August 15, 2020

Komitas Vardapet, a 150th jubilee for an Armenian giant

In the picture H.E. Ambassador Ashot Smbatyan.

By Dr Tatevik Shakhkulyan and Ambassador Ashot Smbatyan.

Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) is an Armenian composer, music collector, musicologistand music performer. Devoting his entire life to research of traditional Armenian music, he created a national Armenian style of music composition and outlined paths for development of Armenian music. He was one of the pioneers in ethnomusicology in the world. Komitas is one of the most known personalities in the entire history of Armenia. His life and his activity symbolize the “Armenianness”. Many Armenians perceive him as an identity.

Komitas Vardapet, Armenian composer

Komitas’s birth name was Soghomon Soghomonian. He was born to an Armenian family in the city of Kütahya in the Ottoman Empire. He sang Armenian folk and spiritual songs, but he did not speak Armenian, because Kütahya was a Turkish speaking city. Only later he learnt Armenian. At the age of ten Soghomon moved to Etchmiadzin, the holy center of Armenians, according to the request of the Catholikos Gevorg IV. He studied there at the Gevorgian Spiritual Seminary and graduated in the 1892-93academic year.

At the age of 21 he was ordained a Senior Deacon, followed by Celebrated Priest four years later. When ordaining Soghomon a celebrated priest, Catholicos Makar I named him Komitas in honor of the 7thcentury Armenian Catholicos Komitas Aghtsetsi. Later on he became a Vardapet, which is a church academic degree. 

Receiving his early music education in the Seminary, Komitas got private music classes from the composer Makar Yekmalian and then moved to Berlin in order to study music. 

Komitas received his fundamental music education in Berlin, where he lived and studied in 1896-1899. He graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy of the Royal University (now Humboldt University) and from the private conservatory of Richard Smidt. While studying with the honored musicologists Oscar Fleischer, Heinrich Bellermann and Max Friedländer at the University, Komitas gained practical and theoretical musical knowledge at his classes of the conservatory. Evidently, his studies in Berlin played an outstanding role for him. At the same time, his epistolary heritage witnesses that the teachers themselves were admired by the unusual talent Komitas had.

After Berlin studies, Komitas lived in Etchmiadzin and taught at Gevorgian Seminary. He conducted choirs, among which was the Cathedral Choir. He did field-work of collecting music, which he had started long ago, since 1880s; he composed music and did musicological research. After moving from Etchmiadzin to Constantinople in 1910, he continued his activities as a composer, researcher, choral-conductor and teacher.

During this time he travelled much over Western and Eastern countries for research, lectures, concerts, concert-recitals. He travelled to Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Alexandria, etc. 

As a founding member of the International Music Society, Komitas was actively engaged in the musicological events of Europe. The organization played a major role in European musicology. It published books and periodicals, organized conferences and congresses, etc.Komitas was one of the most respected members of the Society. His lecture-recitals in many Western cities (including Berlin, Paris, Geneva etc.) were highly covered by the international press.

UnfortunatelyKomitas’s creative life ceased because of the Armenian Genocide in1915. The Ottoman government exiled Komitas along withmany other Armenians, but he was allowed to return after a few weeks due to the intervention ofHenry Morgenthau, who was the USA Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at that time. Thus, Komitas returned Constantinople, but he gradually stopped his creative activity.

In 1919 Komitas was transferred to Paris for the purpose of medical treatment. He spent there the last sixteen years of his life and passed away on October 19,1935. A year later his remains were transferred to Yerevan and buried in the Pantheon of prominent Armenian people. Komitas’s grave remains there up till now and the Pantheon now carries Komitas’s name. 

Many years later the Komitas Museum-Institute was built in the vicinity in 2015. While not being a place Komitas lived in, the museum-institute became a place with such a role, since it aimed at continuing Komitas’s activities.

Definite portion of Komitas’s works disappeared after the Armenian Genocide. What is available by now, was collected after his death by the so-called Komitas’s Caretaker Committee. 

Komitas collected thousands of folk and church songs and melodies. For that purpose he travelled much targeting remote dwelling places which did not have close contacts with the outer world. Komitas believed that the music and culture was preserved purely in such places. Not only Armenian music, bat also that of neighboring nations – Turkish, Kurdish, Assyrian, Arabic, Iranian – were subject of his interest. 

Komitas studied, analyzed and classified the songs he collected, explaining their characteristic features. He employed the collected materials for research purposes. In the result he derived the structure of the Armenian modal and melodic foundations and consequently created a music-theoretical system, which he used in his works. He published the results of his research in scientific articles and publicized them through his lectures, talks, lecture-recitals. In his works he used Armenian folk and church songs from both his collection and from printed books. Most of his works are based on the theoretical system of his own. 

One of the most noteworthy scholarly works by Komitas was deciphering Medieval Armenian Khaz notation. This was a system of music notation with various signs put above the literary texts. While thousands of such manuscripts dating back to the 10thto the 18thcenturiesare kept in different museums, they are not read now. In the result of about 20 years of research, Komitas managed to find the key to reading them. However, not much has survived from Komitas’s activity. Instead, Komitas himself very often along with the usual five-line notation used the New Armenian Notation, considered as Limonjyan Notation, which was created in the 19thcentury. 

Komitas was a wonderful singer with a nice baritone; he was a sring (Armenian flute) player and a choral conductor. He was gifted with amazing aural skills and music perception. He has conducted numerous choirs in various cities in many Eastern and Western countries. To be noted is his Gusan Choir in Constantinople, which consisted of as many as 300 singers.

2019 is the year of Komitas Vardapet’s 150thbirth anniversary, which is celebrated in association with UNESCO. 

About the authors:

Dr. Tatevik Shakhkulyan. Komitas Museum-Institute, Yerevan:

H.E. Mr. Ashot Smbatyan, Ambassador of Armenia in Berlin:

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