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Komitas - the savior of Armenian music

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

Soghomon Soghomonian, also known as Komitas, wearing a dark high neck cloak and a large silver cross pendant necklace

Soghomon Soghomonian, ordained and commonly known as Komitas (1869 - 1935) was an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is considered the founder of the Armenian National School of Music. He is recognized as one of the pioneers of world ethnomusicology.

Orphaned at a young age, Komitas was taken to Etchmiadzin, Armenia's religious center, where he received an education at the Gevorgian Seminary. Following his ordination as vardapet (celibate priest) in 1895, he studied music at the Frederick William University in Berlin, Germany. Among his teachers were Heinrich Bellermann, Max Friedlander, Oskar Fleischer. Fleischer in 1899 established the Berlin chapter of the International Musical Society, of which Komitas became an active member. He lectured there on Armenian folk music and suggested that it dated back to pre-Christian, pagan times. He thereafter used his Western training to build a national tradition. He collected and transcribed over 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music, more than half of which were subsequently lost and only around 1,200 are now extant. Besides Armenian folk songs, he also showed interest in other cultures and in 1903 published the first-ever collection of Kurdish folk songs titled "Kurdish Melodies". His choir presented Armenian music in many European cities, earning the praise of Claude Debussy, among others.

Upon his return to Etchmiadzin in 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 the Armenian countryside, developing a unique relationship with villagers. He thus took the scholarly task of transcribing and presenting rural Armenian songs. In 1903 Komitas published a collection titled "One Thousand and One Songs". Komitas settled in Constantinople in 1910 seeking to introduce Armenian folk music to wider audiences. He was widely embraced by Armenian communities, and was called "the savior of Armenian music".

During the Armenian Genocide - along with hundreds of other Armenian intellectuals - Komitas was arrested and deported to a prison camp in April 24, 1915 by the Ottoman government. He was soon released and, having witnessed indiscriminate cruelty and relentless massacres of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, Komitas experienced a mental breakdown and developed a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The widespread hostile environment in Constantinople and reports of mass-scale Armenian death marches and massacres that reached him further worsened his fragile mental state.

He was first placed in a Turkish military-operated hospital until 1919 and then transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Paris, France, where he spent the last years of his life in agony. He died in 1935. The next year his ashes were transferred to Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) and buried in the Pantheon that was named after him.

In the 1950s, his manuscripts were also transferred from Paris to Yerevan. Badarak (Armenian Church Service Liturgy) was first printed in 1933 in Paris and first recorded onto a digital media in 1988 in Yerevan. In collecting and publishing so many folk songs, he saved the cultural heritage of Western Armenia that otherwise would have disappeared because of the Genocide. Komitas is widely seen as a martyr of the Genocide and has been depicted as one of the main symbols of the Armenian Genocide in art.

His works have been published in Armenia in many editions.

The Yerevan State Conservatory ( Musical University), from which I graduated and was a faculty member until coming to the USA, is named after Komitas. In 2015 - on the occasion of Centennial of the Armenian Genocide, the Remembrance Tour was organized and dedicated to victims of all genocides, sponsored by International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (Zoryan Institute), during which Komitas' music of all genres was performed by world famous musicians, among them - pianists Evgeny Kissin and Grigory Sokolov.

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