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Priest, Composer, Ethnomusicologist and Armenian
Komitas Vartapet1 was the founder of the national Armenian school of composition. He was also a scholar, practitioner of comparative musicology; relying on the resources of the western harmonic language, he succeeded in integrating the polyphonic elements of this European musical tradition into the Armenian monodic tradition.
Striving to respect the integrity of Armenia's folk music, Komitas was going to decisively extend, develop and transform it. He codified it, endowing it with an original, unsuspected language, thereby opening a new era, initially in favour of the Armenian school of composition. Eventually, thanks to his talents as a researcher and inventor, his whole oeuvre would go well beyond: Komitas's creativity was going to enrich all musical art of his time.
The inventor of a new musical language
At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th there appeared the beginnings of an irreversible process: the profound renovation of the European musical language in the foundations of its technique, forms and procedures stemming from folk music, from which many musicians took inspiration. Starting from rigorous scientific analysis of the constituent principles of the Armenian folk tradition, Komitas contributed to the music world the Armenian modal system, which knows neither major nor minor mode. Europeans then discovered the musical spirit of a civilisation and a culture almost totally unknown heretofore. Komitas's creativity originated in his approach, both innovative and reformist, which would lead him to conceive an absolutely new musical language, opening
1 Vartapet or celibate priest: a religious title in the hierarchy of the Armenian Church, just below that of bishop.
the way to avant-garde musical trends. This highly particular writing would later be exploited by Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók and many others.
The Extraordinary Human, Religious and Musical Itinirary of the Reverend Father Komitas
The orphan with the golden voice
Soghomon Soghomonian, who took the name Komitas when he took his vows, was born on 26 September 1869 in the city of Kütahya (Vilayet of Bursa, formerly in the Ottoman Empire). Kütahya is located quite far from the land of his ancestors, who were natives of the province of Goghtan, in that Caucasian eastern Armenia reputed for being the fatherland of musicians and folk singers. In Kütahya, it was forbidden to speak Armenian, symbolic of a national awareness that had to be stifled. Orphaned at an early age, Komitas found himself unable to continue his studies. Even though he neither spoke nor understood Armenian, he had a superb singing voice and became a chorister at the Armenian church in his district. Catholicos2 Gevork IV (1813-1882) had just founded, in 1874, a seminary in Edjmiadsin3. Aware of the lack of educational possibilities for Armenian children in Turkey and Persia, he asked the bishops of Armenian communities to select the 20 most gifted orphan students every year so that they might continue their schooling there, free of charge. In 1881, the young Soghomon, an excellent student, was one of those chosen and entered the Gevorkian Seminary4 where he would spend 11 years.
2 Catholicos: head of the Armenian Church and Supreme Patriarch
3 Seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located 20 km from Yerevan, capital of Armenia.
4 Today, the Gevorkian Theological Seminary still trains priests and monks of the Armenian Apostolic
Classical studies filled with Armenian culture
At the age of 12, the future priest discovered Armenian folk songs and understood that he was the heir of a people with a splendid past. At seminary, the preservation of the national culture was inculcated in the little Armenians and quite present in daily life: tales and legends were collected, epic poems recited, and ancient manuscripts studied.
The young seminarian also learned classical Armenian, Russian, and German, began his first ethnographical work, studied Russian and eastern music, and assimilated the marvels of Armenian religious music. By the time he reached adolescence, he had already amassed considerable knowledge about his dear national music. He knew that he was going to draw further on its immense riches, but to do so, he would have to widen his horizons.
"Before beginning to harmonise Armenian folk songs, one must know perfectly the historical, geographical and national elements, the melodic structure, the spirit and style of this music and poetry; one must know in what way the people sing and pronounce." komitas
It was in this Gevorkian Seminary that he became a deacon at the age of 21, before being consecrated hieromonk5 , at which time he took the religious name 'Komitas'.
5 Priestmonk in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches.
Philosopher priest and musicologist
In 1896, thanks to the continued support of Catholicos, Komitas won a scholarship and left for Berlin to continue his graduate studies. For three years, the help of the rich patron Alexander Mantashev6 enabled him to enrol in the private conservatory of Professor Richard Schmidt, where he perfected his musical skills: piano, choral conducting and the art of composition. At the same time, he attended philosophy classes at the University of Berlin, earning his degree in musicology in 1899 and becoming one of the first members of the International Music Society7.
