In the beginning of the 19th century, a big part of Armenian medieval professional music was on the verge of being forgotten. As a result of closed-door policy adopted centuries ago, the system of the Armenian khaz notation became incomprehensible to church musicians.

It is in this decisive moment when the great reformist Hampartsoum Limonjian started his activity as a musicologist. Baba Hampartsoum would later become the person who would save the enormous amount of Armenian musical heritage. Decades later, Komitas would continue this mission.

Text : Loosineh Voskanyan, Lilit Harutyunyan



A brilliant solution to a hopeless situation

Composer and musician Hampartsoum Limondjian was born in 1768 in Constantinople. The most important part of his career is considered musicology. Limonjian was very concerned about the fact that Armenian music had started to get heavily influenced by the cultures of neighboring nations.

He noticed that in order to please rich people, some priests added oriental aesthetics to the songs and changed them, thereby losing the true features and purity of Armenian music. It is noteworthy that hymns (sharakan), chants (tagh) and other genres of Armenian sacred music are quite complex and require certain skills and professional approach from the performer, also, the original structure created by the authors has to be maintained in every possible way.

It was here that Limonjian faced a problem: at that time, nobody was able to transcribe music with Armenian medieval notation system. The musicians and the clergy transmitted all of the spiritual songs by oral tradition. Limonjian made a conclusion: he would create a new system that would preserve church music in its original state.

Mysterious Armenian khazes


The solution of the problem lied in the nature of Western Armenian culture. Western Armenia was at the crossroads of the West and East and was influenced by both cultures. Limonjian had studied Armenian and Eastern music, including Arabic, Turkish, and European, for many years. As a result, he did not simply just use European notes to put down Armenian music.

Thus, he made an extraordinary move for those years, which still surprises some historians. Based on 7 khaz images, as well as on the sequence of European notation, Limonjian created a very complex, but actually a simple and livable system. It was also neumatic and was not applied to the European 5-line bar system, so it was easier to transcribe the music even if one had just a sheet of paper and a pencil.

First of all, Limonjian’s system was convenient for putting down monodic music and it is known that originally Armenian music used only one voice. Moreover, the System allowed to transcribe the special microtonal features of Armenian melodies, which are completely different from the European ones.

However, the creation of a new notation system was only the first step. The long phase of transcribing thousands of pieces of folk and spiritual music would begin later.


Limonjian's system in action

The 19th century was a time for awakening the appreciation of national identity in many countries. In Armenia, too, the era of re-evaluation of national culture had begun. Many intellectuals, including Grigor Gabasagalyan, Hampartsoum Limonjian and others, understood that Armenian sacred culture was in a very difficult state. There was a need for refreshment, modernization since everything was in danger of being forgotten. Oral tradition of preserving songs was not a reliable way of protecting them.

Limonjian and his students implemented an unprecedented project. They once again put Armenian hymns on paper. However, the significant event took place in Eastern Armenia. Catholicos of All Armenians Gevorg IV invited Nikolaios Tashchyan, a student of Limonjian, from Constantinople to the spiritual center of Etjmiatsin.

He instructed Tashchian to record the entire musical legacy of Armenian Church. The Catholicos himself participated in the process: he sang hymns, while Tashchyan and others wrote them down.

This was how thousands of pieces of Armenian music have been preserved so far. In addition, the division was done according to genres – sharakans, chants, melodies, and the Divine Liturgy. In total, ritual manuscripts cover 2-3,000 pages. They allow us to understand how this or that song was sung in the 19th century. In addition to spiritual music, the earliest samples of folk music have reached to modern times due to Limonjian’s notation.

Limonjyan’s system, used by Komitas, 1913


Thanks to Limonjian’s system, almost everything was possible with a few tools. Musicologists traveled village by village, having only blank sheets of paper, and transcribed each melody that they found. Komitas was one of these people. It was only in 1917 when Spiridon Melikyan, a student of Komitas, started recording music with a phonograph.

Komitas did most of his work with the Armenian new notation system. Of course, he was familiar with the European notation system. However, even in his later life, when he was writing a Theory of European music, he used to show the terms in Armenian notation.

Hambardzum Limonjian died in 1839. His lifetime did not coincide with the brutal repression and persecution of the last years of the Ottoman Empire. He was a respected figure even in the Turkish environment and had many students among Turks. Limonjian’s hymns are still performed in the monastery of the Mekhitarist Congregation both in Venice and in Vienna.

However, the greatest achievement of Baba Hambartsoum was the founding of Armenian new notation system. It was a key to saving a tremendous amount of music. Moreover, it paved the way for the development of Armenian professional music and the integration of European notation system.

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