About this Recording
GP720 - KOMITAS: Piano and Chamber Music (Ayrapetyan, Sergeev)
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KOMITAS (KOMITAS VARDAPET) (1869–1935)
PIANO AND CHAMBER MUSIC

 

Soghomon Gevorgi Soghomonian, known as Komitas, was born on 29 September 1869 in Kütahya in western Turkey. His father, Gevorgi Soghomonian, was a shoemaker; but he also wrote songs and had a fine singing voice. Similarly, the composer’s mother Tagui, a carpet weaver, was also singled out for her musical abilities. Komitas’ childhood was a difficult one: his mother died before his first birthday, and he was raised by his grandmother whilst his father worked. Although he undertook elementary education, his school years were interrupted when, in 1881, his father also died. He had already started to show significant musical ability—he was known as the ‘little vagrant singer’ in his home town—but was, according to one of his classmates, ‘a frail, weak, pale boy’, despite being ‘always thoughtful and kind.’

In the same year Komitas became an orphan, the priest of Kütahya travelled to Vagharshapat (now Edjmiadzine) to be ordained a bishop. He took Komitas with him, and the boy was selected to be enrolled at the church seminary there. Lessons were conducted in Armenian, which Komitas did not speak—Turkish was his native language—but he was able to sing an Armenian hymn, even though he didn’t understand the words, and the quality of his voice greatly impressed the Catholicos, Gevorg IV. He rapidly mastered the Armenian language, and was ordained a monk in 1890. When he graduated from the seminary in 1894, he was named Komitas (after a poet and composer of the seventh century) and shortly afterwards, obtained the degree of vardapet, doctor of theology.

At the seminary, Komitas had studied liturgical singing and early Armenian chant notation—and he also developed a keen interest in folksong, organizing a choir and small ensemble of folk instruments. Upon completing his studies there, he travelled to Berlin in 1895 under the sponsorship of the Armenian oil magnate, Alexander Mantashian. He spent three years at the private conservatoire of Professor Richard Schmidt, and also enrolled at Berlin University. There he was able to study singing (he became a fine baritone), philosophy, aesthetics and history; and he was invited to lecture on Armenian folk and church music by the newly-founded International Musical Society. When he returned to the seminary in 1899, he was able to reformulate the way that music was taught there, and improve the instrumental and vocal opportunities available to the students, based on his own training.

This was also the period in which Komitas began collecting folk melodies, travelling all over Armenia to collect songs not only in Armenian, but Kurdish, Persian and Turkish. He carefully analysed his findings, seeking to find ways to relate church and folk music and decipher the ancient melodic (khaz) notation used in the region. He was to become an international authority on these subjects, and travelled widely as a lecturer and performer of traditional musics; indeed, his own works were often based upon similar melodic and harmonic principles. However, his interest in drawing parallels between sacred and secular music was to cause a rift with the church—many saw his work as too worldly to be appropriate for a priest. He eventually left Vagharshapat and moved to Constantinople in 1910, where he hoped to found a National Conservatory. Although he was unsuccessful in this endeavour, he did establish a substantial choir of 300 singers, Gusan, which performed predominantly Armenian folksongs, and which proved very popular. He subsequently organised similar choirs in Alexandria and Cairo. His constant touring as a speaker, conductor and singer (he was also a talented flautist and pianist) helped to foster a feeling of national identity among the scattered Armenians of the Near East.

Admired by many Western European musicians—in particular the French composers Vincent d’Indy, Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns and Claude Debussy, Komitas composed as well as continuing to undertake musicological research. In 1915, the Ottoman government began a programme of extermination in order to ‘cleanse’ the homeland of the Ottoman Empire (what is now the Republic of Turkey) of Armenians. Around 1 million Armenians were killed in this act of genocide. On ‘Red Sunday’ 24 April 1915, Komitas was among the hundreds of Armenian intellectuals who were rounded up and arrested. Due to the intervention of influential supporters, he did not suffer the same fate as so many of his countrymen, and was released and returned to Constantinople—but he suffered so seriously from post-traumatic stress and depression that he was moved to a psychiatric hospital in Paris from 1919 until his death. Shortly after his death in October 1935, his remains were returned to Armenia to be buried in Yerevan.

The pieces on this recording were composed between 1899 and 1916, and written in several different countries. We begin with a cycle of Seven Folk Dances, composed and performed by Komitas in Paris in 1916. Warmly praised by the French musicologist and critic Louis Laloy, each dance is both identified and linked with its place of origin: Vagharshapat, Yerevan, Shushi and Karin. Komitas even seeks to recreate the specific timbres of Armenian instruments in his piano writing: for example, the dap (a sort of Armenian tambourine) is imitated in the ‘Marali’; the tar, a plucked string instrument is echoed in the ‘Shushiki’; and both the ‘Het u Araj’ and ‘Shoror’ evoke the shvi and the dhol—the former a shepherd’s reed pipe, and the latter a hand-held percussion instrument. The pieces are ‘supple and rich,’ wrote Laloy, ‘live images of natural harmony and melody, which vividly recreate noble sculptured forms. These tunes are harmonized by Komitas with a rare skill and excellent taste.’ The set was to inspire subsequent generations of Armenian composers, with both Sergei Aslamazian (1897–1978) and Arno Babajanian (1921–1983) making their own successful arrangements of the ‘Yerangi’.

The Seven Songs for Piano were composed several years earlier, in 1911, whilst Komitas was delivering lectures in London. These are folk melodies, like so many of his creative works—a music he dedicated so much of his life to exploring. ‘I strongly believe’, he said, ‘that before setting out to remake Armenian folk songs, one should deepen one’s knowledge of the historical and day-to-day living conditions of one’s people; one should decipher the musical structure, essence and style, the meanings of the words, and be aware of the unique qualities of our folk verses, style of folk singing and many other facts.’ The Songs are fleeting and lyrical, tiny windows on the gently circling melodies and rhythmic drive of Armenian music, each based on a named melody.

Like the pedagogical works of Bartók and Khachaturian before him, Komitas sought in his Twelve Children’s Pieces based on folk-themes to introduce certain folk devices and styles in an elementary form which was easily comprehensible to young beginners. Completed in Poland in 1910, this set includes a series of folk melodies, several of which also appear in variation form. These pieces are mostly very short—some just half a minute in length—in which a simple melody is presented and elements repeated, allowing little fingers a chance to grasp the two-part textures and interweaving voices. From the bouncing Phapuri to the beautifully wistful Yar jan u Marjan, these are highly characterised miniatures, and Komitas works some delightfully inventive twists into the variation versions. The Msho-Shoror which follows, written in 1906, is one of the most ancient forms of Armenian dance to survive. It comes from the Muş province (now in Turkey), and is treated by Komitas as a sequence of dances—the work is highly sectional and varied in pacing, from lively forward movement to pensive, resonant pianistic textures.

We conclude with seven pieces for violin and piano, arranged for these forces by four Armenian composers (both Sergei Aslamazian and Avet Gabrielian were founder members of the Komitas Quartet in 1924). The original pieces—all songs for voice and piano—were composed by Komitas between 1899 (the earliest is Akh, Maral jan) and 1911. Concerned with the age-old themes of love and nature, singers compare their lovers with mountain meadows and graceful trees; a lover mourns in the heartbroken Cirani Car; and, in Krunk, the crane is used to represent the wanderer, dreaming of the day he will find and build his home.

Katy Hamilton
from notes provided by Mikael Ayrapetyan


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