He began to travel and give lectures on Armenian, Kurdish and Persian music. Henceforth a member of the family of European musicologists, he brought his thorough knowledge of eastern music.
"The further I push my thinking in the depths of this vast ocean of music, the more convinced I am that our folk and religious songs, majestic and immortal and which have long fraternised, will become a source of research, even for foreigners, for their roots go very far back in time." komitas
6 Alexander Mantashev (russified version of Mantashyan, 1849-1911), oil baron in the Caucasus region and philanthropist.
7 Internationale Musikgesellschaft.
In quest of Armenia's age-old melodies
With his diploma in hand, Komitas returned to the seminary in Edjmiadsin where he would teach until 1906, whilst devoting himself to liturgical and folk music, particularly fascinated by the latter. He crisscrossed all the regions of Armenia, going from town to town, village to village, collecting and transcribing thousands of traditional songs, as well as their numerous variants. He then reconstructed them, respecting their original simplicity and putting together an inestimable national musical treasure.
"Give the people a perfect model, close to its spirit, and it will give you a great natural work. Nothing escapes its feelings, and it is indeed for this reason that works of folk art are so varied. In any case, the model must be drawn from living folk songs.". komitas
Lectures and concerts: the Europe of musicians applauds
Beginning in 1906, he set off again, travelling through Europe and giving lectures and concerts, first in Russia and Italy, then in Austria, Switzerland, Germany and finally Paris. On numerous occasions, he participated in international exchanges on music during which he introduced that of his country, singing Armenian rustic and liturgical songs himself.
"This art is already beginning to inspire our musicians." romain rolland
Romain Rolland (1866-1944), French writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915.
His performances aroused admiration, with the French press heaping praise on him, and he was honoured by celebrities of the artistic world and great musicians, including Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Vincent d’Indy and Camille Saint-Saëns. These Parisian encounters, the cultural life and beauty of French art had a decisive influence on his aesthetic conception.
"This concert was a revelation and a marvel. None of us, I believe, except for the rare initiates, could have suspected the beauties of this art that, in truth, is neither European nor Eastern but has a character unique in the world, one of graceful sweetness, irresistible emotion and noble tenderness." louis laloy
Louis Laloy (1874-1944), musicologist, music critic and sinologist, was Claude Debussy's first biographer.
In 1906, after a concert, Claude Debussy knelt and kissed Komitas's right hand, saying, 'You're a genius, Holy Father'.
He later asserted:
"Even had he written nothing but "Antuni", that would be sufficient for considering him one of the greatest musicians of our era." claude debussy
Henceforth living for music alone
Upon returning to Edjmiadsin, where he counted on pursuing his research, Komitas was poorly received, criticised for neglecting his priestly duties. In 1910, he made the painful decision to leave monastic life to devote himself to his art. He settled in Constantinople8,
which, at the time, boasted a large Armenian community and an intelligentsia whose European education was very close to western customs. Preceded by his reputation, Komitas was already famous when he arrived. He aroused considerable enthusiasm amongst the populace, and his songs spread quickly. Bolstered by this success, he founded a singing school and the famous Gusan9 Choir, made up of 300 singers, which would appear throughout the country, in the Ottoman Empire and as far afield as Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt.
8 Constantinople would be renamed Istanbul in 1930
9 literally 'the strolling singer'
The deciphering and dissemination of Armenian folk song
Komitas continued his ethnographic 'excavations' and collected ever more folk music: Turkish, Kurdish, Persian and, of course, Armenian. For the latter, he finally rediscovered the lost key of their ancient notation system, khaz, and began to decipher the liturgical manuscripts. In 1912, he recorded excerpts of The Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Rite, considered one of his masterpieces, for the gramophone. And in 1914, as a veritable ambassador-at-large for Armenian culture, he resumed his travels, returned to Paris, participated in the congress of the International Music Society and gave three large lectures, presenting the results of his numerous years of research:
1. Old and new writing in Armenian religious music,
2. Armenian country music,
3. Musical time, time signature, rhythm and meter in Armenian music.
That same year, he gave an exceptional concert at Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the Armenian cathedral in Paris10. This concert, like his lectures, met with huge success.
"Despite all its passion, Armenian song is chaste; despite all its ardour, it is reserved in its expression. It is a poetry both Eastern in its extravagance and Western in its reserve. It knows suffering but without despair, passion but without excess, ecstasy but without vulgarity." valery bryusov
Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov (1873-1924), Russian poet, playwright, translator, literary critic and historian of literature; also one of the founders of Russian Symbolism.
