How Komitas preserved Armenian folk music

In the 1990s, the duduk found its way into movie soundtracks, radio playlists and record collections of the west. Yet as Cara Rosehope writes, the music of Armenia’s national instrument might never have survived the Armenian genocide were it not for Komitas—a priest, musician, composer and so much more.

A report prepared by David Rutledge of ABC Radio National explores the legacy of Komitas.

The Armenia of today is a tiny nation state in the Caucasus, but historically Armenia stretched across eastern Anatolia, over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, past Mt Ararat, where Noah’s Ark is said to lie, on into the Caucasus. It was a land rich in poetry and song from towns and villages in a varied and often rugged landscape: rural work songs, life-cycle ceremonial music, nature songs, love songs and ancient epics, as well as the sung liturgies and prayers of its Eastern Orthodox Church.

Komitas was born in 1869 to a musical Armenian family in Ottoman Anatolia. Orphaned in childhood, his beautiful voice and skill with Armenian church music led to his being taken in by the church in Echmiadzin, the high seat of the Armenian orthodoxy.  At the prestigious seminary in Echmiadazin, Komitas received the best general and musical education that eastern Armenia could offer, and there he began research into Armenia’s national music which would last for decades.

As a student, Komitas developed an interest in folk music, and began to methodically transcribe what he heard as he travelled through the rural villages of Armenia. He used a 19th century Armenian notation which captured the distinctive Armenian melodic modes, rhythms and musical accents.

‘Komitas’ most important contribution to music was his collection of folk music; they say he collected over 5,000 [songs],’ says Harold Hagopian, a New York-based Armenian-American violinist, folk musician and producer who runs a renowned world music record label.

‘Anybody who survived [the genocide] was five or 10 years old, they were children … a few people, you know, old timers remember the songs, and who knows if they remember them right, because, after all, they were five years old.’

From 1896 to 1899, Komitas attended a music conservatory in Berlin, where he studied European music theory, musicology, Byzantine chant, folkloric music, and also the music of Armenia’s neighbours, which—like Armenia’s—is modal. He began to explore ways of introducing harmonies to the monophonic music of his homeland while maintaining its distinctively Armenian character.

‘Komitas is Armenia’s Bach, Schubert and Bartok,’ says Isabel Bayrakdarian, an Armenian-Lebanese-Canadian opera singer and recitalist with an international solo career.  ‘Bach, with his sacred music revolutionised the style of what was to come after him. He’s the Schubert because he started something we never had: art songs.’

On his return to Echmiazin, Komitas began to write and arrange works using the folk elements of Armenian music. The next two decades saw the by now nationalistic Komitas studying, publishing, lecturing and leading choirs in concerts across Europe and the Middle East, employing both his knowledge of Armenian music and European musical theory. His time in Paris between 1906 and 1909 was especially fruitful.

‘He met people like Debussy, who was also a nationalist—at that time there was a very strong nationalist movement in music in Europe,’ says Harold Hagopian. ‘He said, “I can do the same thing, I can take folk songs, folk melodies, folk scales, rhythms, and twist them around, and write pieces.”

‘He established an Armenian national school of composition.’

After one of Komitas’ choir concerts, Debussy is said to have remarked: ‘Had Komitas only composed the one song, Adouni, even then, he would have been recognised as a great artist.’

Despite Komitas’ considerable international artistic success, he thought of himself in more modest terms.

‘Komitas thought of himself not as a musicologist, not as a composer, but as a Khazaget, a person who is studying the khaz, the old Armenian music notation system,’ says Professor Mher Navoyan, a musicologist and Komitas scholar at the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

Komitas had also begun to study medieval Armenian church music. This had been transcribed in a neume-like system of musical notation which was no longer understood, and Komitas sensed that the music from isolated Armenian villages could act as the key to their understanding. In his published articles, he stated that his concern was to filter out the influences of other Middle Eastern music and to return to what he felt was authentically Armenian.

In 1910 Komitas moved to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and during a 1912 trip to Paris, he made his first foray into recording onto wax cylinders.

In 1915 Ottoman Turkey entered WWI and, for the Ottoman Armenians, everything changed. Genocide reduced the Armenian population in the Anatolian heartland to almost zero. Komitas was among its first victims. A century on, Armenia is one sixth of the size that it once was, and the majority of Armenians live elsewhere in the world. For most, all that remains of their homeland are the songs.

‘When I talk about Armenian culture, folk culture, that’s Komitas,’ says Hasmik Harutyunyan, a singer, educator, and folklorist.

‘Anything you do, anything you play, it’s connected to Komitas’ work … this folk culture is very important to us as a nation, as a people. We think the folk culture is the road for us to go back.’

Since the genocide, Komitas’ reputation and importance to Armenia has only grown. His work has also been the means to move forward from the tragedy of the genocide.

‘For me, it was very important for the whole Armenian world that Komitas was able to establish a new way of musical thinking,’ says Professor Mher Navoyan

‘When we talk about his music, first, his artistic value is the most important … Armenian people, they accept it as folk music, and on the other side, it is the highest level of the Armenian school of composition.’

Public Radio of Armenia has contributed to the preparation of the report.

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