Komitas Vartabed Turns 150 Today – 3,000 Pieces of Armenian Folk Music

Komitas Vartabed: Soghomon Soghomonian

Komitas Vartabed, born Soghomon Soghomonian on 26 September 1869. He loses his parents at an early age and joins the Etchmiadzin’s Gevorgian Seminary to study. He is an ordained celibate priest(1895), studies music at the Frederick William University (nowadays aka Humboldt University) in Berlin. He thereafter “used his Western training to build a national tradition”.famous for being a musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster. He is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music; recognized as one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology.

He organized collecting and transcribed over 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music, more than half of which were subsequently lost and only around 1,200 are now extant. Besides Armenian folk songs, he also showed interest in other cultures and in 1904 published the first-ever collection of Kurdish folk songs. His choir presented Armenian music in many European cities, earning the praise of Claude Debussy, among others. Komitas settled in Constantinople in 1910 to escape mistreatment by ultra-conservative clergymen at Etchmiadzin and to introduce Armenian folk music to wider audiences. He was widely embraced by Armenian communities, while Arshag Chobanian called him the “savior of Armenian music”.

His Homecoming

Komitas Vartabed
Komitas Vartabed

“After years of absence, Komitas returns to Kutahya with glory. He is respected by his fellow countrymen, who have been witnesses to his unfortunate childhood and orphan years of suffering and wandering the streets. He is thrilled to visit his native home. Witnesses say that the meeting was so heartbreaking and shocking that those present could not hold back tears.

Komitas greets his relatives, a cousin, and then enters his hometown and begins to silently touch and caress the walls and windows. He then gently presses the little nail that used to hold a portrait of his beloved mother 15 years ago. Unable to hold back his tears, he bursts and cries loudly.
Komitas vartabed was born in that wooden and half-finished room, and it is where his young poet mother and unfortunate singer father had died. He is moved to tears as he exits his family home and is heading to St. Echmiadzin school where he had been a student for four years. As he enters the hall, he instinctively heads to the left corner and sits on the ground of a dusty, dirty deck, firmly rejecting the panic-stricken Church board members’ request to sit on a chair …

Sadly, but relentlessly, he replies:
“Years ago no one cared for me when I was sitting right here without a cushion while others were sitting on pairs of cushions. I have been seriously ill here twice. Now let me, voluntarily, sit down and remember my past misfortunes and these dry boards. “

Komitas’ advice to teachers

“Teaching gentlemen and sisters, approach the work of upbringing (teaching) with caution and fear; Yours is a very soft job: You are called to nurture a generation that is the future nation. in the wrong direction, you are ruining a nation at the end.
If a child does not understand your teaching, you are only to blame, because you cannot understand his soul. You have to go down to their mental level and take it with you.”

Memories of the Vartabed

Margaret Babayan, a pupil of Komitas vartabed, a close friend and fan, recalls:
“During a harsh economic time, on his way to their house, while walking on a pavement, Komitas sees a worn grey pouch. “Whose purse could it be? Not a rich man’s for sure.” He opens and looks at the contents of the purse. Finds a couple of francs and pennies. But he wonders where would he find the poor owner of the purse, that should be looking for it desperately by now.

While in a hurry and worried to make it on time to supper, Komitas stands still looking at the passers-by, hoping to find the owner of the purse.
A few hours pass but no one comes to look for anything they are missing, no one asks if he has seen a purse.
Komitas worries the Babayans are waiting for him to arrive. He is already too late for supper. Awkward situation.
After another hour of tense waiting, Komitas begins to get nervous.
He checks the time again, he has been standing in the street for three hours, and, from a distance, he notices a woman approaching along the sidewalk slowly. The further the woman in plain clothes approaches, he notices that she looks pale and anxious.

Komitas asks immediately: “What are you looking for, lady?”
“Holy Father, when I go out for bread, I lost my last centimes. At home, my hungry kids are waiting for me.”

There are tears in the woman’s blue, distressing eyes.
– Can you tell what color your lost wallet was?
– Gray, it was a worn purse.

He smiles contentedly, pulls out the purse, hands over to the lady, wishes her good luck, and rushes to the Babayan’s apartment. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t on time.” (Stepan Kourtikyan’s book Komitasian Bells, 1969.)

Komitas and the Armenian Genocide

In April 1915 komitas is treated in the same manner, by the Ottoman Government, like hundreds of other Armenian intellectuals who were arrested and deported to prison camps.

“He was soon released under unclear circumstances and experienced a mental breakdown and developed a severe case of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The widespread hostile environment in Constantinople and reports of mass-scale Armenian death marches and massacres that reached him further worsened his fragile mental state.

He was first placed in a Turkish military-operated hospital until 1919 and then transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Paris, where he spent the last years of his life in agony. Komitas vartabed is widely seen as a martyr of the genocide and has been depicted as one of the main symbols of the Armenian Genocide in art.”

The Armenian Government Decorates Armenian Artists with the “Komitas Medal” for their honorary achievements.

Isabel Bayrakdarian & Dr. Hranush Hakobian
Isabel Bayrakdarian & Dr. Hranush Hakobian
Adiss Harmandian Decorated with Komitas Medal
Adiss Harmandian Decorated with Komitas Medal