The Unique Armenian Voice of Komitas Vardaped

I have just discovered a wonderful composer with whose music I was not familiar: Komitas Vardaped, an Armenian priest, composer, chorus director, singer, and musicologist who lived from 1869 to 1935. I don't often use this space to enthuse over a specific composer, but I hope you won't mind if I do so now. Vardaped is an Armenian title meaning "priest" or "scholar," so he has a single name, sometimes spelled Gomidas but more commonly Komitas. I recently received a disc of his songs on Nonesuch (511487-2), sung beautifully by Isabel Bayrakdarian and orchestrated by Serouj Krajdian. These songs are stunning--evocative, original, wonderfully tuneful. They stay in the memory and reward repeated hearing. That is about the most you can ask of any music.
Whenever I encounter a composer who is new to me, I explore other repertoire. On Chandos there is a CD (CHAN 10094) called "Dances from the Heart of Europe," with Yuli Torovsky conducting I Musici de Montreal. It includes music by Brahms, Bartók, Haydn, and Nikos Skalkottas (his Greek Dances), but the major work on the disc is a set of ten Armenian Folk Songs and Dances by Komitas. I do not mean to minimize the value of Bartók's Rumanian Dances or the string arrangement of Brahms's Liebeslieder Waltzes, but what left the deepest impression on me here--for its variety, tunefulness, rhythmic vitality, energy, and sheer invention--was Komitas's Armenian Folk Songs and Dances.

Then I was brought into Komitas's deeply spiritual world with his Divine Liturgy, a set of three choral works (Offertory, Canonization, Eucharist) sung beautifully by the Men's Choir of St. Gayane Cathedral on a New Albion disc (NA 033 CD). From that work we understand the depth of religious feeling in the soul of this composer.

Komitas Vardaped was orphaned and raised in a seminary. Because he impressed the priests with his singing talent as a child, he was re-named Komitas after a 7th-century Armenian priest. When Komitas himself became a priest in 1895, he received the Armenian title of Vardaped. He founded and led the monastery choir until 1896, then furthered his musical studies in Berlin, returning to Armenia in 1899. He traveled throughout the country, collecting Armenian folksongs and dances, which were a major influence on his work. In 1910 he went to Istanbul and established a choir of three hundred members. Five years later when the Armenian genocide began he was arrested. Though he was released in a few weeks, Komitas deteriorated mentally from that point on--to this day there are undocumented rumors of schizophrenia and/or venereal disease--and he spent much of the remainder of his life in psychiatric hospitals, first in Turkey and then in Paris, where he died in 1935.

His is a unique voice, music that doesn't really sound like anyone else. The Eastern, or Armenian, folk influence is clear throughout, and it adds a nice piquancy to his sound. The story of his life is a tragic one. During the period of the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians (1915-1917) Komitas began a horrifying mental collapse whose proportions are not fully understood today because they are not documented. We do know that after 1919 Komitas produced no music, even though he lived until 1935. He spent much of that time in mental institutions. However, what we have of his surviving output is considerable, and it is music that will bring a great deal of pleasure to anyone who takes the time and trouble to seek it out.
December 12, 2008 2:57 PM | | Comments (1)



I first heard music by Komitas about 20 years ago on radio programs by Charles Amirkhanian, when he was featuring Armenian music on KPFA. One good source for sheet music and writings by the composer in the US is an online dealer in Armenian publications and recordings,

Leave a comment


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by on the record published on December 12, 2008 2:57 PM.

Traits of Successful Orchestra Managers was the previous entry in this blog.

Conducting Talent: Give It Time to Mature is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.