Ask someone to name an Armenian composer and the first name on the list is likely to be Aram Khachaturian, famous for his Gayane and Spartacus ballet scores. But for Armenians, their most treasured composer is Komitas (1869-1935), often described as the Armenian Bartók or the father of Armenian music. A new recording of his piano music shows him forging, like Bartók, a pioneering course ahead of his time, but unable to realise it because of historical circumstances.
Little-known abroad, but treasured at home, Komitas was born in what is now Turkey and trained as a priest at the seminary of Etchmiadzin, the centre of the Armenian Church. He collected 3000 Armenian folk tunes, composed liturgical and instrumental music, much of it based on the music he collected. During the Armenian genocide of 1915, he and other Armenian intellectuals were imprisoned by the Ottoman government until Talaat Pasha was petitioned to release him. But Komitas was left mentally unstable by the experience and spent his last 20 years in a Paris mental asylum. He died in 1935 and his remains were taken to Yerevan, the Armenian capital where the Music Conservatoire is named after him.
The Armenian pianist Lusine Grigoryan has just recorded all of Komitas’s surviving piano music for ECM. Speaking to her in Yerevan, I wondered why his music is still so little known? 'First of all his work was interrupted in 1915 and his work and manuscripts were scattered,' she says. 'A lot of his works are not yet printed and available in the Western world, which is why I’ve put his piano compositions on my website.'
The surviving Komitas piano compositions are all arrangements of Armenian folk music: Seven Songs, Seven Dances and 12 Piece for Children, plus a substantial 10-minute work called Msho Shoror (Shoror Dance of Mush) and a tiny piece called Toghik, which lasts less than a minute.
'Even in Armenia pianists have only started playing his music recently, because they are not virtuoso, showy pieces,' explains Grigoryan. 'But for me there is so much depth in them. He uses the piano in a way it hadn’t been used before to create new timbres, sounds and drones.'
Komitas, like many composers of the time, sought a national identity through music. Dvořák became known through his Slavonic Dances, composed for piano (four hands) in 1878 and 1886. Grieg wrote piano transcriptions of Norwegian songs and folk dances from the 1870s. Albéniz (in Spain), Janáček (in Moravia) and Bartók (in Hungary) followed a generation later with many piano compositions based on transcriptions and folk inspirations. There was widespread popularity to be won and money to be made from piano music for domestic performance.
Although they are miniatures, Komitas’s compositions are exquisitely crafted and Grigoryan’s performances are light, transparent and vibrate with colour. Many of the melodies are modal, some of the time signatures irregular and the harmonies often unorthodox and piquant. Like Bartók, he was forging a new language through folksong.
'When I’ve performed these pieces in Europe, people are surprised and can’t imagine when they were written,' says Grigoryan. 'They are not romantic, not impressionist, not minimalist, but they sound modern. They were composed a century ago, but still remain unknown. I often wonder what might have happened if these pieces were known? What directions might they have opened?'
It’s certainly true that these pieces open up a new sound world. Komitas collected folk music in the last decade of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century in Armenia and what is now Turkey and also notated tunes from villagers coming on pilgrimage to Etchmiadzin.
He played the dances in Paris in 1906 where his music was heard and praised by Debussy. They are contemporary with Bartók’s first piano works based on folk tunes he’d collected, like Ten Easy Pieces, For Children and Two Romanian Dances. In many ways they were travelling similar paths to create a new contemporary sound from traditional sources. Komitas may not have had the genius of Bartók, but as the First World War put an end to Bartók’s folksong collecting in Eastern Europe, the 1915 Armenian Genocide brought an end to Komitas’ work altogether.
Komitas’ Seven Dances are particularly interesting because he notes the original instruments and the location where he heard them into the piano score. So ‘Yerangi of Yerevan’ says 'In the style of nay and tar', the nay referring to the reedy Armenian duduk while the tar is a plucked lute. The final ‘Shoror of Karin’ is played by pogh (flute), drums and dap (frame drum). These obviously give the pianist a useful clue to how they should sound, but Grigoryan has also benefitted from a 2015 ECM recording her husband, Levon Eskenian, made with the Gurdjieff Ensemble arranging the music for Armenian folk instruments.
So the opening ‘Manushaki of Vagharshapat’ is performed by the filigree notes of a delicately strummed tar, followed by the more legato bowing of kamancha fiddle, over soft drum beats and the drone bass of a santur (hammer dulcimer). Of course these recordings were a fantastic aid for Lusine Grigoryan to make her interpretations as authentic as possible.
'This is the second time I’ve recorded the piano pieces,' she admits. 'I thought I’d mastered them in 2004. But hearing the folk music recordings made me realise I wanted to do them again with that music in my ears. Those recordings completely revitalised my interpretation.'
She mentions the ornaments in the melodic line of ‘Unabi of Shushi’. They are written as a mordent in classical music, but shouldn’t be played like that. 'It’s to imitate the type of attack on the tar. And some of the staccatos shouldn’t be too harsh, but like a softly plucked string.'
On paper, perhaps the most curious of the dances is ‘Yerangi of Yerevan’. On the piano, the left and right hands have the same music - a 12/8 melody and accompaniment in both hands two octaves apart. In the folk recording Levon Eskenian gives the legato melody to the plangent, reedy duduk, the most iconic of Armenian instruments with a tar adding harmonic and rhythmic punctuations. In the piano version Grigoryan isolates the melody and accompaniment expertly while the melodic line two octaves apart evokes the sonorous depth of the duduk sound.
The last of the Seven Dances is ‘Shoror of Karin’, one of the longer pieces lasting around five minutes. A shoror is a swaying dance which Komitas describes as ‘noble and heroic’ in character. The melody is modal and the pulse shifts between two and three beat patterns. It starts slow and quiet, but the ensemble builds in size as the pace increases. This and the longer Msho Shoror, a sequence of seven dances depicting a pilgrimage to the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Mush, are like windows onto a vanished world of the Armenian communities of Anatolia.
The Armenian population in Anatolia has vanished and apart from a few ruined churches and stones, it’s pieces like this that provide windows onto the culture of that lost world - as well as being curious and beautiful pieces in their own right.
Lusine Grigoryan’s familiarity with the original folk world clearly makes her interpretations of these pieces something special. But is it necessary to know and understand that world to play them? 'Of course many pianists play Bartók without a deep knowledge of Hungarian folk,' she says. 'But when I went on YouTube and saw [the Hungarian folk band] Muzsikas playing the original versions of the pieces he recorded and a folk performance of one of the Romanian Dances, it really changed my interpretation. It made my playing less romantic and more dance like. I think it’s good for pianists to look at these things.'
Lusine Grigoryan’s Komitas: Seven Songs and The Gurdjieff Ensemble’s Komitas are both released on ECM.
Read the review of 'Seven Songs' in the January 2018 issue Gramophone (out now), or in Gramophone's Reviews Database here: 'Seven Songs'