Lost Treasures of Armenia

Dn. Haig Utidjian – The Program Notes

Lost Treasures of Armenia

The Holy Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church continues to embody a living tradition of primarily monodic vocal music of exceptional richness and beauty. Though its hymnography is traditionally believed to have commenced with the invention of the Armenian alphabet in the fifth century, and the Hymnal as a canonical collection was definitively closed in the fourteenth century, there is no doubt that the musical evolution of the hymns therein almost certainly continued well into the nineteenth century. In common with sister traditions such as the Byzantine, the Hymnal is categorized according to an Octoechos or eight-mode system. The modes govern not merely the various musical scales, but also standard melodic motifs, formulaic beginnings, cadences and endings. 

From the twelfth century onwards the melodies of hymns, odes and other chants were transmitted from generation to generation through a knowledge of the individual modes combined with a system of neumatic notation. Unlike the Middle Byzantine neumatic system, however, the Armenian neumes have not been deciphered, and we are consequently unable to reconstruct the original melodies. Though copyists punctiliously produced faithful copies of the notation, it is likely that the musical creativity and imagination of church musicians could not be suppressed, and thus increasingly sophisticated and melismatic melodies may have been created, causing a growing incongruity between what was sung and what was notated. Major catastrophes, entailing the destruction of the Armenian monastic tradition, and the absence of any extant manuals comparable to the Greek Papadikai, may have also contributed. The melodies available to us are transcriptions in a novel system of musical notation devised in Constantinople by the year 1815 (and thus contemporaneous with the Chrysanthine innovation in the Greek tradition), invented by Hambarjum Limōnčean (1768-1839) and Fr. Minas Bžškean (1777-1861), as well as transcriptions in Western staff notation; and the oral tradition persisted in parallel with the adoption of such systems of notation. Accordingly, this evening’s program consists of music that has reached us through one or other of the above means or through combinations thereof.  

Fr. Łewond Tayean (Léonce Dayan, 1884-1968), who enjoyed the friendship of several contemporary Italian composers (corresponding, for instance, with Gian Francesco Malipiero), meticulously transcribed, edited, and published the melodies of the entire Armenian Hymnal, in their versions as traditionally sung by the Mekhitarist Congregation of San Lazzaro in Venice. The Congregation had been founded in Constantinople in 1701 but settled on the island of San Lazzaro in 1717, where it remains today, with a further monastery in Vienna. The Penitential Pueri hymn (so named as its incipit is Psalm 113 [LXX/Arm 112]:1 – Laudate pueri, Dominum; laudate eum in excelsis) transcribed by Fr. Léonce is without doubt the most splendid version of the hymn to have reached us. Later in life, Fr. Léonce recollected singing it in Rome in 1912 as a student, earning the admiration of the Director of Music of St. Peter’s. The words are inspired by Psalm 71[LXX/Arm 70] , with the poet entreating, in successive stanzas, his God – the hope of his youth, the hope of his old age, and his hope during His second coming, not to forsake him. The verbal texts of the Armenian Penitential hymns have been traditionally ascribed to the fifth-century Archimandrite, St. Mesrop Maštoc‘, and although an attribution of such antiquity seems highly unlikely, there is an engaging simplicity about these texts that gives them a somewhat archaic feel. Sung on Friday prior to Holy Week, this hymn is all too rarely heard in any of its extant musical variants, and may well come as a surprise to most Armenian church-goers.

Haig Utidjian
Haig Utidjian

The Venetian violinist, composer, conductor, and teacher Pietro Bianchini (1828-1905), was a member of the La Fenice theatre orchestra, and composed for the Cappella di San Marco and various other ensembles. In the 1850s, however, he became enamored of the sacred music performed on the Armenian island of San Lazzaro, and spent years transcribing melodies performed by the monks there, eventually becoming Maestro di Cappella of the Mekhitarist Congregation. His meticulous transcriptions are characterized by precision, and also preserve melodies that would have otherwise been lost to us. The ode “Elect of God” is performed when the celebrant is a bishop or of higher rank. The poetry is rather beautiful, and the verbal text contains interesting theology: Christ enables the Celebrant to assume the role of Aaron, and his garments are likened to those which Moses prepared for Aaron (cf. Exodus 28, esp. 28:15). The words gain additional poignancy when one is aware of the fact that, as the ode is sung, the Celebrant simultaneously recites the prayer by St. Gregory of Narek (c. 945-1003) to the Holy Spirit (composed of two extracts from the 33rd Chapter of his magnificent Book of Lamentation), on his knees and “with overflowing tears,” and indeed Bianchini has marked the score “Modo elegiaco.” Moreover, the Celebrant has to repeat the first section of the prayer “until confidence in the upward contemplation of light be wonderfully revealed, announcing and bringing the good news of peace once more from on high,” and only then may he proceed to its second section; the singer of the ode therefore has to be prepared to fill the time available, singing as many or as few stanzas as may be required in the circumstances. The transcription must have been made by Bianchini in the late 1850s and was first published in 1862 – although there is evidence (including the manuscript of a version with orchestral accompaniment) to suggest that it preoccupied him for decades thereafter.

