Michael Church explores the enduring influence of Komitas, the composer and pioneering folk-collector whose career met a brutal end
Who is Armenia’s greatest composer? Many would say Aram Khachaturian – for what other Armenian composer has the rest of the world even heard of? Yet ask the same question of any Armenian, and you will probably hear the name Komitas.
Who was the composer Komitas?
Komitas, too, was an Armenian composer, albeit of a different stamp. His output was very modest – 80 choral works and songs, arrangements of the Armenian Mass, a few dances for piano – yet he is universally regarded by Armenians as the founding father of their classical tradition. As the flamboyant Khachaturian put it, with uncharacteristic humility: ‘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.’
What is Komitas famous for?
All Armenian musicians perform Komitas’s folk-song arrangements or make their own arrangements of the songs he collected. When Armenians around the world gather on 24 April, Armenian Genocide Memorial Day, to commemorate the 1.5 million of their countrymen slaughtered by Turks in 1915, it’s Komitas’s songs they sing. In a memorable YouTube clip from last autumn’s Armenian-Azeri war, an Armenian cellist plays a haunting Komitas melody in a ruined Armenian church. For Armenians, music is memory, and in times of trouble Komitas speaks for the nation.
During his brief period of celebrity in Berlin and Paris – before the Genocide swallowed him up – one of his most fervent admirers was Debussy, who declared after a Komitas concert that on the basis of one single song he deserved to be recognised as a great composer. And it’s significant that eminent pianists reverentially perform Komitas’s little piano suite. Kirill Gerstein, for example, is currently preparing a double album on which he is pairing Komitas’s Seven Dances for Piano with Debussy’s etudes, and juxtaposing late pieces by Debussy with Komitas’s songs. As Gerstein points out, both composers were profoundly affected by the implosion of their worlds – Komitas by the Genocide, Debussy by war in Europe – and their musics reflect a close emotional alignment.
While for most musicians Komitas is terra incognita, for those familiar with his work his memory burns ever more brightly. This is because Komitas, as the world’s first ethnomusicologist, did for Armenia what Bartók later did for Transylvania, turning simple folk material into bewitchingly sophisticated polyphony. And it’s also because of the drama – at once tragic and inspirational – of his life.
When was Komitas born?
Soghomon Soghomonian, or Komitas as he became known, was was born in 1869 in an Armenian Christian enclave whose inhabitants suffered systematic oppression under the Ottoman yoke – those who could speak their ancestral tongue were forbidden to do so outside church. Soghomon’s father, a cobbler, sang and played the lute; his mother wove carpets, composed songs and wrote poetry. She died when Soghomon was in his infancy; his father turned to drink and died four years later. School friends remembered Soghomon as a waif wandering the streets; one recalled ‘a thin, malnourished, serious, kind little boy’ who in winter would come to school hungry and frozen blue.
His one great asset was a strikingly beautiful voice, spotted when he was 11: he was signed up as a singer for the choir at Etchmiadzin Abbey, the spiritual centre of Armenian culture. There he shone as a singer of both church music and Turkish folk songs. He became the seminary’s comedian, specialising in mimicking the songs and dances of different regions. He also began his lifetime quest to document the folk music which had permeated his childhood.
Venturing into the fields, he listened to the songs of the pilgrims who came to Etchmiadzin, and began harmonising these songs for a student choir; he enlisted his fellow students as co-researchers. He also embarked on a parallel quest to crack the code governing the notation system of the early Armenian Church.
When did Soghomon Soghomonian change his name to Komitas?
Like all victims of broken homes, he needed a support framework. He made Etchmiadzin his home and took orders as a vartabed (‘teacher’), a celibate priest. Following the tradition that ordinands should be given a new name, he chose Komitas in honour of Komitas Aghayetsi, a composer-priest of the seventh century.
When did Komitas first publish his first work?
At 26, he published his first collection of transcribed folk music, The Songs of Agn: wedding songs and love songs, lullabies and dances.
This caused ructions in the seminary, whose conservative members found it shocking that a celibate priest should sing and teach such things. He moved to more cosmopolitan Tbilisi, then went to study in Berlin, emerging as a formidable scholar and an inspiring choral conductor. Returning to Etchmiadzin, he created a polyphonic choir and began writing the papers which would put him in the history books. He was now conducting his research on an industrial scale, instructing his students to write down the songs they heard when they went back to their villages; he spent his summers in the countryside, observing how songs were interwoven with life-cycle rituals.
Texts thus caught on the wing were spelled out in all their improvised specificity; melodies were given with lists of tiny variations in pitch and rhythm; dances were broken down into prescribed movements for every part of the body. Ask a villager who was the composer of a song, he said, and you’d be given the name of the village star; ask that star, and he’d either give you another name or shrug his shoulders. ‘All peasants know in some degree how to compose,’ he declared. ‘Nature is their infallible school.’
