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Sayat Nova
Sayat Nova

Soul of the Nation

How Armenian music defines a land and its people


Armenian musical tradition carries the true essence of the Armenian spirit with deep connections to its nature, language, and religion. It has gracefully evolved through the ages, embracing various cultural influences while retaining its unique identity. 

Without doubt, Christian influence has imparted a unique flavor to this musical tradition. Yet, pagan, folk, and peasant traditions greatly influenced Armenian folk music, reflecting in it various daily practices, traditions, customs, beliefs, joys, and fears.

World-famous Armenian contemporary composer Vache Sharafyan, an author of over 80 symphonic, chamber, choral, vocal, and ensemble compositions, puts it best: “Our music mirrors the landscapes and language of our land.”

 

Armenian Sacred Sounds

In the fifth century, when Mesrop Mashtots and Sahak Partev created the Armenian alphabet, they also played a crucial role in standardizing the modal system of Armenian church music, placing Armenian melodies at the core of church chants known as Sharakans.

The translation of the Bible and several church rituals also significantly contributed to this process. Mashtots and Partev alone created 129 and 60 church chants, respectively.

Sharakan chants are classified into eight categories, but as musicologist Levon Hacopian explains, the variations appear predominantly in text, not in music itself. In ancient times, they were sung in a choir with soloists, accompanied by a single prolonged note.

Over time, liturgical music was passed down through oral tradition. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, Armenian priests developed a Khaz notation system to notate the chants, marking the beginning of a written tradition.

Yet, Armenian neumes, precursors of modern musical notes, did not precisely describe the melody, enabling transcribers to apply their creativity and interpretation methods to augment their significance, thereby making them increasingly challenging to decipher. The art of Sharakans progressed during Catholicos Nerses Shnorhali in the 12th century. Yet, this era is also recognized as the point at which khazes became completely incomprehensible to Armenians. Contributing to this was the loss of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia in 1375, when the Armenian population dispersed and the monasteries with manuscripts were destroyed, leaving no traces by which to unravel the interpretations of Armenian khazes.

Our music mirrors the landscapes and language of our land.

Later, Ottoman Armenian composer Hampartsoum Limondjian (Father Hampartsoum, 1768-1839) created new notation symbols to preserve the essence of Armenian music. The Limondjian system served as the primary musical notation for Western Armenian and Ottoman music until the introduction of the European notation system in the 20th century.

The renowned Armenian composer and musicologist Komitas Vardapet extensively utilized the Limondjian system while traveling from village to village to notate over 3,000 Armenian folk music pieces, half of which were tragically destroyed during the Armenian Genocide. Few people know that he also discovered the key to decoding lost khazes, as he wrote on March 15, 1910: “I am hopeful that these findings will become available to the public in separate volumes shortly.” Unfortunately, these research findings were lost during the Genocide, closing the last door to deciphering medieval Armenian music notated in khazes.

 

Folklore in Sounds

Ancient Armenian folk musical genres encompassed epical-historical, lyrical, ritual, and labor songs, as documented by Movses Khorenatsi’s 5th-century Armenian history.

The oldest type of labor song called Horovel represented the daily challenges farmers faced as they worked to survive, including songs and recitations to ward off evil spirits. Rain-invoking rituals involved songs accompanied by drums. We can see ancient melodic features in pastoral music as well. In Armenia, shepherds used to play these melodies on longitudinal flutes.

Specifically among the labor songs, Horovel encompasses a significant place in the Armenian musical tradition, preserved only due to Komitas. To address the challenges of soil cultivation, people would gather 40 to 80 oxen from various villages to plow the unyielding earth. With its origins in pagan times, this tremendous ritual was accompanied by blessings for the labor and the forthcoming harvest. Additionally, ritual dances and songs were performed.

According to Sharafyan, Horovel rituals weren’t seen as art but as an integral part of daily life. Therefore, when mechanical cultivation machines, such as combines and tractors, emerged, soil tilling became more manageable and the frequency of Horovel performance declined. “If Komitas hadn’t come forward at precisely the right moment to preserve these cultural treasures, their legacy might have been lost forever. In reality, many valuable aspects of our culture had already been lost,” Sharafyan points out.

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Boris Hakobyan, Dance of Rebirth, 1980, National Gallery of Armenia.

