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Worth a read Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding, yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong April 21, 2003 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. THE SALVAGING OF AN AUTHENTIC ARMENIAN MUSICAL TRADITION These 160 collected Letters by Komitas, (224pp, 2000, Yereven, Museum of Literature and Art, edited and introduced by Orphelia Garabedian and Tzoghig Pekarian) peppered with wit and humour as well as passion and anger, provide a fascinating and illuminating insight into his ambitions to salvage and develop an authentic Armenian musical tradition. Barouyr Sevak compared Komitas, musicologist, composer and singer, with 5th century genius Mesrop Mashtots the founder of the Armenian alphabet. He had good reason. Both contributed to securing for the future a defining dimension of Armenian cultural identity. Mesrop Mashtots set the foundations for the flourishing of a written culture. Some fifteen hundred years later Komitas played a similar role in the world of Armenian music and song. Komitas (1869-1935)) was among the most outstanding of that group of distinguished Armenian intellectuals and artists who at the turn of the 20th century devoted their talent to unearthing, preserving and building on a rich Armenian cultural legacy that, overlaid by the influences of successive conquering powers, was threatened with irreparable loss. A common thread in this venture was the collection and study of folk art, epic, music, song, poetry, fable and myth, all of which retained the sparks and the echoes of an Armenian cultural tradition stretching centuries back touching even the pre-Christian era. When Komitas embarked on his career he felt that the very existence of an authentic Armenian music was in question. 'During the last 20 to 30 years' he writes 'we have been witness to the steady decline of our religious music...' The Armenian mass 'is now little more than a confused and disordered collection of Turkish, Persian and Arab tunes' with 'no hint of Armenian accent' or 'Armenian versification.' The 'simple and noble' music of the Sharakans (Armenian psalms) 'warm as the sun', 'clear as the air' and 'fresh as water' were also falling into disuse and disappearing. These 'mirrors reflecting the spirit of our ancestors' were now being 'treated with disdain'. If 'this last flicker was to die we would then with our own eyes witness the entombment of our soul and the extinguishing of the fire of our life.' So brimming with enthusiasm, energy and passion Komitas set to work uncovering, preserving and systematising a music that sculpted in sound a unique Armenian cultural tradition. He was tireless, admitting to 'having the capacity to work, to work and to work yet more.' He was also stubborn and unwavering as he travelled through scores of Armenian monasteries, villages and towns, then to Tiflis, Bolis, Cairo and then on to France, Switzerland and Germany, and back again through the entire circle. Everywhere he searched out libraries spending hours and days poring over ancient manuscripts that would reveal the key to deciphering classical Armenian musical notation that held the beat of 'an unparalleled, sensitive, vital and noble heart.' In Armenian villages he collected every Armenian folk song he could, for these 'ever fresh', 'simple and noble, laughing and weeping' tunes 'constituted a second, but nevertheless fundamental, source' of authentic Armenian music. To enhance the appreciation of Armenian music and create a living basis for its future development he gave countless lectures and performances at home and abroad, he wrote articles and published his findings. With a sharp eye for evaluating talent and for detecting sloth he also trained dozens of promising students, organised an impressive Armenian choir and worked to found a professional Armenian school of music. Komitas loved Armenian music for its aesthetic splendour. In it he 'found peace and calm' and through it he was sometimes even 'able to escape the injustice of the world.' But he loved it for more than that. For him music was the paramount weapon of national revival and national independence. Culture, and music in particular, he thought was far more powerful than weapons 'made of wood or steel.' Believing their guns no match for those of their adversaries Komitas was sceptical of the armed revolutionary movement. Culture however could 'conquer both mind and heart' and 'demonstrate that Armenians were an indispensable component of humanity.' So he 'became its soldier.' Komitas was not, however, devoid of a political vision, however questionable this may have been. While recognising the ultimate necessity of Armenian independence he considered the incorporation of all Armenia into the Tsarist Empire as a first essential step. Thereafter through economic and social progress and the assistance of the forces of the Russian revolution Armenians would take a natural course to freedom. As with the best and most farsighted representatives of the Armenian national movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries Komitas too confronted the hostility, narrow-mindedness and persecution of the Armenian establishment. Numerous letters tell of this and the resulting personal woe and material want that reduced him 'to skin and bone' and often drove him to the verge of despair. The Church leadership appears particularly philistine and decadent, with the clergy more interested in money than in matters of the Armenian revival. Though occupying 'newly built Churches and monasteries' their 'inner life was in ruins', 'their minds exhausted', their 'passions uncontrolled'. One churchman having persistently refused to loan Komitas, not the original, but only a copy, of an important manuscript, offering instead to sell the original item of Church property for what would then have been a princely sum - 300 roubles. Komitas kept faith with his mission, remained unbent and produced work that marked him out as a towering figure of Armenian and international culture. Even though he was not physically murdered he did fall victim to the 1915 Genocide. The trauma of mass killing trapped and paralysed his mind and spirit. He was never to work again. What he had already achieved was however monumental and enduring. What he could have achieved surpasses imagination. 