Conductor and pianist Kirill Gerstein

Komitas and Debussy: The Wartime Music of Debussy and Komitas, Still Resonating Today

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By Hugh Morris

NEW YORK (New York Times) — Kirill Gerstein, a Soviet-born pianist whose parents sold their only proper asset — a garage — so that they could afford plane tickets to the United States for their son’s education, approaches music in a way that recalls something his countryman, the conductor Kirill Petrenko, once told him: “I sacrificed so much in my life to not do things by default.”

The career of Gerstein, 44, is filled with moments that defy a belief in doing things “by default.” There was the time when he devoted a significant portion of his $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award to commissioning new piano music from composers across jazz and classical music, placing Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau alongside Oliver Knussen and Alexander Goehr. Or there was the time, in 2017, when Gerstein championed a new, shockingly modest critical edition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 rather than the grandiose, more recognizable version. Or when, as many streamed performances during the pandemic, he instead organized a series of free, online seminars that featured musicians alongside luminaries from the wider arts scene.

Now comes Gerstein’s latest project, “Music in Time of War,” a recording that is expansive in its program and packaging: a 141-minute double album of works by Claude Debussy and the Armenian composer and ethnomusicologist Komitas Vardapet, accompanied by a 174-page book of conversations, essays and photographs that situate the music deep in its historical context.

The album — which beyond solo piano pieces also includes works for piano and soprano (with Ruzan Mantashyan), and piano duo (with Katia Skanavi and Thomas Adès) — was released in mid-April. Its timing came at a poignant midpoint for both composers: March 25, the anniversary of Debussy’s death, and April 24, the date Armenia commemorates as the beginning of the 1915 genocide in which up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire. That led to post-traumatic stress disorder for Komitas, who while living in Constantinople (now Istanbul) was deported to Anatolia and brutalized by a guard before being released, then eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.

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What began as a goal in Gerstein’s “self-development program” — to record Debussy’s Études (1915) — quickly accumulated connections owing to the collection’s composition during one of history’s darkest moments. “Our understanding of a piece of music cannot be divorced from the historical and cultural setting in which it was created and received,” Gerstein, who lives in Berlin, writes in the foreword for his new album’s book.

During the early days of the pandemic, as Gerstein thought more about Debussy’s final years, he also revisited a pile of scanned piano music by Komitas (1869-1935) that he had received from an enthusiastic member of the French-Armenian diaspora 20 years earlier. A pairing of late Debussy and late Komitas made for an intriguing fit: They were two composers who, for a brief time before World War I, existed in the same Parisian orbit and channel the darkened spirit of the age in their art.

Soprano Ruzan Mantashyan

It’s not as simple, though, as “in dark times, we write dark music,” said Gerstein, alluding to a Bertolt Brecht quote. The Armenian Dances, Komitas’s final work before composing became unbearable, have plenty of Baroque-like pep, and Gerstein’s album also includes Les Soirs Illuminés par l’Ardeur du Charbon, Debussy’s final piano solo, which contains a bit of irony. (Translated as “Evenings Lit by Glowing Coals,” the piece was a gift to Debussy’s coal merchant after a cherished delivery during the war.)

“Music in Time of War” also recalls contemporary gestures of artistic solidarity during conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. On April 9, 1916, a benefit concert for Armenia was organized in the Grand Amphithéâtre at the Sorbonne in Paris. The program, which is reprinted in the album’s book, included Debussy’s Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison before Komitas’s Antuni. Both works are tethered firmly to their moment yet concern the physical and mental devastation of homelessness, and the innocence of youth amid conflict. History has shown how timeless those subjects remain.

Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonyan, was brought up in a seminary near Yerevan after losing his mother and father at an early age. He emerged as a talented composer for voice, choir and piano despite protestations from the clergy. But, as he later spent time in Berlin and Paris, his most important contribution to Armenian music was as an avid collector of his country’s folk music.

