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Armenian music

Since ancient times, the Armenian nation has had its own system of music notation which is called «the system of the Armenian khaz». It is a type of neumatic notation. The khaz system made it possible to put down monovocal melodies and sharakans, as they indicated the voice pitch, its duration, the strength of the voice, hue, the ornamentation of the melodic line, and other elements.

Khaz notation was used for about 10 centuries, from the 8th to the 18th centuries. However, as it contained a great amount of different symbols and conventional signs, khaz notation was difficult to use on a practical basis, in respect of putting down the melody and reading it. This is why it was gradually put out of use, and in the 18th-19th centuries it was completely forgotten. Starting from the beginning of the first quarter of the 19th century, a new, simpler, and easier to use system was introduced in Armenian music.

The new system was compiled and developed by the musician and reformer of the Armenian notation, teacher Hambardzum Limonjian (1768-1839). As the new system is neumatic and is not applied to the European 5-line bar system, it gives the chance to write the melody in the space between the lines of the text of the {spiritual} poems, thus facillitating the vocal performance of the texts. On his journeys of studies and recording of folk music, Komitas mostly used this notation system.

Komitas was the most important collector of Armenian folk songs, and his exact and detailed researches established Armenian musicology on a scientific basis. His own folk-based songs and choruses and his liturgical chants are still popular among Armenians, many of whom regard him as their foremost composer.

Born Soghomon Soghomonian in Kutahia, Ottoman Turkey, Komitas first studied at Ejmiadzin, the spiritual center of the Armenian Apostolic Church, where he mastered the art of liturgical singing, founded and tutored the seminary choir, and published a volume of Armenian folk songs. At this time, he began his life long research into Armenian folk and sacred music.

Shortly after he was ordained vardapet (celibate priest) and adopted the name Komitas, he traveled to Berlin in 1896, enrolled in the private conservatory of Richard Schmidt, and studied aesthetics at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University.

After his return to Ejmiadzin in 1899, he spent the next 11 years in field work throughout the Empire, collecting and transcribing Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish folk songs and dance tunes and investigating the Armenian khaz (neumatic) music system of the eleventh century.

The field work formed the basis of Komitas musical output and activities as a choral conductor, lecturer, and writer. He continued these activities after he moved to Constantinople in 1910. He trained and conducted the 300-member Gusan Choir, performed as a soloist, and recorded a series of 78 rpm phonograph records in 1912-1913 with the Paris Opera soloist Armenak Shahmouradian.

In 1915, together with other Armenian intellectuals, he had been deported to the interior of the Empire. While he was spared the fate of his friends, upon his return to Constantinople he found his lifes work --- manuscripts, research findings on the khaz notation system, and his entire library --- in total disarray. A complete accounting of his manuscripts, including his research notes and preliminary findings of the khaz system has so far eluded scholars.

Komitas silent period stretches from 1919 to his death in Paris in 1935. He was first institutionalized in Constantinople and then later transferred to the hospital of the Jewish Quarter of Paris, where he spent the rest of his life fluctuating between moments of great lucidity and longer periods of total chaos.

Komitas ingenuity has always been a source of inspiration both for performers and composers. Many creators frequently turn to his delightful musical examples, creating works in various styles for numerous instrumental combinations. These treatments of Komitas themes are fresh, unique and diverse, though the spirit of the great Armenian classic always appears in each of them.

The author of some prominent works on Komitas songs was Sergey Aslamazian, the founder and cellist of the Komitas Quartet. An excellent performer, he also was a talented composer who enriched the repertoire of Armenian quartet music. Aslamazian always admired Komitas art, and he considered the latters compositions to be unsurpassable and perfect models.

For this very reason Aslamazian set to work, feeling greatly responsible for upholding it. Mastering the secrets and the subtlety of quartet music, in his works he utilised a maximum of performance possibilities of the quartet, aiming at absolute harmony and transparent sounding. «Habrban», «Shogher jan», «Erkinkn ampela», «Keler-tsoler», «Vagharshapat Dance», and «Kele-kele» - these works of Aslamazian are accomplished in a highly artistic way and with excellent knowledge of the technical range of the quartet.

Aslamazian shows an individual approach to each instrument, which results in colourful sounds. Sometimes one may seem to hear Armenian folk instruments in his works and not a violin, a viola or a cello.

Classical Music

There have been many famous Armenian composers whose music was performed worldwide.

«I am profoundly convinced that Spendiarov and Komitas are the patriarchs of Armenian classical music; they have charted the principal trends in the evolution of Armenian musical art for many decades to come». A. I. Khachaturian

Alexander Spendaryan - Armenian composer and conducter. Together with Komitas he was one of the founders of the 20th-century Armenian national school; like The Five, and in particular Rimsky-Korsakov, he drew on a wide range of east European and Near Eastern folk music.

His early years were spent in the Crimea, first at Kakhovka, then at Simferopol (1882–90), where he studied at the Gymnasium. In 1895 he graduated from the law faculty of Moscow University; there he had played the violin in the student orchestra conducted by Klenovsky, who recommended him to move to St. Petersburg to study with Rimsky-Korsakov (1896–1900).

