An Armenian Voice in the World Symphony

Komitas is arguably the most Armenian composer, whose prolific activities have affected a scope well beyond music or musicology. Komitas is a symbol of a whole epoch and his tragic end fully symbolizes the ordeals, that the Armenian nation went through in the beginning of the 20th century. Historian Tigran Zakaryan describes what was going on in the World and in the region during his life.


Text : Tigran Zakaryan


Komitas Vardapet, 1910’s


The founder of the Armenian school of music started his life in the Ottoman Empire in decline and struggling to retain its territorial integrity, while he finished it in a quite different world, where former Ottoman and Russian empires were substituted by the Republic of Turkey and the USSR and where the term “Armenian Question” was gradually plunging into oblivion. Komitas, whose baptismal name was Soghmon Soghomonyan, was born in Kütahya (Kutina in Armenian), in western Asia Minor in 1869. Once a vibrant center of burgeoning ceramic industry, with its renowned Armenian masters, the city was also marked by its routine discrimination against local Armenians, which included a ban on using Armenian language in everyday conversation. This is why in his childhood Soghomon spoke Turkish rather than Armenian.

Holy Etchmiadzin, early 1900’s


It was so even at the age of 12 when he, after losing both of his parents, was taken to Etchmiadzin by the local Armenian bishop Kevork Vartabed Tertsagyan. When Catholicos Gevorg IV felt uneasy upon hearing in a meeting that the boy spoke only Turkish, he warned Soghomon that the education in the Gevorgyan Seminary in Etchmiadzin is in Armenian and he had to be fluent in his mother tongue. The boy answered with full straightforwardness: “I came here to learn Armenian, Your Holiness.”

Catholicos Kevork V of Armenia


This sincerity touched the Catholicos, who decided that the boy from Kutina, gifted with such a superb voice deserved enrollment into the most prestigious Armenian educational institution.

Soon he mastered Armenian to perfection, including various dialects; he was to decode and understand another, a more sophisticated language of Armenians, which is the national music.

Kutahya, birthplace of Komitas, vintage engraving


End of a belle epoque

The Ottoman Empire across which young Soghomon and the Bishop of Kütahya travelled in 1881 was rather different from that of 1869. Under Sultan Abdülaziz (1861-1876), during whose reign Komitas was born, the Ottoman Empire was undergoing Tanzimat – a period of social, administrative, military, economic and political reforms, initiated in 1837. Triggered by the disastrous Greek War of Independence (1822-1832), those reforms’ main driving force was the urgent need to avert the empire’s possible disintegration. The so-called religious community or millet system which over centuries enabled Christian communities of the empire to enjoy a certain degree of internal autonomy and which was idealized by some modern scholars as an Ottoman-style belle époque was giving way to a new period full of challenges and perils. Some reformers were ready to go so far as to consider granting the non-Muslim communities equal rights with the Muslims, however the fierce opposition by a majority of the Ottoman elite to such a move blocked all prospects of such an eventuality. Since the beginning of the 19th century, Christian communities of the empire – inspired by the cultural and intellectual revival they experienced – started to claim their own statehood or autonomy. Those demands were also supported by some Great Powers, who used them as leverage against the Ottoman authorities. Given the fact that the Christians constituted about half of the population of the empire by mid 19th century, this was too bitter a pill to swallow for the Sublime Porte. Nevertheless, in 1876, under the new sultan Abdul Hamid (1876-1909) an Ottoman constitution was promulgated, which however was soon abrogated in wake of a humiliating defeat in the war with Russia (1877-1878).

Sultan Abdülhamid II of Turkey


Greek lithograph celebrating the Ottoman Constitution


By the peace treaty signed in San Stefano, an outskirt of Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire ceded large swathes of territories to the newly emerging Balkan nations and to Russia in Western Armenia. Yet European Great Powers intervened against what could be Russia’s disproportionate influence over Ottoman affairs and forced a new treaty in Berlin, with less painful conditions for the Sublime Porte.