Komitas

He was more concerned with capturing and preserving an imagined spirit of folklore than in recording it with strict discipline, though he also pioneered modern-day approaches to ethnomusicology by working to understand the essential cultural context behind the music’s production. “In his research papers, he described not only the songs per se, but also the conditions of their performance — landscape, time of day, weather,” the musicologist Artur Avanesov writes in one of the album book’s essays. “Decades later, the same was done by Olivier Messiaen.”

Gerstein described Komitas’s music as “gestural” and “stark,” and as having “a feeling of immense space and spaciousness.” This is most keenly felt in his set of Armenian songs like Tsirani Tsar, in which single, unadorned lines are spread far apart at the piano, with a gaping chasm in between.

“I haven’t been able to perform these songs for a long time,” Mantashyan, the soprano, said in an interview. Her grandfather’s cousin, Alexander Mantashyan, was a patron of Komitas, and sent a grand piano to Berlin to help the composer work. She has known his songs since she was a student at the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan. But it has taken 15 years for her to feel like she’s ready to record them. As Avanesov says, “Writing on Komitas while living in Armenia is a task tantamount to rethinking the Scriptures.”

When Mantashyan collaborate with Gerstein on Komitas’s songs, Antuni (“Homeless”), a piece with deep resonance among the Armenian diaspora, was recorded in a single take then left unedited. “It’s not about perfection,” she said of the music. “It’s about pain.”

Ferruccio Busoni, a favorite composer of Gerstein’s, and whose Piano Concerto he recently toured in Europe, said that music is like “sonorous air.” Komitas, Gerstein said, “manages to capture the ‘sonorous air’ of the Armenian people. This is quite close to magical.”

In an interview with Van Magazine in 2018, Gerstein was asked about the responsibility of artists to make political statements. “I’m rather careful with that,” he replied. “There are political figures, commentators and activists that are so committed to their field; just to dabble in political commentary would be as irresponsible as their making a suggestion of a speed of a transition in a Brahms sonata.”

He stands by that belief today. Gerstein is skeptical of “the self-congratulatory political activism of some figures” in classical music, he said, who make “loud and bland pronouncements about things that real activists, real journalists and really courageous people are truly putting themselves on the line for.”

Music can, though, comment on a moment in time, even if indirectly. Debussy’s contribution to the war effort, for example, was to assert his belief in the primacy of French music. (An extraordinarily productive period in 1915 resulted in the Cello Sonata and the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, as well as many of the works heard on “Music in Time of War.”)

And Gerstein’s new album, while recorded in 2021, has the power to speak to wars today: in Ukraine and Sudan, in Yemen and Gaza. “It’s rather clear that World War I and its repercussions — the demise of the Ottoman Empire — is what has shaped the modern conflict in the Middle East,” Gerstein said. “These reverberations and connections are not to be overlooked. The reverberations of history create today’s earthquakes.”

Claude Debussy

The history of the Armenian Genocide remains unsettled. Gerstein, despite cautioning against general political statements by artists, didn’t hesitate to note that “the Armenian Genocide is something that’s still not universally recognized, you know, 109 years after the fact.” Progress has been made — President Biden’s recognition of the genocide in 2021 was seen as a major breakthrough — but a unified understanding of this history still faces major opposition, not least from Turkey, whose role in the atrocities has long been denied by the government.

Gerstein’s project asks an important question about the place and purpose of art and artists in times of humanitarian crisis. One of the roles of culture, he said, is to provoke a conversation, “not in the context of a political news item, and not in the context of a historical lecture,” but through the lens of culture itself. “People are confronted,” he said, “to think about Komitas, about music, about preserving the sound of a disappearing people, of genocide, and of the effects of war on society — on both artists and culture.”

On Komitas’s birthday, in October, Gerstein and Mantashyan released a recording on YouTube of Antuni, they said, “in solidarity with the Armenian nation.” A ground assault by Azerbaijani troops had driven about 120,000 Armenians out of their homes in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh of Azerbaijan. “There is an existential threat that Armenia continues to experience,” Gerstein said. “It’s not only something that happened 109 years ago, and we should recognize it more.”

(This article was originally published in the New York Times on April 30.)

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