Spendiaryan returned to the Crimea and carried out important work in developing music education. From 1908 he directed the Society of Amateurs of Music and Dramatic Art, and he was involved in the management of the Yalta section of the Russian Music Society (RMO); he also conducted in Moscow, St Petersburg, various south Russian towns and abroad.

In 1916 he met Hovhannes Tumanyan in Tbilisi, and it was on Tumanyan's poem «Tmkaberti arumē» (‘The capture of Tmkabert) that he wrote the opera Almast, which was performed first in Moscow (1930), then in Odessa and Tbilisi; in 1933 the Yerevan State Opera Theatre opened with it. Spendiaryan lived in Yerevan from 1924 until his death. In 1925 he was made a People’s Artist of the Armenian SSR, in 1939 the Opera Theatre was named after him, and in 1967 his house became a museum.

Spendiaryan's music shows a considerable evolution which bore fruit in Almast, a work for which his important orchestral works prepared the way. In form, orchestration, variation structure and programmatic nature, these remained close to the principles of the Russian national school.

The symphonic picture «Tri palmï» (‘Three Palm Trees) after Lermontov is characteristic; Shahverdyan compared its orientalism with that of Rimsky-Korsakovs Antar and Balakirevs Tamara. The work was staged as «Sem docherey korolya dzhinov» (The Seven Daughters of the King of the Djinns) at the Kroll Theatre, Berlin, in 1913, with choreography by Fokine and with Pavlova in the principal role. In the two series of «Krïmskiye ėskizï» Spendiaryan used Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian melodies, retaining their rhythms and ornamentation, and scoring them richly for an orchestra with a large percussion section.

The «Etyud na yevreyskiye temï» (Study on Jewish Themes) and the «Yerivanskiye ėtyudï» continued the direction of the «Krïmskiye ėskizï», with a particular abundance of polyphonic, harmonic and orchestral detail in the «Yerivanskiye ėtyudï». «Enzeli», the first of these studies, uses the song «Dun en glkhen» by the ashugh (folk minstrel) Sayat‘-Nova.

If in these works Spendiaryan laid the foundations for Armenian orchestral music, his Almast signalled a development in national opera.

The work takes certain features from the Russian operatic tradition, but the musical material (Armenian and Persian folk music), the nature of the plot (the struggle of the Armenians against the Persians in the 18th century) and the psychological treatment, centring on the character of Almast, set it apart. Conflict is the basis of the construction, for which the use of a complex system of leitmotifs creates a definite symphonic style.

Spendiaryan took Armenian folksongs and dances and Persian mugamat from the collections of Nikoghayos Tigranyan, and he attempted to reconstruct the timbres of folk instruments, introducing some oriental percussion (dayra, dhol and dimplipito) into the orchestra. Various thematic sources come to bear on the style of Almast, and each of these receives its own individual form of dramatic development. The role of Almast, like her famous dance in act 3, is the epicentre of the conflict.


Folk Music

Armenian folk music is one of the worlds richest musical traditions, burgeoning with an extraordinary array of melodies and genres. Since the 1880s, ethnographers and musicologists, most famously the Armenian priest Komitas, have travelled to remote villages and towns in Anatolia and the Caucasus collecting Armenian songs and dances.

Currently there are more than 30,000 catalogued in various archives, each with rhythms and modes characteristic of both broad Near Eastern influence and particular rituals and dialects not seen or heard beyond the next mountain pass. Tonights program, performed by Armenias preeminent traditional music ensemble, offers a rare chance to witness the energy and variety of this music that for centuries was so integral to Armenians rites of passage and daily lives. Popular dances and troubadour (ashugh) melodies are interspersed with more unusual emigrant and work songs, medieval epic verse, mournful wedding dances (a peculiarly Armenian oxymoron), and exquisite lullabies (numbering in the hundreds and renowned for their haunting lyricism).

The ashugh tradition, which flowered from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, was shared by others in the Middle East, including the Turks, Persians and Arabs («ashugh» means «in love» in Arabic), who similarly used established models of versification to elaborate complex rhymes and traditional improvisatory motifs. There were distinct schools of ashughner among Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Tiflis (Tbilisi, where Armenians were demographically dominant from the Middle Ages), as well as in Vagharshapat (Ejmiadzin) and Alexandropol (Gyumri). Musicians competed in official competitions and gathered their original compositions in songbooks that are still used today.

The most famous Armenian ashugh was Sayat Nova (1717–1795, born Harutyun Sayadian), from Aleppo, who composed and performed in many languages, including Armenian, Osmanli, Georgian, and Azerbaijani. He was a singer and musician in the courts of the Persian Nadir Shah and the Georgian ruler Iraklii II in Tiflis and spent his final years in the important northern Armenian monastery of Sanahin. As in all ashugh songs, each time the singer completes a verse there is an instrumental interlude («gyaf» in Armenian). Sayat Nova, himself a virtuoso kamancha player, is said to have declared that the kamancha would «console the broken-hearted, mitigate the suffering of the sick and be fully appreciated only by a true artist».

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