Both treaties also touched on the situation of Armenians in the empire, hence coined in international affairs as “Armenian Question”. While the Treaty of San Stefano stipulated a transfer of Western Armenian provinces of Kars and Erzerum/Karin from the Ottoman Empire to Russia and local reform in Western Armenia under St. Petersburg’s supervision, the Berlin Treaty confined Russia’s territorial gains in Armenia to Kars district alone and placed the responsibility for the vaguely termed “reforms based on local needs” on the six Great Powers – Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

Territorial changes according to San Stefano (left) and Berlin Treaties, 1878


The last point, as it turned out soon afterwards, provided ample room for a diplomatic gamble, in which “the Sick Man of Europe” – a metaphor used for the Ottoman Empire – managed to capitalize on those very Great Powers’ internal disagreements and clash of interests, ultimately aborting all reform projects.

Moreover, what the “Red Sultan” had in mind about the Armenian Question was anything but reform; namely it was bloody repression and terror, which were unleashed upon Armenians in mid 1890’s culminating in 1894-1896.

Signing of the Treaty of San Stefano


The “love-singing” vardapet

With his unique musical talents, Soghomon soon learned the bases of Armenian musical traditions and upon completing his studies in the seminary, he became a music teacher in 1893 and was appointed the choirmaster of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral.

In 1894, Soghomon became hieromonk and was given the name of the 7th-century poet and musician Catholicos Komitas. In February 1895, he was ordained vardapet (celibate priest) and became thereafter known as Komitas Vardapet. Komitas had a solid musical education, as much as conditions in Armenia could afford it. An earliest major influence for Komitas was composer Kristapor Kara-Murza, who taught at the seminary only one year, in 1892. Although Komitas later criticized his works as not authentically Armenian, Kara-Murza was the person who taught Komitas the polyphonic choral structure, which became a characteristic trait of Komitas’s musical arrangements.

One of the folk songs, transcribed by Komitas


Yet his soul belonged to the folk music, the one that was sung by a humble Armenian ploughman and a reaper, by a woman baking bread or singing a lullaby to her child, songs of joy and sadness, anguish and hope and everything else that a human can experience. His interest drove him to collect and transcribe those melodies into notes, spending days and hours with peasants.

In 1895, his first collection of transcribed folk music, “The Songs of Agn” (Shar Akna zhoghovrdakan yergeri), was completed, which included 25 pieces of love songs, wedding tunes, lullabies and dances. It was disapproved by an ultraconservative faction of the Etchmiadzin clergy, who harassed and sarcastically referred to Komitas as “the love-singing priest.”

Komitas was much more than a mere transcriber and compiler of folk tunes: he was a person who created music. Early in his career, in the first half of 1890’s he wrote several pieces for the poems of Khachatur Abovian, Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, Avetik Isahakyan (then his younger classmate) and others. In 1891, the Holy See’s official newspaper Ararat magazine published his “National Anthem” (Azgayin orhnerg, lyrics by seminary student A. Tashjian) for polyphonic choirs.



The term zulum – in Ottoman Turkish meaning terror or tyranny – came to describe the reign of Abdul Hamid by his contemporaries. Responding to demands of various minority groups by massacres was business as usual for the Ottoman authorities, however what befell Armenians in mid-1890’s was unprecedented even by Ottoman standards, costing some 200,000 to 300,000 Armenian lives and forcing a similar number to move to the Caucasus under the Russian Empire or to convert to Islam. Abdul Hamid was a guileful enough politician to use local Kurdish tribal leaders in his dirty business, thus making sure that Kurds and Armenians will not forge an alliance against his rule. Pan-Islamism was elevated to the level of state ideology in the Ottoman Empire, and it was instrumentalized for the massacres, inciting Muslim fanaticism against Christians.

Although the “Civilized World’s” progressive society was outraged at and outspoken on those actions, little, if anything, was done by their governments to stop the violence. Russia, who was engaged in a program of russifying its own minorities – including suppression of Armenian educational and religious institutions – also became an unexpected ally to the Sublime Porte in its fight against Armenian “revolutionaries”, i.e. champions of armed resistance against Ottoman authorities. The movement of Armenian “revolutionaries” popularly dubbed as “hayduks” or “fidayis” had started from 1880’s, however it became more organized with the onset of two most powerful political parties, the Social-Democrat Hnchakyan Party (SDHP) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF-Dashnaktsutyun).

