his house collapsed like his heart is, where inside the broken ceiling wild birds have found refuge.

The second verse refers to a “Black Sea” which we ordinarily take as the one we know from geography. Whereas, the text does not read “the Black Sea,” as most soloists repeat incorrectly, but it reads “a black sea” (Sev dzov me yem deseh,) (I have seen a black sea,) referring to his emigrant’s eye, inundated with storms of tears. The white stormy waves have surrounded the black pupil of the eye, while both colors do not mix with each other, as the song reads.

This follows with the hopeless homeless trying to throw himself in the river to be eaten by the fish. Here again the words are totally misunderstood when singing “I want to take myself and go to the river.” The first word wrongly understood could collapse the whole scenario. The word is “tsi tanem” (take myself) and not “grab a horse, ride on it, and take the suicidal trip with galloping ceremony to the river.” This is what we read in an English published translation. Obviously, the poor homeless and the galloping horse are calculated mistakes from that one word “tsi” (horse), which originally meant “indzi” (myself).

Another example from the famous Holy (Mass), composed by Gomidas, who studied under Makar Ekmalian who had composed his own Holy Badarak much earlier. For more than a hundred years the Ekmalian Badarak is sung by all Armenian Churches up to this day. The Mass by Gomidas has ever since reserved for solemn occasions. If one sings the Soorp Soorp, the holiest part of the Mass, one discovers that the Ekmalian version is more heavenly, with notes gradually climbing high, rather than slowing down as it is with Gomidas, and rightfully so. However, as we continue singing Gomidas, we see some drastic changes instead, as he selects some of the spiritual songs and gives them highest notes in amazing articulation, such as “Krisdos ee mech mer haydnetsav, Hoki Asdoudzo, and Krisdos badarakyal.” This means that Gomidas Vartabed had the choice wherever the high notes were appropriately demanding.

The case is repeated when singing the Lord’s Prayer (Hyre Mer). Ekmalian begins with highest notes to elevate “Our Father” to the highest level possible from the outset which makes a true sense. We sing it every time and we raise our voice to elevate Him to reach the heavens, as the text reads “Our Father who art in heaven”. Whereas, with Gomidas the entire Prayer is sung low key from the start with intermittent touches of higher notes. Obviously, in both cases he has tries to avoid repeating the previous composition and to introduce a different variant.


Famous Testimonies

Here are some internationally famous composers’ testimonies on the music of Gomidas Vartabed:

“If Gomidas had written only the Andouni (Homeless), it would have been sufficient to include him among the famous composers.”  Debussy

“As often as I listen to the Badarak (Mass) composed by Gomidas, I feel spiritually revived. It is a masterpiece. It is beyond imagination and most difficult what Gomidas has undertaken. It requires unending patience, vigor, and work of love. It is a work of a genius, and I wonder if the Armenians realize the greatness of Gomidas’ accomplishments. Luc Andre Marcel

“While listening to the finale of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, I was often reminded of the Gomidas’ horovels.”  Sovetakan Arvest 1969

Further, “Who says that mountains don’t walk, Gomidas’ concert moved  and we saw them.”   Al Ahram Daily, Cairo

Indeed, the Armenian people was enriched by Gomidas’ creative art for generations, who always sang, is singing today, and will sing in the future, those songs wholeheartedly, such as the Groong, the Andouni, the Horovels, Karoun a tziun a arel, Hayasdan yergil trakhdavyre, and many others which made the Great Gomidas Vartabed immortal and ever present in the life of the Armenian people.



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