The first few years of the 20th century saw Komitas’s fame dramatically spreading, thanks to his charisma as a conductor and lecturer. He lived ascetically, sleeping on the floor without mattress or pillow, and signing his choral arrangements ‘harmonised by Komitas Vartabed’, rather than with the ‘composed’ which would have been more accurate.
Komitas and the political situation
To escape the claustrophobia of Etchmiadzin, in 1910 he accepted an invitation to create an Armenian choir in Constantinople, despite the fact that he was moving to the heart of an empire which had permitted the massacre of thousands of Armenians just one year previously. But even there he was undermined by conservative Armenian clerics who tried to halt his performances by denouncing him to the Turkish secret police as a subversive.
But politics were now closing in. The Young Turks, whose goals were sharia law and Turkic racial purity, were viciously in the ascendant and determined to settle what they called the ‘Armenian question’. A state of emergency was declared and all Ottoman Armenians were ordered to surrender their ‘weapons’, kitchen knives included, while popular anti-Armenian sentiment was stoked up on the streets.
Watching hostile demonstrations from his window, Komitas took refuge in work and in an extraordinary burst of productivity published suites of wedding and fortune-telling songs, plus six suites of peasant songs. He also created yet another choir, cracked the code for ancient Armenian church notation and made sketches for what would have been the first ever Armenian opera.
Why was Komitas imprisoned?
On 24 April 1915, the Genocide was triggered with the arrest of 2,345 prominent Armenians suspected of having ‘nationalist sentiments’: parliamentary deputies and lawyers, doctors and journalists, scholars and musicians including Komitas himself. They were bundled into bullock carts and driven without food or water to prisons in the remote countryside.
Of the 291 men incarcerated in Komitas’s group, only 40 survived – the rest were either murdered or died from starvation. He himself was spared thanks to a mysterious telegram from the Ministry of the Interior (thought to have been inspired by the American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, one of his fans); he learned of his release as he was celebrating mass for his imprisoned co-religionists.
How and when did Komitas die?
Returning to Constantinople, he found his house ransacked and his archive destroyed. This and the shock of the atrocities he had witnessed turned his brain: post-traumatic stress disorder rendered him mute. After a spell in a Turkish asylum he was sent to a succession of psychiatric hospitals in Paris where, after 17 years of intensifying paranoia, he died.
What is Komitas's legacy?
‘It is difficult to make clear the uniqueness of Armenian folk music to foreigners, particularly Europeans,’ Komitas wrote. ‘Our folk songs and dance songs… portray an altogether different fervour, different sentiment and different meaning from those of other Eastern traditions.’ Like Musorgsky, he stipulated that the performance of his settings should remain faithful to the rhythms of speech. And like Bartók, he didn’t collect songs in the cities because in his view the true Armenian tradition could only be found among the peasantry. Armenian peasants had no concept of art-song, of music for its own sake. Komitas was acutely aware that as old customs died out, so would the songs associated with them.
Thanks to YouTube we can, however, listen to him singing some of his finds with piano and violin accompaniment. His voice has a restrained but expressive vibrato, long-held notes rounded off with delicate ornamentation. To listen to the three-part choral versions which he made of these monophonic songs is to understand why Debussy was so admiring. With their intricate polyphony they are miniature masterpieces, incorporating shouts, laughter and all the sounds of village life, and by implication the hope and sadness of a community under the perennial threat of violent obliteration.
Komitas left behind no school of composition, yet threw down a gauntlet which musicians around the world have been keen to pick up, making their own arrangements of melodies he collected. These include the seven short dances, each from a different region of Armenia, out of which he created the little suite which is his only solo piano composition. Austere yet suggestive, these miniatures evoke the instruments on which the dances would originally have been performed: the pogh flute (with which Komitas illustrated points in his lectures), the dhol and dap drums, the double-reed zurna and the apricot-wood duduk oboe, whose mournful beauty is regarded as the quintessential expression of the Armenian soul.
Michael Church’s book ‘Musics Lost and Found: Song Collectors and the Life and Death of Folk Tradition’ is published in October by Boydell Press
Best recordings of Komitas's work
For those new to Komitas, an excellent starting point is Armenian pianist Lusine Grigoryan’s album which includes the Seven Dances. Through judicious use of staccato and pedalling, she evokes the original folk instruments which inspired these pieces
(ECM 481 2556).
An album often cited as a companion to Grigoryan’s disc was concurrently recorded in 2015 by the Gurdjieff Ensemble, which performs Komitas’s piano music effectively transcribed for the folk instruments he would have known (ECM 2451).
More transcriptions of Komitas, this time by living Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (b1939), may be heard in an album by viola player Kim Kashkashian with percussionist Robyn Kchulkovsky (ECM 461 8312).
Another evocative album of Komitas’s piano works, filled out by a number of pieces for piano and violin, is presented by Mikael Ayrapetyan with violinist Vladimir Sergeev (Grand Piano GP 270).
Finally, a remarkable album of choral works by Komitas, originally composed for all-male choir but here arranged for mixed choir and superbly sung by the Latvian Radio Choir (Delos DE 3590).