Both parties, to different degrees, advocated for an autonomous and socialist Armenia in the Ottoman Empire. For the aim of overthrowing the sultan both parties established contacts with various Europe-based Turkish opposition groups, collectively known as “Young Turks”; yet those groups were strongly opposed to granting autonomy to Armenians.

The Young Turk movement was an expression of somewhat belated Turkish nationalism. The reason for this was that under the ideology of Islam – the backbone of the Ottoman Empire – there were no separate Muslim nations and the very notion of Turkishness for the Ottoman elite, coming from various ethnic backgrounds, was alien and even despised. The Young Turks, whose leading faction in the early 1900’s became the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) aimed at maintaining the empire through modernizing reforms.

The time for them to act came in 1908 when the sultan, pressured hard by Russia, Austria-Hungary and some other Great Powers was about to agree on conducting reforms in the Balkan Provinces of the empire – something that was viewed as an imminent threat to the European possessions of the Ottoman Empire.

In July 1908 under the pressure of an army, which was in open revolt against Abdul-Hamid II, the 34th sultan agreed to restore the constitution suspended in 1878.

The jubilant crowds cheered the new constitutional era as Armenian politicians viewed this as a promise that the old days of zulum are over and bygone.


Reclaiming Armenian music

In October 1895 Komitas left Etchmiadzin for Tiflis. There he studied harmony till 1896 under composer Makar Yekmalyan, whose polyphonic rendering of Armenian liturgy then was the most popular and who became one of his most influential teachers. Soon, when Komitas had mastered the principles of the European music, at the behest of Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimyan (Khrimyan Hayrik) Armenian oil tycoon Alexander Mantashev agreed to pay 1,800 rubles for his three-year tuition in Germany.

Catholicos of All Armenians Mkrtich Khrimyan (Khrimyan hayrik), painting by Vardges Surenyants 1906


Then the youngest emerging European power, Germany, after its unification in 1871, took a deep interest in its own cultural roots as well as those of the others, including Oriental nations, to which Armenians then were considered to belong to, so Komitas found Germany as an interesting place not only to study but also to introduce Armenian musical culture to the European society.

He initially took private lessons with professor Richard Schmidt for a few months. Afterwards, he was accepted into the prestigious Frederick William University (currently Humboldt University). Komitas suffered financial problems, however, this did not distract him from education and he effectively absorbed the erudition of highly accomplished German teachers, among whom were renowned folk music specialists Heinrich Bellermann, Max Friedlander, Oskar Fleischer and others. In May 1899 Fleischer established the Berlin chapter of the International Musical Society, of which Komitas became an active member. He lectured there on Armenian folk music suggesting that it dated back to pre-Christian times. After finishing his studies in Germany in July 1899, Komitas returned to Etchmiadzin.

Upon his return to Etchmiadzin in September 1899, Komitas resumed teaching and composing. He assembled and trained a large polyphonic choir based on his acquired knowledge. Until 1906, he directed the Gevorgian Seminary choir. It was in this period when he completed most of the theoretical and research papers that earned him his place among the pioneers of ethnomusicology. Komitas spent summers in Armenian countryside, developing a unique relationship with villagers. He thus took the scholarly task of transcribing and preserving rural Armenian songs. In the fall of 1903 after three years of compilation and transcription, Komitas published a collection of 50 folks songs titled “One Thousand and One Songs.” Renowned linguist, philologist and philosopher Manuk Abeghyan helped him greatly to compile the folk pieces.

Constantinople, late 19th century


The same collection was reprinted in 1904, while in 1905 a further 50 songs were published. Komitas was a most devout popularizer of Armenian folk music not only for foreigners, but also for the Armenian urban population, who, living in multiethnic environments, were too much exposed to musical traditions of other nations and had largely lost links with the authentic Armenian music.

