Hayk Arsenyan

A Critical Exclusive: Discovering Komitas’ Unknown Nocturne

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Nocturne: a short composition of a romantic or dreamy character suggestive of night, typically for piano.

NEW YORK — When most people think of classical Armenian composers, Khachaturian and Babadjanyan spring to mind, along with perhaps Tigran Mansurian. Komitas Vartabed, the man who saved an entire musical tradition from the flames of genocide, is perhaps understandably seen by many as a composer of folk music or liturgical hymns. Hayk Arsenyan, himself a talented pianist and composer of note, is out to change that perception.

Komitas

Arsenyan has always loved Komitas, so imagine his excitement two years ago when looking through a publication of works written during Komitas’ so-called “German years” he came upon a nocturne — unknown to the outside world. Published by Diran Lokmagözyan, the nocturne is only one piece in a treasure chest of little-known works by Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonian in Kütahya in 1869.

Arsenyan has incorporated the piece in a program titled “Nocturnal France,” which was set to premiere and tour in November 2020 but was postponed until September 7, 2021 due to COVID-19. The tour will now hopefully begin with a performance at the Old Westbury Mansion in Long Island and continue throughout the Spring of 2022.

Chopin’s nocturnes of course remain the standard that others are judged by, but the program includes other Gallic composers such as Poulenc and Fauré, as well as newly discovered variations on a Chopin nocturne by Robert Schumann.

To the surprise of many perhaps, the Komitas Nocturne isn’t based on Armenian folk material. Rather it’s a subtle piece that incorporates Western harmonies and places Komitas more squarely within the European classical tradition: “Considering Komitas’ importance as the Father of Armenian classical music and arranger of much of our folk material, this discovery is a real breakthrough,” explains Arsenyan.

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The nocturne reflects Komitas’ own compositional style, although presumably that of his younger, student years. Arsenyan notes: “It’s incredible how comfortable he feels within this concept and how easily he implements post-romantic elements, sometimes looking back to baroque ones, and at times using experimental and non-functional harmonic progressions.” All this in a nocturne, one of the most beloved European styles of the era.

In fact the decision to build a program around the Komitas nocturne was strategic. The French program includes another surprise in the form of recently-discovered variations on a Chopin nocturne as well, by Robert Schumann: “So this beautiful nocturne by Komitas will make an interesting addition to these European works. It will be seen under a totally different light and will bring a more global perspective to his style,” Arsenyan adds. On tour, he will perform these newly-found compositions, including Komitas chamber works and songs based on German poems.

Arsenyan was a child prodigy of sorts in his native city of Yerevan where he made his orchestral debut at the Armenian National Philharmonic performing his own Requiem at the tender age of 11. At 17 he made his European debut as a soloist with the Radio France National Philharmonic Orchestra in Paris. A long-time professor at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, he holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Piano Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Iowa and a master’s degree from the Gnessins Music Academy in Moscow. Not one to rest on his academic laurels, in 2007 he received the prestigious Yevgeny Kissin Award at Manhattan School of Music and gave a debut performance with Pinchas Zukerman at Zankel Hall.

Arsenyan is also amassing a rich collection of performance recordings: as a lifetime member of the French Union of Composers (SACEM) two collections of his original works were published in Paris in 1993. He is also scholar of Iberian Baroque Music and has compiled a Performance Guide to Antonio Soler’s Keyboard Sonatas published by the University of Iowa Press, scheduled to be published in 2022 in both Spanish and English by Boileau Editorial Publishing in Barcelona.

In a recent virtual concert on February 14 at the Armenian Library and Museum, Arsenyan performed several works by Komitas accompanied by sopranos Hasmik Mekanejian, Alvard Mayilyan, and Anahit Zakaryan. Among other highlights, he delivered a sensitive and jaunty interpretation of Komitas’ rarely performed Msho Shoror suite for solo piano. If the Komitas Nocturne is languid and melancholic, Msho Shoror is light-hearted, almost jazzy at times, with quick transitions and light flowing sections that might indeed recall the village of Moush in Western Armenia, where the folk tune it is based on originated. It has been 85 years since Komitas passed away in Paris, psychologically traumatized by what he has experienced in 1915: but his music lives on, as does the Armenian culture of which he was so genuinely enamored.

Listen to Arsenyan play the Komitas Nocturne: https://youtu.be/KaitTdzi9fk  Listen to Arsenyan interpret Msho Shoror: https://youtu.be/I1fTF4nRvIY

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