Vardapet Komitas

Composer of the Week: Komitas

This week we are looking at a true son of the Armenian nation. Few people in modern times have had a greater impact on Armenian culture and consciousness than Komitas Vardapet. Virtually unknown in the occident, he remains a household name within Armenia and the Caucasus more generally. Like Armenia herself, Komitas’ music strikes a liminal figure. Armenia is neither orient nor occident, and yet curiously both orient and occident. In his lifetime Komitas frustrated both traditionalists and modernists at the same time, transcending both of these categories. if you’ve met an Armenian (and if you’re reading this, you probably know at least one), it’s likely that you have encountered this duality.

The Early Life of Komitas

Our subject was born Soghomon Soghomonian, in Western Anatolia, in 1869 AD. Depending on which calendar you prefer, he and I share a birthday (a fact which I am not inclined to overlook). In this period, the Ottoman Empire, one of history’s cruellest and most exploitative institutions, was in decline. Soghomian lived in times when it was illegal to even speak the Armenian language, a policy that is having interesting results in our times. It seems plausible that this experience of alienation was a source of the intense national feeling Komitas came to develop later on.

Sadly the boy became an orphan early in life. The death of his parents set events in motion that would lead Soghomon into a new life and a new name. Before you read on and learn more about these, take a moment to listen to the clip below.

This song is an Armenian folk melody that Komitas transcribed and arranged. It has the suppleness and simplicity so typical of Armenian music, as we’ve touched on before. Here you can hear it in the voice of the duduk, a double-reed instrument unique to Armenia. Komitas saw it as his mission to collect and preserve the indigenous folk music of the Armenian nation, and project it outwards to a world increasingly fixated on ethnicity and identity. In this respect he is similar to Bela Bartok, arguably the most famous ethnomusicologist.

Etchmiadzin

In 301 AD, the Kingdom of Armenia under King Tiridates III adopted Christianity as the religion of the nation. It became the first nation to do this, and in so doing, inaugurated a long history of martyrdom. Not longer after this conversion, according to church tradition, Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia’s patron saint, had a vision. In it, he was commanded to found a church on the site of an old temple. This church would become Etchmiadzin, the mother see of the Armenian Apostolic Church. To the left is one of the structures in the sprawling complex of seminaries, chapels and churches that surround the cathedral. It was here that 12-year-old Soghomon found himself in 1881 AD, at the behest of the Armenian bishop of the region where he lived.

It’s hard to imagine how this must have felt for Soghomon. Nevertheless, the story ends well, or at least as well as we can hope. The young orphan with a good singing voice found a new home in the seminary. His musical education got underway at this point, forming the basis for a musical career that would take him to neighbouring Georgia, then Europe, before returning to where he had begun, in Constantinople. While at Etchmiadzin, Soghomon became a Vardapet, a celibate priest. He took the name of an ancient Armenian poet, Komitas.

The Music of Komitas: Secular and Sacred

Komitas composed fairly prolifically, especially during the period before and after the turn of the century. He wrote several sets of short piano pieces, mostly on folk themes. There is a children’s album, perhaps echoing Schumann and Tchaikovsky. The titles are literal, often even mundane: “striding, beaming”, or “the apricot tree”. In his piano music there is an emotional intensity, the inward turn of the European Romantic. His critics seized on this, and I must say I think they had a point. But you can also hear something distinctly un-European in the elasticity of the rhythm, the almost limitless suppleness of the melody.

Badarak

Komitas’ most enduring contribution is his setting of the Armenian liturgy (պատարագ). He was, after all, a priest. In this work we have the Komitas who is looking back into history. We hear the Komitas who is seeking to transcend an unsatisfactory present, in order to recover a purer past. If you visit Armenia you can see this inchoate project in stone; churches, houses, whole cities that have had to be reconstructed after obliteration, all pointing back to a time of strength, before loss. However you judge this project (and to occidental eyes it is incomprehensible), Komitas’ Badarak is a breathtaking achievement. It does for the Armenian Church and liturgy what Rachmaninov did for the Russian, and Bruckner for the Latin.

Liturgy in the Armenian Apostolic Church, as in all the churches of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, is conducted in sobriety and reverence. The congregation moves through a cycle of hymns, psalms and prayers, culminating in the Eucharist. Unlike Eastern Orthodox churches, which use an iconostasis, the Armenian Church uses a curtain. The opening and closing of this curtain is linked to events in service as it unfolds. Each element of the congregated body, the choir, the people, the clergy, sings and responds in turn.

Death and Legacy

Through his success in Germany Komitas had established an international reputation. This was most likely the reason for which the Turkish authorities permitted him to leave the camp in which he and many other Armenian cultural figures and leaders had been imprisoned. As Turkish nationalist forces gained control of the remaining territories of the former Ottoman Empire, killing on an industrial scale commenced. Christian Armenians, Greeks, Pontians and Assyrians suffered deportations, starvation and execution during this period.

When it was over, the modern map of Anatolia had been drawn, unwanted Christian populations having been either annihilated or deported. This set the stage for the ongoing squabble between the Turkish state and the stateless Kurdish people. This ugly and rather stupid tussle concerns territories that only a century ago were populated by Armenians. Komitas suffered a psychological collapse in this period. Armenian communities throughout Anatolia found themselves set upon by their neighbours, alongside whom they had lived for centuries. Komitas ended up in France, where he would pass away in a psychiatric hospital.

Dle Yaman

Today Komitas is remembered within Armenia as a kind of martyr of the Armenian Genocide. One of the songs he collected as part of his ethnomusicological project has become emblematic of that event:

Դլե յաման
Գյամին էկավ կրակի պես,
Վա՜յ, դլե յաման,
Էկավ, հասավ չուր ծովու կես,
Յաման, յաման: 

Դլե յաման,
Մեր տուն, ձեր տուն իրար դիմաց,
Վա՜յ, դլե յաման,
Մենք սիրեցինք առանց իմաց,
Յաման, յաման: 

Դլե յաման,
Արև դիպավ Մասիս սարին,
Վա՜յ, դլե յաման,
Կարոտ մնացի ես իմ յարին,
Յաման, յաման: 

Դլե յաման,
Քամին էկավ երան-երան,Վա՜յ,
դլե յաման,
Գյամին հասավ ծովու բերան,
Յաման, յաման: 

Դլե յաման,
Քամին էկավ, առավ բերդին,
Վա՜յ, դլե յաման,
Քո սեր կաթավ մեջ իմ սրտին,Յաման, յաման:

Dle yaman,
The wind has come like a fire,
Oh, dle yaman,
I reached water, half of the sea,
Yaman, yaman  

Dle yaman,
Our houses face each other,
Oh, dle yaman,
We loved each other without knowing,
Yaman, yaman  

Dle yaman,
The sun has touched Mount Massis,
Oh dle yaman,
I am yearning for my love,
Yaman, yaman

Dle yaman,
The wind has come like a fire,
Oh, dle yaman,
Beloved, brought me water, half of the sea,
Yaman, yaman  

Dle yaman,
The wind has come like a fire,
Oh, dle yaman,
Beloved, brought me water, half of the sea,
Yaman, yaman.

1 thought on “Composer of the Week: Komitas”

  1. Brilliantly written with such a great insight thank you hope others find thus blog it’s all inspirational thank you my son I am truly proud to be your dad

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