Since early 1900’s Komitas with his choir launched a series of tours not only across the cities of Caucasus, but also in Europe, staging folk music with his arrangements and in the meantime delivering lectures. One of such concerts was held on 22 February 1908 in Yerevan in the Janpoladyan Theatre building (later known in the Soviet period as the House of the Officers).

Komitas was also listened to and praised by leading non-Armenian musicians of his period, including, for instance, French composer Claude Debussy, musicologist Louis Laloy, writer Romain Rolland and others.

Komitas fervently asserted that albeit Armenian music had affinities with other Eastern musical traditions, still had a unique character and on that grounds he clashed with other Armenian musicians criticizing them of either undue “Europeanization” or “Easternization” of the Armenian music.

All his devotion to the purity of the Armenian music notwithstanding, Komitas took interest in folk music of neighboring nations as well. He became a pioneer in compiling Kurdish folk music, publishing in December 1903 (1904 January New Style) a collection of 12 music pieces, entitled in French “Chansons kurdes transcrites par le père Komitas” (Kurdish songs transcribed by Father Komitas).

Istanbul in 1920’s


He moved to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1910, two years after the revolution in the Ottoman Empire. Some note that among the reasons for his decision to leave Etchmiadzin was constant harassment on the part of conservative clergy, preoccupied with Komitas’s innovations, such as, for instance, recording spiritual music on a new device called gramophone.

There he founded the Gusan choir (Hay gusan since 1912), made up of tens of musicians. He taught musicology to a number of future musicians and composers, including Barsegh Kanachyan, the author of the present Armenian national anthem. Komitas also trained a group of students in Armenian melody and formed a choir that toured different Armenian cities of the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere, giving performances of the folk compositions that he had arranged for four-part choir. Komitas was so much immersed in Armenian folk music that he created several songs in folk fashion, later popularly believed to be genuine folk music.

His stay in Constantinople was quite a prolific period, however it came to an abrupt end, just as the lives of a million and a half Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.


The calamity

The Young Turk revolution fell short of its main objective – to save the unity of the empire. In the following five years the empire lost almost all of its African and European possessions to Italy and the young Balkan nations, respectively, while the Armenian reform issue resurged again in 1912.

Bloody massacres in the Cilician town of Adana and adjacent areas in 1909, that the Young Turk leaders tried to ascribe to “counter-revolutionary elements”, dashed Armenians’ initial hopes for a safe and liberal Ottoman homeland. After long negotiations and setbacks, under the pressure of Russia and Great Britain, a deal on reforms, guaranteeing safety of Armenians and others in the eastern vilayets of the Ottoman Empire, was struck in early 1914. However it was not destined to be implemented due to the onset of the World War one, which brought about a major calamity upon Armenians, namely the genocide. After the colossal territorial losses the leading Union and Progress party promoted a racial and ideology
 of Pan-Turkism, advocating for turning the multiethnic empire into a Turkish national state that was to expand eastwards to include other Turkic-speaking entities. This ideology left no room for an Armenian homeland, which was an ethnic barrier between the Turks in Anatolia and those in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

On 24 April 1915, the day, which is currently being marked as the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, Komitas was arrested like hundreds of Armenian notables in Constantinople. Along with others, he was put on a train and sent to the city of Çankırı in Central Anatolia. U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau (mainly through the efforts of his Armenian legal advisor, Arshag Schmavonian) and other influential foreign representatives intervened with the government in favor of the celebrity musician, and the government ultimately decided to avoid too much publicity over the issue and sent him back.

It would be surprising to note that among those who petitioned on behalf of Komitas were two prominent figures of Pan-Turkism, poet Mehmet Emin Yurdakul and nationalist woman writer Halide Edip. Both were personally on good terms with Vardapet and accepted him as a person, yet some of Halide Edip’s writings reveal her genuine hostility towards his Armenian background. She described Komitas and his music as “Anatolian” instead of Armenian, believing that his songs were “simply turned the words into Armenian”. Edip even believed that his parents were “probably of Turkish descent” and that “he was an Armenian nationalist whether his origin was Turkish or Armenian, but in temperament and heart he was a real Anatolian Turk if unconsciously.”

