Juan Yelanguezian

Juan Yelanguezian: Writing, Painting, Composing in the Armenian Spirit


YEREVAN/BUENOS AIRES — Argentinian-Armenian composer, musicologist, writer, translator, and artist, professor Juan Yelanguezian was born in 1950 in Buenos Aires. In 1972-1973 he studied journalism at the Catholic Institute of Social Studies; in 1974-1975, stage Philology at the University of Yerevan; in 1982 he graduated from the Catholic University of Argentina (history of music, plastic arts and literature), in 1984 from the Department of Musicology of the Yerevan State Komitas Conservatory, in 2001 from the Composition Department and in 2004 with a PhD of the same Conservatory. He has been a professor at the Institute of Culture of the Catholic University of Argentina and in the University of Buenos Aires at present with the course “Armenian Civilization and Its Influence in the Occident.” He is a member of the Writers’ and Composers Union of Armenia. His biography is included in specialized books in his country, foreign countries and in the National Encyclopaedia of Armenia.

His musical compositions have been performed in Buenos Aires, Yerevan, Paris and elsewhere. Yelanguezian has composed symphonic and chamber works: Hetanós Idololatris (Pagan 1974, cello piece), Catharsis (1977, for piano and actors), From my Ancestors (1981 plastic, poetic and musical performance) Adolescence Songs (1981), Songs of Fading Lights (1981) Dialogues (1983, Trio), Madagh (1983, strings quartet), Songs of Fading Lights (1983), Aquarelles (1983, piano) Arean Suite (1991), From the Blood Suite or Cycles, dedicated to the victims of the Artsakh war, for piano, Thraki (1993, Fugue for violin and violoncello), Armenian Gods or Vahagn’s Room (2001, Symphonic poem), Mission (2004, Flute and Strings Orchestra), etc.

He has published literary works in Spanish: Anthology of Armenian Poetry (1984), Arian, Poetic Anthology (1994), Armenian Culture, Science and Tradition (2001), Esmirna, 1922…The Dr. Hatcherian diary by Dora Sakayan (Montreal 2001, translation), Zim Kilikia (2011), and others. He has published his musicology researches into the many academics magazines in the world. His musical, literary and painters works have been awarded and distinguished with a number of very important prizes in Argentina and Armenia. He is the author of the Orphans of Armenia, Angels of Heaven mural at the Saint Paul Armenian Church in Buenos Aires homage to the centenary of Armenian Genocide (2014-2015). Dr. Yelanguezian was the only guest from Argentina to present his dissertation at the 4th National Congress of Western Armenians in Paris, in 2015.

Juan, a brief acquaintance with your biography shows how your Armenian heritage is present in all three of your professions — music, literature and painting. Being a third-generation Argentinean Armenian, how have you managed to keep your Armenian identity so vivid?

Well, it is a question that is always asked me, but the prejudices of society indicate that you will be nothing if you do not dedicate yourself to one of the talents you inherited and professionally train by your own decision.

The truth is that in order to create, I need to go from one art or trade to another, at the creative moment. I write poetry that takes me to music and then to art or in different orders.

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I first trained professionally with my parents, my father Hovsep-Joseph, born in Beirut, who painted and was a professional actor and singer under the stage name Reinaldo J. Yelan, while my mother Arshalouys Kasparian, born in Athens, was a fashion designer with a boutique and also was an excellent pianist. But I come from many generations of musicians, militarists and religious people from four churches (Armenian Apostolic, Evangelical, Catholic and Greek Orthodox). In my genealogy there is even a scribe monk from the Cilician Middle Ages. American composer Alan Hovhannes Chakmakjian was a relative from my grandfather’s mother’s side. Benefactor Boghos Najarian was my mother’s cousin, who sponsored the building of churches and schools in Lebanon.

I inherited the names of my paternal grandfather: Ohannes-Hovhannes-Juan; Reinaldo was the artistic name of my father and Samuel was name of my maternal grandfather Samuel Kasparian, an architect, who erected many buildings in Tarsos, Adana, Greece and Buenos Aires: also a great musician, who played the oud, accordion, piano, sitar, etc. So it was destined, yet I did not feel it as a mandate but as a blessing. I was the first grandson and the first to be born in these latitudes. Ohannes, my grandfather, was a patriotic Armenian who in addition to having been an architect, built part of the port of Beirut. His biography can be found in the book published by the Lebanese Embassy (Lebanese Roots… 2010) He was an excellent violinist, he gathered his family and interpreted that beautiful hymn (sharagan) “Ur es, mayr im” (“Where are you, my mother?”). When he was playing, everyone was excited and they cried with their pain expressed on his violin, as he had seen his mother and sister get murdered by his best Turkish friend from the French high school in Marash with a sharp dagger, according to his partner, so that they would not suffer and die quickly. My parents educated me and my siblings in Armenian schools, and my father spoke to us like my grandparents in Armenian. Also, as you know, from a very young age I researched and studied in Armenia – at the University, the Institute of Fine Arts, the Madenataran and the Komitas Conservatory.

