The Genius of Komitas, 150 Years Later

Armenians, worldwide, celebrate a significant birthday this year, for a man named Komitas Vartapet. Known throughout all Armenians and musicians alike, as well as composers, and historical scholars as the ‘Father of Armenian Music’. Following a concert of Komitas’ music in Paris, famed composer Claude Debussy declared that on the basis of a single song, Komitas should be regarded as a great composer. As Armenians, we celebrate his life for a multitude of reasons. As a composer, Komitas’ sacred liturgical music is still performed in most Armenian church services around the globe (see the below link of a complete divine liturgy). He was a collector of folk music, responsible for the collection and transcription of over 3,000 folk songs.

His birth name was Soghomon Soghomonyan and he was born on September 26, 1869 in Anatolia, Turkey, in the town of Koutina.  In 1890, he was ordained Komitas, after an Armenian poet of the 7th century who composed sharakans (Armenian liturgical chant).

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Statue of Komitas from St. John Armenian Church

During the Armenian Genocide of 1915, Komitas was part of the first groups of Armenians collected by the Turkish troops for extermination. His life was eventually spared and Komitas was eventually freed from prison. However, this freedom was short lived as the horrors of the Armenian Genocide haunted Komitas for the remaining years of his life and he succumbed to mental illness and passed away in 1923, in Paris.

Much has been written on Komitas over the years. Books and stories honor his memory and his compositions and the major contributions he made as an Armenian priest to Armenian music.

On October 20, 2019, the Detroit Armenian community paid tribute to Komitas with a program featuring music, dance and reflections on his life.

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Ara with Dr. Sylvia Alajaji

Dr. Sylvia Alajaji, Associate Professor of Music, Department Chair of Music at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile presented a keynote at this event.

She provided an inspiring retrospective on Komitas’ life. “He is as present as ever” said Alajaji, referring to the everlasting and continuation of Komitas’ music that is still performed today.

Alajaji continued to describe how Komitas’ music is responsible for connecting the diaspora to Armenia.  “When we play his music, we make a statement. It shows who we are and that we are here”.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed Komitas’ birthday in their calendar of anniversaries.

Der Hrant Kevorkian, Pastor of St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church recounted how he sang in a choir as a teenager called Komitas. He was the youngest in the group and sang only Komitas and Ganachian songs. “I learned a lot from that choir because we learned a lot history from the songs” said Kevorkian. “We learned how to pray, how mothers treated their children.”

The Detroit Hamazkayn Arax Dance ensemble along with the AGBU Alex & Marie Manoogian School Chorale performed folk songs comped by Komitas. A special offerings of Komitas’ Groong was performed by Sevana Mailian on oboe with Margaret Lafian accompanying her on piano.

Following a short intermission, a tribute to Komitas’ music an arrangement of songs performed by the nationally known Armenian a cappella group, Zulal.

Read more about Komitas and those involved in the Detroit celebration: 
Virtual Museum of Komitas
Music of Armenia: Komitas
The 100 Years Fact Project
Sylvia Alajai’s book on Armenian Music
Hamazkayin Arax Dance Ensemble

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