We follow this ode by an ode for the Holy Cross, which seems first to appear in a manuscript copied in 1466 (probably in the Crimea – Matenadaran MS 425) and is usually attributed to the 13th century Cilician composer, Kostandin Srik. This evening it will be sung to a melody recorded in Constantinople at the Church of the Holy King in Kadıköy in Istanbul, here enriched for the final stanza by recourse to a slightly different version transcribed by Deacon Edvin Galip (of the Church of the Holy Mother-of-God in Beşigtaş). Finally, the liturgical sequence is completed by a Processional for the Holy Cross, consisting of a melismatic version of the Cantemus hymn (that is, the first hymn of the Canon, commencing with Moses’ Song of Praise from Exodus 15:1 – Cantemus Domino, gloriose enim magnificatus est…) for the First Day of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, in a version I was taught by the Adana-born musician, Vahan Bedelian (1894-1990), which is closely related to the version published in Vałaršapat in 1875.

The Processional (itself a conflation of two De caelis hymns, so named after Psalm 148:1, which furnishes the incipit to this type of hymn – Laudate Dominum de caelis, laudate eum in excelsis – though the incipit is omitted when the hymns are sung at processions) – and Prandii (a hymn associated with the Synaxis and a midday meal) belong to the Armenian Third Plagal Mode. The mode is known as Vaŕ jayn – a “glowing voice” – sometimes thought to be related to the Greek barys mode (despite the divergent musical characters of either mode), but probably a reference to the slightly lowered fourth degree. They are performed on the basis of a manuscript transcription by one K. Petrosean completed in 1947 at the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias, as sung in Cyprus by my own teacher, Abp. Zareh Aznaworean of blessed memory (1947-2004).

St. Nersēs of Lambron (1153-1198), archbishop of Tarsus 1176-1198, a zealous advocate of the union of the Greek and Armenian Churches, and a brilliant theologian (much of whose work, primarily of an exegetical nature, has been preserved through several manuscript witnesses but remains unpublished to this day) is credited with the composition of the Easter Cantemus hymn. I heard the present melody being taught by Deacon Adruşan Halacyan to his pupils, at the Church of the Vardanian Saints in Feriköy in Istanbul, on Good Friday (3 April) 2015; it is rather similar to a version published in Constantinople in Western notation by the musicologist Ełia Tntesean (1834-1881) in his short-lived musical magazine in 1879. It is modally entirely compatible with the Easter Day Introit by which it is followed.

Lost Treasures of Armenia

18-20 Jan 2019

Seattle and Portland

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Alexander Lingas recently discovered a through-composed, melismatic setting of the Armenian Easter Day Introit, in Chrysanthine notation, in a two-volume anthology of post-Byzantine chant copied in 1868 and currently held by the Firestone Library (Princeton MS Greek 15). The manuscript was copied by Diamantes M. Salgaras at the Monastery of Nea Moni on the island of Chios. The Armenian Introit is prefaced by the rubric «ἕτερον ἀργὸν ἀρμενεΐτικον. ἦχος πλάγιος πρώτος ἐκ τοῦ πα» ([A] further slow [setting, in] Armenian; plagal first mode from Pa [=D]’). Alexander Lingas and I have completed an annotated edition of this Introit with a full commentary for imminent publication. It is remarkable that an ancient Armenian chant, entirely forgotten by Armenians, was preserved within a Greek milieu and in the Chrysanthine notation; might it have been used in joint celebrations by one of several small communities of Chalcedonian Armenians (in communion with the Greek Orthodox Church), known to have existed until the beginning of the twentieth century? Be that as it may, the transcription embodies a number of “archaic” musical features, and is unique – although the existence of melismatic introits – including this one – is confirmed by the existence of densely neumated settings found in mediaeval manuscripts of the Manrusmunk‘ (“minute learning”) genre, consisting of particularly densely-notated Breviary chants.  