“Sunny Mural” by Yelanguezian

You distinguished yourself as an Armenologist, but your biography said you are also a Hellenologist. What are your studies in Hellenism in particular?

My mother educated us in that sense too, sending us to study Hellenic dances and culture at the Buenos Aires Collectivity. On my maternal side, there is also Greek blood from Xanthi, Thrace, but her roots are from Patras in the Peloponnese and her ancestors’ surname is Papandreacopoulos. Later I worked for the Embassy of Greece and the Greek Institute of Culture of Buenos Aires, offering conferences, courses, and concerts, etc. I was distinguished with the award of the “Friends of Music Association” and as “Greek Musician” in the Legislature of the City of Buenos Aires, both with the high patronage of the Embassy of Greece, in addition to other awards in and from Greece.

Cilicia is often present in your works. What do your Cilician roots mean to you?

It is natural, I come from traditional Cilician families: Marash on the paternal side and Tarsus ‘Xanthi’ and Adana on the maternal side. I explain very poetically about my ancestors in my book Zim Kilikia (2011), which had the privilege, together with all my work, of being declared “Of Cultural Interest” by the same legislature mentioned above.

Topics: Books, Music

Elanguez means “snake’s eye” in Turkish. Have you any idea what the story is behind this unusual name?

In the ancient world, the serpent was a symbol of power, like strength and wisdom. Having snake eyes was considered to have a beautiful and transparent look. Even so, the Armenian national poet Hovhannes Shiraz dedicated these words to me: “To the graceful and young Hovhannese poet Marashtsi…” (from Marash) and Kevork Emin “To the mystical and angelic poet Hovhannes the Odzachkou…” that is “snake’s eye.” There is a somewhat long and complex story that my grandmother told me. But it is part of the plot of a story that I am writing.

Wasn’t it difficult to make a career in Argentina with a difficult-to-pronounce name?

I think that my surname, on the contrary, was well-received by Argentinean society. Perhaps in the beginning when my grandparents arrived in the country they faced some difficulty. But nowadays everyone likes our surname; it has a musical sound and that’s how I receive it. Argentineans are used to this melting pot that we make up, therefore, there is an effort to say well and write foreign surnames. Our last name is exactly, with the French diction as it is written in my grandfather’s Lebanese passport, during the French protectorate. Also, according to the grandfather, our last name is unique and everyone who bears it is supposedly our relative.


You have established professional contacts with Armenia and Armenian artists dating back to Soviet times, when links between Argentina and homeland were not so active. How did you manage to do so?

My acquaintance with Armenian composers started when I was a child. When I was only 7 and was a singer at the Buenos Aires church choir, Aram Khachaturyan visited our church. It was unforgettable to see that great composer, whom I later met again at the Yerevan Opera in 1974.

Grandfather Ohannes dreamed of moving to Armenia in those years when the Motherland offered the repatriation of Armenians scattered around the world: this feeling was latent in my family, and my father transmitted it to me. In the third year of high school we thought to prepare our end-of-year trip. Being always immersed in a poetic flight, I expressed the desire to know Armenia to my classmates, which we finally presented to our director, Archimandrite Harutiun Moushian. Thus a three-year journey began and we managed to reach Armenia on the first of January 1970, invited by the Armenian Committee for Cultural Relations with the Armenian Diaspora.

From my childhood, I wrote and later said my poetry and songs on the stage of the Armenian Center, and our director sent them to Armenia, where they were translated by Vahagn Davtyan, Shake Varsyan, and that’s how I met them, then all the Armenian intelligentsia: artists, musicians and representatives of culture, science and much more. The aforementioned committee offered me a scholarship to study at the Faculty of Philology at Yerevan University, which I later made tangible in 1974. The rest is history.

You received the first prize at the poetry festival in Yerevan in 1975. What festival it was?

When I was studying at the University of Philology in Yerevan, a traditional Spring Festival and the Great Victory of 1975 festival were held. I presented a poetic cycle entitled “Ararat, Oedipal Symbol.” I received the first prize and was later published in German and Armenian in Vienna and forms the first cycle of “Arian, Poetic Anthology” (1994).

I think you were lucky to know such coryphée of 20th century Armenian music as Eduard Mirzoyan. Please share some of your most memories of that iconic artist.

