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)

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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, narek.com.

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