Komitas not only collected, transcribed, researched and compared more than 3000 pieces of Armenian folk music, but also did research on the music of other cultures. We talked to Tatevik Shukhkulyan, head of Research Department of Komitas Museum-Institute about the topic.

Text : Hasmik Barkhudaryan    Photo : Komitas Museum-Institute



The hard work of collecting

Komitas collected musical pieces not only from Armenian-inhabited areas, says Tatevik, but from all our neighbors. The goal was one: find out the “defining musical formula” to understand the possible influences the nations had on each other and research Armenian music in the context of the neighboring nations’ music. Komitas also did a huge amount of work collecting, preserving and researching the music of other nations. One must understand, Tatevik continues, that in those days collecting music was much harder than today and it involved a lot of work on site. Komitas would have to travel to different villages, populated by different people, to collect folk songs. The villagers didn’t just sing: one wouldn’t sing a work song, if they weren’t working at that moment. So, he would sit with them, share their work and their songs, or observe them secretly. We know he used both these methods when collecting Armenian folk songs.


On correlations and self-sufficiency

Tatevik says Armenians had many correlations with our neighbors – the Kurds, the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians, and tight links to the Assyrians. At the same time, the Georgian influence was insignificant despite being neighbors and was mostly limited to urban folk. Komitas reflected on the music of all our neighbors – even the Greek music. In terms of collected material accessible to us, we know he recorded Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish and Georgian songs, and even a Finnish song.

We also have many facts that he was researching Arabic and Persian music in depth. He read a lecture in Berlin Scharwenka Conservatory and demonstrated in comparison, along with Armenian music, Kurdish, Persian, Arabic and Turkish songs. He would sing a phrase, then reproduce the manner in which it would be sung by a Kurd and then, how it would be sung by a Persian. Sadly, no audio recording of this lecture has been preserved. Through his work, Komitas showed that Armenian music was not a derivative but rather an independent branch: of course there were influences and correlations with neighbors, but the formula and the core of it was our own.

Tatevik adds that there was a lot of debate in academic circles on whether Armenian music was independent or derivative of Greco-Byzantine or Persian-Arabic music. In the autumn of 1913, in Constantinople, the newspaper “Azatamart” published a valuable article by Komitas titled “The Armenians have their own music” which put a definitive end to these speculations.

Kurdish song written down by Komitas Vardapet


Kurdish music

The work on Kurdish music that Komitas has done is a cornerstone. It is even speculated that he did a diploma work for Berlin’s Humboldt University around it, but we have no facts to back it. Among the works he studied were songs of epic proportions – “Layla and Majnun,” “Jambalaya,” “Hamam Ağa,” “Mirza Ağa,” “Mamzi,” “Seyran,” “Leleh Gavreh” and “Jendi Benah Meydaneh”. The Kurdish people see Komitas as the founder of their musicology: they accept the fact that if he didn’t write down their songs, those would not have survived to this day.


Turkish music

There’s controversy surrounding Turkish melodies. One side claims those are Turkish, and specialists on the other side claim they are Armenian, but in Turkish language. We know there were many regions in the Ottoman Empire where the whole populace talked Turkish, like the very town – Kütahya – that Komitas was born in. Despite claims that the Armenian language was banned there, we know that Komitas frequented an Armenian Sunday school. So, there is controversy around the origins of those songs – whether Turkish or Armenian, but Tatevik thinks they are too different stylistically to be Armenian. She also says those songs are beautiful, rich in melody and thematic content. The Kurdish and Turkish songs gathered and written down by Komitas are in the 14th volume of his published works.

Turkish authorities had big plans about Komitas, wanting him to found a conservatory and research Turkish music. And vardapet would have done that, it was what he loved after all. But then, 1915 changed it all.

Turkish song written down by Komitas Vardapet


Later, Turkish authorities tried to replace Komitas with the great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who had done the same work for his region that Komitas did for Armenians and the neighboring nations. It is known that Bartok was shown the recordings of 130 songs. He agreed to notate the songs, but he couldn’t understand the words. For some reason local specialists didn’t help him either, which gives us reason to think those were Armenian songs, and the government did not want to admit it. In any case, we don’t have enough information to draw a conclusion on this.


Persian and Arabic music

Komitas has – aside from collected material – scientific research where he reflects on the music of different nations; in particular, the Persian manner, e.g. the nasal singing, that is often used today in Armenian “rabiz” music. He spoke favorably of the Persian manner of singing. In the same way, Komitas showed in diagrams how the modes in Armenian music relate to Persian music. For example, Armenian medieval music is based on the so-called eight-mode system. Each mode has its formula. Komitas showed how the Armenian eight-mode could be compared with Arabic and Greek music.


European music

While researching Armenian music, Komitas often referred to European music. The reasoning behind this was that most of the scientific society had European education and were well versed in European culture, also it was easier to demonstrate the Armenian in relation to the European: in structure, notation and the logic of the structure of music, and so on. Music has its own math. He showed that math through comparison. Interestingly enough, Komitas was interested in every nation’s folklore. He even reflected on Finnish folk music, writing down one song – a single sample, but he also discusses it in his scientific research. The song he transcribed is preserved in the archive – it’s not well-known these days, but maybe it was when Komitas was around. We, sadly, don’t know much more.

Finnish song written down by Komitas Vardapet


Music of the tribes

Komitas had extensive education which allowed him to research ancient music – from the origins of humankind. He would study the music of primitive tribes and draw conclusions on how music itself developed, not just the Armenian one. We see this kind of ideas in the works of musicologist Kurt Sacks. So, perhaps he gained this approach during his university years. Komitas called it “Music in ancient centuries – among the ancient savages and of current times”. He researched the tribes of Polynesian isles. How musical expression starts with two sounds, repeated and modulated, and then two sounds become three, then four. Komitas theorized, Tatevik says, that music in general developed like this.


India and China

Tatevik speaks of the interest Komitas had for Eastern music – especially the Indian and Chinese music – what it was, how it was written down, and their own notation. We know that Armenians in Medieval times had their own neum notation called khaz, and our new notation was founded later – in the 19th century, and he knew these methods of notation were different from European 5-line notation. The medieval methods of notation were quite different – hieroglyphic, in fact, and a single sign could contain a huge amount of information. The Chinese people had their own notation too, as did the Indian people. Komitas showed how one system could be translated into the other in relation to the Armenian notation. These works are not in a complete state, being mostly in the draft stage. But his main goal was not drawing comparisons to the Armenian system, but the research of other systems in itself.


Assyrian music

We don’t have the main body of research Komitas did on Assyrian music and how it compares to its Armenian counterpart. We know that during celebrating the 25th anniversary of Gevorgyan seminary, Komitas read a lecture on the comparisons of Armenian and Assyrian music, which shows that such a body of research exists.

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