2. SAYAT NOVA - A POET AND MUSICIAN OF ALL NATIONS While Sayat Nova's music is relatively well known, Sayat Nova, the man and the poet, still suffers an undeserved obscurity. Henrik Baghchinian's biography 'Sayat Nova' goes some way to explaining why he should be granted a more prominent place on the Armenian and on the international stage. Sayat Nova was born in Tiflis, the Georgian capital, in 1722. This was the period when the recently united Georgian Kingdom was attempting to cast off the shackles of Persian-Turkish domination. King Heragl laboured hard to reduce the cultural influence of Islam that, spreading in preceding centuries, had lead to the conversion of a great portion of the Georgian nobility. Persian had become the Court language and Persian and Turkish influences prevailed in literature, music and poetry. National cultural revival was accompanied by economic development that transformed the capital Tiflis into an important transit point for international trade and centre for craft production. Enjoying an unprecedented prosperity, peace and stability the city acquired a vitality and energy that was to produce song and poetry celebrating the joys of life. Among the artists who contributed to this was the Armenian Sayat Nova. To explain the presence of such a great Armenian language poet and composer in Georgia, Baghchinian charts the long presence of Armenian communities in the country. Reinforced through the centuries by floods of Armenian refugees, especially after the fall of Ani, by the 16th and 17th centuries Armenians constituted a majority of the Tiflis population, a situation that lasted into the 1920s. They formed an important proportion of the town's urban nobility and merchant class. Armenian craftsmen, merchants and traders oiled the wheels of the local economy while Armenian artists and intellectuals, poets and singers serviced the Royal court. Among them was Sayat Nova who served in the Royal court from 1741 to 1754. Expelled as a result of internal intrigue he was forcibly ordained and served as a priest in various Armenian parishes until 1795, when he was murdered during the Persian sacking of Tiflis. Sayat Nova was clearly both an extraordinary man and an extraordinary poet and musician. He was a true universalist, an artist who went beyond national individualism without however eliminating national colour. A man of all seasons he was also a man of all nations who rightly enjoyed a reputation far beyond the Caucasus. Fluent in Armenian, Georgian and Turkish he wrote and composed masterpieces in all three languages and also had a working knowledge of Persian and Arabic. Born to Armenian parents his everyday language was Georgian, but he wrote first in Turkish. Inspired primarily by a rich Armenian cultural heritage, his imagination was also fertilised by tributaries from Georgian, Azeri, Persian and Arabic culture. Whether in Armenian or not, Sayat Nova's poetry and music sparkle with polished reflections of Armenian folklore, song, popular wisdom and philosophy revealing a continuity with Naghash Hovnatan, his immediate Armenian predecessor, as well the influence of medieval Armenian poets such Kouchag, Yerzengatzi, Narek and others. Biblical allusions also proliferate in his poetry which integrated elements of classical Armenian into the Tiflis vernacular he used. Besides this Armenian reservoir Nova also drew on a wide range of Eastern tales of love, heroism, courage and wisdom contained in epic poems such as Leyla and Metchnoun, Farhad and Shirin whether in their Persian, Arabic, Armenian or Georgian variants. Familiar with the works of Nizami, Firtusi and other classical poets of the region he frequently used their heroes as metaphors for his own songs of love and courage. All these, feeding an already rich spirit and imagination combined with a deft use of words and metaphors, enabled Nova to create poetry of unrivalled beauty even within the obligatory but restrictive poetic forms of the day. In Baghchinian's view Sayat Nova's poetry and music also contributed to the Georgian national revival. Given the weight of the Armenian presence in Georgia, Baghchinian argues that many of the Georgian endeavours for national liberation were in effect joint Georgian-Armenian ventures. He claims that an important aspect of Georgian cultural development that mapped a path free of Persian and Turkish influences was the translation into Georgian of key Armenian religious, philosophic and historical texts. Baghchinian alas cites no authors or titles. Previously Armenians, like other nationalities in Georgia and the region used and wrote in Turkish or Persian. Such was the case with Sayat too. But as an expression of national emancipation he became one of the first to challenge this dominance and began composing in Georgian and Armenian as well. Alas this book is scarred by a common flaw of Soviet era Armenian studies that sought, unnecessarily, to proclaim the superiority of Armenian culture over that of its neighbours as a method of highlighting Armenian attainments. Baghchinian suggests, for example, that Ottoman-Turkish music had only foreign foundations. If it were true this claim would call into question the entire purpose of Komitas's work: to uncover a genuine Armenian music overwhelmed by foreign, including Turkish, influence. Baghchinian also asserts a greater value for Sayat Nova's Armenian-Christian influence as against the influence of an allegedly more mystical Muslim one. As evidence he makes a dubious reference to the Armenian connection with European thought as if the latter is inherently superior to Eastern thought. Fortunately such claims do not impinge on the essential portrait of Nova that Baghchinian offers. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.