Boris Hakobyan, Dance of Rebirth, 1980, National Gallery of Armenia.
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Boris Hakobyan, Dance of Rebirth, 1980, National Gallery of Armenia.

There are also wedding and funeral songs that originated in early patriarchal societies. While funeral songs, known as souk (mourning) and voghb (weeping), remained unchanged over time, wedding songs evolved alongside changes in wedding ceremonies throughout the centuries.

Gusan and Ashugh art forms, developed in ancient and medieval Armenia, received both praise and criticism within various Armenian circles. The primary performers of this musical culture were the Gusans (males) and Vardsaks (females), who played diverse roles as singers, musicians, dancers, poets, and storytellers. Gusans and Ashughs (troubadours) performed different roles, such as those who entertained the elite and others who performed for ordin-ary people. Another group of Gusans specialized in theatrical performances, including mimes, comic actors known as katakagusans, and even tragic actors, as detailed by composer and musicologist Kristapor Kushnaryan.

Sharafyan explains the working method of two prominent Armenian figures, Komitas and Sayat-Nova in this regard. “Komitas was dedicated to purging Armenian music of foreign influences, while Sayat-Nova, as an ashugh, often blended various languages in his poems. He did this because he recognized that the languages of the region contributed to the richness of music, as evident in Gusan Art. Yet, we often encounter medieval sources stating that the Christian nation did not respect Gusan Art.”

“Speaking in somewhat technical but still accessible terms, major and minor keys are not unique to Armenian music; they are European scales. For instance, the development of the minor scale can be attributed to Bach, who introduced the concept of semitones. In nature, we don’t encounter semitones; instead, we primarily perceive high and low tones. Consequently, ethnic music is intimately connected to these intonational distinctions. In this regard, Komitas revealed the backbone of our ethnic musical tradition,” he continues.

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Mikael Harutyunyan, Komitas “Kakavik” (Little Partridge), 2016.

Mikael Harutyunyan, Komitas “Kakavik” (Little Partridge), 2016.
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Mikael Harutyunyan, Komitas “Kakavik” (Little Partridge), 2016.

 

Sound Arsenal

In the 1950s, the renowned Armenian violinist and researcher Anahit Tsitsikyan founded the field of musical archaeology in Armenia. Her research findings later served as the basis for a book authored by her daughter, Noune Shamakhian, marking the first attempt to create a dictionary of over 180 percussion, wind, and string musical instruments that were once used in the Armenian Highland. Collected from depictions on ancient manuscripts, tomb stones and fresco paintings, the instruments range from the dap (tambourine) and chalparanner (castanets) to large trumpets known as pogh and shepor to string instruments like tavigh (harp), knar (lyre), canon (zither), and saz (lute-like instruments).

Soviet composer, music theorist, and teacher Khristofor Kushnarev stated that each of the instruments used in ancient and medieval Armenia had distinct users and specific roles in daily life. For example, laborers used the long flutes, while horns were played during royal banquets and times of conflict. Additionally, some instruments served religious functions, such as the qshots (ripidion), a percussion instrument employed to ward off evil spirits from temples.

Komitas revealed the backbone of our ethnic musical tradition.

Among Armenian instruments, duduk holds a rare and revered place in Armenian music, especially in post-genocide compositions. Its melancholic melodies have the power to convey longing and sorrow, making it an iconic symbol of Armenia’s musical heritage and its ability to touch the hearts and souls of non-Armenian listeners worldwide.

Sharafyan agrees that duduk, though played in many nations, flourished in Armenia to mold the sound and style it possesses today. “Once, in a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum, I said that duduk has always remained faithful to the realm of the human voice, offering a limited octave-and-a-half sound range. Within this sound range, the entire history of a nation is encapsulated. It’s as if there was no other way out, and the only means of expression was through the voice of duduk. This is why its mournful sounds resonate with Armenians so deeply, as they convey emotions within the range of the human voice.”

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Genealogical Tree of the Evolution of String Instruments. Developed by Noune Shamakhian

Genealogical Tree of the Evolution of String Instruments. Developed by Noune Shamakhian
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Genealogical Tree of the Evolution of String Instruments. Developed by Noune Shamakhian

 

Visit AGBU WebTalks to learn more about Armenian musical traditions.

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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