Without any doubt, he was not only my teacher but my second father in the world. Although I must say that I was formed by composers of great prestige in Argentina, before meeting him, such as Roberto Caamaño, dean at the Argentine Catholic University, and Guillermo Graëtzer, director of the Collegium Musicum. I showed him my youthful works and he wrote to me: “Music requires sacrifices…” This is how I understood and followed his advice, when studying Armenian Musicology with Margarit Brutyan and Nikoghos Tahmizyan. I asked Eduard Mirzoyan for permission to be part of his classes because I admired him, he was not satisfied with foreign students, and it was very difficult for me, even more overcoming my shyness. I remember that I had to show him a work. I sat down in front of the piano, and he leaned his elbow on the bass part of the keyboard. I didn’t know how to tell him to take his arm out of there. So I pushed his arm down and hit my low notes at just the right time. Far from being angry with me, he congratulated me because I overcame the obstacle he had imposed on me. Then we became very close. He allowed his students with great freedom to express themselves with the originality and this made my work much more bearable, much more because I was a student who had come from the most distant country to Armenia. He tempered his remarks with jokes that made us laugh out loud and he was a friend of everyone, from the one who cleaned the streets to the highest hierarchies. I keep letters and writings about my work that he dedicated to me. Later I returned to finish my career as a composer. I received my Diploma in front of twelve professors and the post-graduate studies, later with a Red Diploma, Summa cum laude with high praise. My work for flute and string orchestra Badkam (Mission), was performed in the Aula Magna of the Komitas Chamber Music Hall, by the Alan Hovhannes Orchestra led by Merujan Simonyan. Mirzoyan was very pleased. The last time I saw him was at the Philharmonic in 2007, but we talked on the phone until his last days. I maintain ties of friendship with his family to this day.

In 2014, the Tekeyan Cultural Association called on Armenian artists to create a mural inspired by the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Your work, “Armenian Orphans, Angels of Heaven” won the competition and now hangs in St. Paul Armenian Church in the Liniers neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

I feel proud because there is a story behind it that refers to a poem written in 1985 entitled “Orphans of Armenia.” “Could a genocide destroy the Armenian Soul?” which was also presented in the Golden Hall of the Legislature and was declared “Of Cultural Interest” in 2005: it was also translated into many languages. “Orphans of Armenia, Angels of Heaven” evokes that emblematic poem. The project also had the support of the San Pablo Church and the Archdiocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It was a watercolor that I presented in 2014 for the aforementioned contest for painters of Armenian origin. “As a great premonition, these orphaned angels appeared in Heaven inspired by their author and who made the Genocide massacred Holy Martyrs and anticipated the canonization of the martyrs that His Holiness the Catholicos Karekin II sanctified on April 23, 2015. Considered of great ethereal beauty, spiritual and mystical. I had the collaboration of Claudio, my brother, a plastic artist, and a fashion designer. I also anticipated the flower “Forget me not” as a symbol, in my book Arian, Poetic Anthology (1994) published by the patronage by AGBU Alex Manoogian Cultural Fund. In a written poem I related this flower to the Armenian Genocide.

As you remember, first we met in 1992 in Yerevan. Have you returned to Armenia during those almost 30 years and what are the main changes you have seen in Armenian society and culture? Both positive and negative.

Naturally, I have returned to the homeland repeatedly. And you gave me the honor of being part of your book on known peoples of Armenian origin in the world, just as you referred to my father in it. In 1992 the country underwent great changes, perhaps not so substantial, but the situation was different, the war for the defense of Artsakh was different, there were other heroes. I think there is a decadent feeling in society and it is necessary that the cultural heritage is reborn. It could be glorious. There is a morality subject to social and political immorality that remains. I believe that Western civilization was born in Armenia, but if we want to survive we will have to learn the enemy’s subliminal language and learn in-depth the game that it imposes on us. I remember in the 70’s the youth of the pioneers (boy-scouts) had so much information about South America. Those men and women of culture laid the foundations of the contemporary Armenian renaissance.

I never imagined that I would be a witness, although, at the distance of a new genocide, I always think about what my grandparents and my parents would think if they lived. Grandfather Samuel was in the Ottoman army for twelve years, he was an architect, he saved his life thanks to his art, building by force, palaces for the Turkish Sultans. He exposed his life as cannon fodder where they enlisted Christians at Sham and Baalbeck. Authoritarianism is a form of mediocrity, only the emptiness in a personality is glimpsed.

What do you consider your biggest achievement in your professional life?

My greatest achievement is having remained in my art, and I believe that art saved my life, as well as that of my grandparents, my parents, and my ancestors, with joy, and above all obstacles and suffering. I remember that I was asked to speak about a composer in my graduation exam at the Komitas Conservatory, I thought about Komitas who survived the Genocide and left us a large part of the Armenian musical art, but I chose Beethoven and they asked me why. I answered: Because he defeated his destiny.

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