10 The Armenian apostolic cathedral, was built in 1902. 15 rue Jean Goujon in Paris.
April 1915. Komitas is Tortured With the First Victims of the Genocide
April 2015. He is Beatified by the Armenian Apostolic Church
The First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, at a time when Komitas was getting ready to finalise his precious research. This war would be fatal to him as it would be to the Armenian people.
Since 1913, the Young Turks party, officially the Union and Progress Committee (UPC), held all power in the Ottoman government. After joining in the fighting alongside Germany in 1914, this ultra-nationalist party seized the opportunity of the war to carry out the systematic extermination of the Armenian population, first attacking the intellectuals and the ruling class, thereby decapitating the Armenian nation.
In the spring of 1915, Komitas was still giving concerts in Constantinople when, on the night of 23 April, he was caught in a roundup. With hundreds of other Armenians, representatives of the intelligentsia and notables, he was arrested and incarcerated. This was the beginning of the Armenian genocide, decided by the triumvirate at the head of the Ottoman Empire. Talaat Pasha, Minister of the Interior, was going to methodically organise it. The massacres and deportations took on such scope that Armenians were condemned to fleeing their land, that of their ancestors. A civilisation 3,000 years old was dying in the Mesopotamian deserts. In a few months, one and a half million men, women and children were eliminated.
Komitas was imprisoned and underwent deportation, humiliation, and torture. However, thanks to international pressure and to the probable intervention of the American Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, he was released. But when he returned to his house in the Constantinople suburbs, he found that it had been entirely ransacked and pillaged. All his work had disappeared, as had all his cellmates, close friends or strangers, of the past weeks. The psychological shock was overwhelming, and Komitas sank into a deep depression. So many ravages would leave an indelible trace in his mind: the following year, the first symptoms of mental illness and mutism appeared.
20 years of suffering and silence
During a short period when his health improved, he got back to work, but his condition again declined, and, against his will, he was confined to a Turkish hospital. Then his friends convinced him to leave Constantinople to be treated in France. In 1919, he was transported to the psychiatric hospital in Villejuif, outside of Paris. Turned in on himself, imprisoned in his delirium and withdrawn into silence, he remained there until his death.
On 21 October 1935, Komitas Vartapet, the Reverend Father Komitas, 'the Great Komitas' died after two decades spent in insane asylums. His funeral took place on the 27th in the Armenian apostolic cathedral, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, in Paris.
A year later, his remains were transferred to Yerevan where, in the Armenian Pantheon, he joined other illustrious artists including the composer Aram Khachaturian, writer William Saroyan, poet Hovhannes Chiraz and filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov.
Komitas's Ethnographic Method
Armenian music in its original purity
Musicologist as well as explorer, ethnologist and sociologist, Komitas organised his work in orderly, rigorous, scientific fashion. Beginning in 1899, he continually travelled round the Armenian provinces, recording thousands of songs: ritual songs work songs, wedding songs and funeral chants, along with hundreds of instrumental pieces and dances.
His method consisted of studying folk songs and dances meticulously, down to the slightest detail, and then removing any foreign element to restore the national music to its most authentic style and expression. He went so far as to indicate on his scores all the gestures, all the breathing for the singers, which, for him, are an integral part of the music. When he found himself faced with several versions of the same song, and before keeping the melody as support for a future composition, Komitas was careful to choose the oldest, purest version, the one that tended most towards its roots and primary source. This colossal survey of collected and transcribed work allows for defining the foundations of Armenian art music of the modern era.
The newfound key
As an ethnomusicologist, Komitas shed light on modal particularities, the regularities of structuring the melodic line and, in general, on the musical thinking of monodic art. His in-depth research allowed for bringing out all the characteristic elements of this music and served as a solid basis for the creation of a polyphonic language adapted to Armenian music.
Despite the genocide and illness that put a tragic end to his work, resulting in its dispersion or, for most of it, its destruction, and despite the loss forever of all that he could still bring to mankind, Komitas Vartapet, 'the Father and the Master', opened the way to several generations of composers and musicians, from Armenia and elsewhere. His precious heritage continues to inspire them to the present day.
The lost key, he found it again. The essential, he saved. And he left us numerous masterpieces, including the Divine Liturgy, Badarak.
"Komitas's music is of such stylistic purity, its language so sublime, that it is impossible to pass it by, impossible not to feel its closeness or refuse its influence. His music always has and always will fascinate me." aram khachaturian