Songs lifted in praise of an Armenian hero


October 17, 2008
Source: The New York Times

By Meline Toumani

Gomidas, considered the father of Armenian music, in 1899.

THE state conservatory of music in Yerevan, Armenia, is named for Gomidas, a late-19th-century composer probably unfamiliar to anyone who is not Armenian. An avenue and a grassy park in Yerevan also bear his name, and a monument in the center of the city depicts his long, narrow physique, his melancholy face and the robes he wore as an ordained priest.

Gomidas (or Komitas), born in 1869, is considered the father of Armenian music. In the decade before World War I he traveled throughout Anatolia and the Caucasus gathering songs from Armenian villages, transcribing them in European notation, studying and categorizing them. His manuscripts and analytical essays constitute the Armenian folk and classical music canon almost on their own. So it is no surprise that his name and likeness are familiar and influential throughout the Armenian republic.

But it is less obvious why a statue of Gomidas even taller than the one in Yerevan stands along the banks of the Seine in Paris. Yet another monument to him is in Detroit, and in July a bronze bust of Gomidas went up near the Parliament Building in Quebec City. In the Paris suburb of Alfortville a street was named for him; in London, a research institute.

One might argue, optimistically, that these memorials speak to the imprint Gomidas left on Europe and the Western world. From 1899 to 1914 he gave concerts of Armenian music and lectures about it in cities like Berlin, Geneva, Paris and Venice; in 1906 the French music journal Mercure called his work “a revelation.” Debussy said that even if Gomidas had composed nothing beyond his song “Andouni,” he could be regarded as a great composer.

But Gomidas never wrote a symphony or an opera, and much of the music he gathered and composed was lost or destroyed. He had lost his mind by the age of 46, a misfortune thought to have been triggered by the 1915 massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. (Gomidas, then living in Constantinople, was deported to Anatolia with about 200 others and later released by special intervention.) He passed the last two decades of his life incapacitated in a French psychiatric ward. So the more likely reason for any acknowledgment of Gomidas nearly 75 years after his death is that Armenians everywhere have been engaged in a desperate quest to win recognition for their national hero and their national tragedy.

Now comes what may be the best shot Gomidas has had to shine for the Western classical music world since those lectures and concerts in Europe a century ago. The internationally acclaimed soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, a Canadian citizen of Armenian descent, and her Armenian-Canadian husband, the pianist and composer Serouj Kradjian, may finally give patriots of Armenian music what they have been waiting for. They are performing music of Gomidas and others on a concert tour called “Remembrance,” with Anne Manson and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, which arrives at Jordan Hall in Boston on Sunday and concludes at Zankel Hall on Monday. In addition they will perform recitals in other North American cities and have just released an album of Gomidas’s songs on the Nonesuch label.

Mr. Kradjian said he was inspired to orchestrate Gomidas’s songs when he heard a set of 1912 wax-cylinder recordings of Gomidas singing. Through the spare, distant-sounding performance Mr. Kradjian noticed barely audible hints of a violin, a cello and a clarinet in the background. His research suggested that Gomidas, before his 1915 deportation, had intended to orchestrate these compositions.

“When I realized this, my interest became a passion,” Mr. Kradjian said recently.

To refer to Gomidas’s compositions is a slight misnomer. Many of the works attributed to him are folk songs that he notated or arranged; he himself was quick to say that the people were the composers.

In his years of field work Gomidas observed the spontaneous process of song creation in Armenian villages; his meticulous documentation anticipated the work of Bela Bartok and later ethnomusicologists. He analyzed the use of particular song forms for celebrations, religious events, chores, laments and other activities. He devotes several pages of his treatise on the plowmen’s songs of the Lori region to an obsessively detailed typology of syllables of exclamation: ho! hey! ay! and the like.

In 1910 Gomidas moved to Constantinople and organized a 300-member choir that was a jewel of the city’s Armenian cultural milieu, then thriving, and composed a polyphonic setting of the Armenian liturgy.

When Mr. Kradjian set out to orchestrate a set of Gomidas songs, he turned to the choral works to imagine how Gomidas might have harmonized traditionally monophonic folk songs.

“Gomidas wasn’t the first person who tried to harmonize Armenian music,” Mr. Kradjian said. “There were people before him, such as his teacher Makar Yekmalian, but they had an inferiority complex. When they looked at composers of their time like Tchaikovsky, they felt that Armenians didn’t have a music of their own because it was only coming from clergy or villagers. But what Gomidas realized was that even Beethoven and Mozart were influenced by German folk music. Italian composers heard Neapolitan folk songs.”

Robert Atayan, a scholar of Gomidas’s life and work, has argued that the composer’s three years spent studying music theory in Berlin led him not to make Armenian music sound European but to try to produce a comparable body of work on behalf of his own people.

Still, it is not easy to place Gomidas’s music on some kind of East-West spectrum. In Ms. Bayrakdarian’s interpretations many pieces have the light, energetic color of European art song; others, like those in which a single syllable might float through an entire phrase, reflect distinct Armenian styles of worship and lament. Ms. Bayrakdarian — whose last name, suitably, means standard bearer — said of the tour with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra that rehearsals might have been simpler with the chamber players of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, who appear on the Nonesuch album. But performing with a non-Armenian group is also part of her vision.

“There comes a point in a musician’s life when you must assess the musical value of something that’s very dear to you,” she said. “A song that your mother sang you will always have a place in your heart, but does it have the merit to be in a program with Ravel and Bartok? So you can’t imagine how happy I feel when somebody who is not Armenian appreciates this music. A project aimed at introducing Gomidas to the world has turned into an international effort.”

The dream of bringing Gomidas’s work to an international audience was not just the catalyst for a recording and concerts (and a 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary filmed in Armenian churches and villages). It was the pretext for courtship. Mr. Kradjian, 35, had known Ms. Bayrakdarian, 34, since their teenage years, when both moved from Lebanon to Toronto with their families. Mr. Kradjian played the organ at the same Armenian church where Ms. Bayrakdarian sang in the choir.

By 2001 both were busy pursuing successful careers, and they had not crossed paths in 10 years. Then Mr. Kradjian decided to approach Ms. Bayrakdarian about a project that could bring Gomidas’s music to a wider audience. “It turned out she had the same dream,” Mr. Kradjian said.

He added simply that getting married, having a child and building a life together turned out to be a quicker and easier undertaking than their work on Gomidas.