Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner

Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written consent from Groong's Administrator.
Copyright 2003 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
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



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

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.



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

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.

| Home | Administrative | Introduction | Armenian News | World News | Feedback |