Edip, who later was notorious of collecting Armenian orphans of genocide and raising them up as exemplary Turks, of course would have preferred Komitas were a Turk and could not understand the broadness of his vision for accepting other cultures and musical traditions, including Turkish.

Armenian refugee camp, 1915


Agony and death

Komitas returned from his exile shattered. The deeply traumatic experience during the seemingly brief exile put unhealable scars on his psyche. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – this is how modern specialists in psychiatry diagnose his mental disorder, the symptoms of which appeared in his conduct in exile.

In the autumn of 1916, Komitas was taken to a hospital in Constantinople, Hôpital de la paix, and then he moved to Paris in 1919. Unlike common perception, Komitas at times spoke and behaved as a completely reasoning person being consistent in his ideas on Armenia and Armenian music. Painter Panos Terlemezyan in his memoirs described a visit to Komitas in Paris in March 1921. During the visit, Vradapet, when asked if he preferred Armenian music to the European, replied: “Why do you want the taste of an apricot when you eat a peach? Each one of them has its own meaning.” Then the Father of the Armenian folk music added: “Let my people stay well; I shall not feel cold in their heart. To me there is no heaven higher than the soul of my own people.”

The room in the Villejuif hospital in Paris, where Komitas spent his last days


The earthly existence of Komitas, after a protracted agony, came to an end in 1935 in the mental hospital in Villejuif in Paris. A year later the ashes of the great composer were transferred to Soviet Armenia.

Yeghishe Charents, a most renowned eastern Armenian poet of 1920’s and 1930’s, who fell victim to Stalinist terror, according to his contemporaries, was devastated and deeply emotional, yet inspired with a glimmer of hope by seeing Komitas’s ashes at a mourning ceremony in Yerevan. The poet, who shortly afterwards had to face his own tragic arrest and death, wrote on this occasion a long poem, on which he worked for some seven months, entitled “Requiem aeternam” (Eternal Rest).

Komitas monument in Villejuif hospital, Paris


Komitas found his eternal peace in Yerevan’s Pantheon, which bears his name and where most renowned people of Armenia are buried. The State Conservatory of Yerevan, founded in 1923, is named after him since 1946. Numerous memorial statues are dedicated to him, streets in Yerevan and other cities in Armenia are named after him, however Komitas’s legacy is far from being fully discovered.

Pre-communist era Yerevan


Komitas’s afterlife

Rev. Vramshapuh Kibaryan, the Armenian Church supreme priest of Paris, during his visit to Komitas in his clinic in 1920’s recalled a question by the composer: “Tell me, reverend, does the work, for which I died, still survive?”

Unfortunately Komitas’s preoccupation was partially grounded. Suffice it to note that from over 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music that he had collected and transcribed, more than half were subsequently lost and only around 1,200 are now extant. His rich musicological legacy still needs a critical and thorough research. The most precious loss which Armenian and world musicology suffered was that of most of his unpublished manuscripts on cracking the code of the medieval “neume” (in Armenian: khaz), the notation system used for Armenian liturgical chants in the early middle ages. Recently some research has been done in that field, however more needs to be done. Komitas’s liturgy, on which he had been meticulously working for years, purifying the music of all extraneous elements, was initially rejected by the Armenian Church authorities. However after its first publication in 1933 in Paris, shortly before his death, the liturgy became a “canonical” one with some of its parts frequently being performed outside of religious context.

Komitas found his heaven in the hearts and souls of the Armenian people. In fact, as many Armenian musicologists say, Komitas’s legacy is clearly distinguishable in Armenian classical music of the 20th century.

Komitas spoke an international language, that of the music, without rejecting or dismissing any single musical tradition. Yet he spoke it Armenian way, in a fashion that was comprehensible also to others as well. He was a son of his nation, who presented Armenian music to the world. As Catholicos of All Armenians Vazgen I (1955-1994) noted: “Just like St. Mesrop bestowed on his nation and the whole world the monument of the Armenian language, Komitas Vardapet dug out, purified and brought to light the pristine source of the Armenian music.”

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