Archimandrite Komitas (1869-1935) was a pioneer, gathering large numbers of folk songs in manner that anticipated the endeavors of composers such as Bartók and Janáček, and producing masterly arrangements, harmonized for chorus or arranged with piano accompaniment. After initial studies with Makar Ekmalian, he was educated in Berlin and, though he belonged to the brotherhood of the Mother See of Ēǰmiacin, he settled in Constantinople, where he rapidly became associated with the Westernizing movement – dreaming of “celestial pure” melodies, “purified” of perceived “oriental” influences. Paradoxically, at the same time he sought to exploit the modality of the traditional melodies, generally preferring contrapuntal arrangements and experimenting with various tonal axes. He is generally considered to be the founder of Armenian art music, and was an iconic figure within his lifetime. However, the trauma of deportation during the Armenian Genocide tragically damaged his mental balance in 1915, and he spent the rest of his life in mental asylums in Paris thereafter. His arrangement of the Divine Liturgy may be considered a work of genius, and its history is a poignant one. It was rehearsed and first performed virtually on the eve of the Genocide, with a handful of male singers at the Armenian Church in Galata who, as deacons or church clerks, had been exempt from military service. (Situated on the northern shore of the Golden Horn, the church, dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator, had been built shortly before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans; it was expropriated by the state and demolished in 1958, although a smaller church has since been built on part of the same site.) One of Komitas’ pupils, Wardan Sarxian, managed to produce a performing version based on Komitas’ autograph, rendered almost illegible by layers of revisions. Though attempts have been made at other reconstructions, Sarxian’s edition has become standard, and we draw on it this evening.

The Armenian texts of the Divine Liturgy – formed and used in different regions of historical Armenia – are deemed likely to have been based on Greek models, but no Greek original texts of these now exist. The version that came to dominate the others was subjected to the addition of hymns and litanies, and has been in general use in the Armenian Church since at least the 10th century. Certain features are deemed to reflect the Jerusalem rite (due to contacts with the Church of Antioch), and the influence of the Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom – and to a lesser degree, that of the Roman rite – may also be discerned. However, some of the excerpts from the Divine Liturgy we shall hear this evening happen to be of more recent vintage. Thus, the Hymn of Vesting, “O Mystery deep,” is attributed to Xač‘atur of Tarōn, Abbot of Hałarcin Monastery (still standing, in northern Armenia, and recently renovated), who is believed to have first sung it in an open-air service early in the 13th century. The ode “Elect of God” is of unknown authorship but the earliest manuscript known to me is from the 17th century. (The version adopted by Komitas is less melismatic than that recorded by Bianchini, though their respective modalities share common features.) The Hymns of the Kiss of Peace and of Communion have been reliably attributed to St. Nersēs the Gracious (1102-1173, in office as Catholicos 1166-1173). They are sung by the Clerks as the Celebrant recites quietly (“in secret,” according to the Missal rubric) the Prayer of the Epiclesis. St. Nersēs the Gracious was a poet, musician, and pioneering ecumenist, who corresponded with the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnēnos in a bid to achieve unity. The most modern item is the religious poem commencing with the words Tēr ołormea (“Kyrie eleison”) by Catholicos Simēōn of Erewan (in office 1763-1780), which was composed as a lengthy poem, but appears to have become so popular that it became an integral part of the preparation for Holy Communion, and its omission today would be unthinkable. For their melodies, both Komitas and Ekmalian drew from a compendium of the chants of the Armenian Divine Liturgy published in Vałaršapat in 1878.

Makar Ekmalian (1856-1905), himself a native of Vałaršapat, had assisted the Constantinopolitan Nikołayos T‘aščean (1841-1885), who had been specially invited to Ēǰmiacin by the Catholicos of All Armenians, Gēorg IV (1813-1882, in office 1866-1882), himself a Constantinopolitan. The project entailed transcribing the melodies of the Armenian Hymnal, Breviary, and Missal into the Limōnčean system of musical notation. It would seem that the melody of the ode for the Holy Resurrection, “This day the dead,” was composed in Constantinople by Gabriēl Eranean (1827?-1862), and in the oldest manuscripts seen by us, it bears the modal designation Hüzzam makam. It includes what is referred to as a kratēma – a now defunct tradition, almost certainly borrowed from Byzantine practice in Constantinople. This information is, however, unlikely to have been known to the editors of the 1878 Vałaršapat publication, where the ode was included, or indeed to Ekmalian himself, whose arrangements and harmonizations were published in Leipzig in 1896 by the house of Breitkopf und Härtel. Ekmalian’s arrangement is meticulous in its rhythms, and the accompaniment gently forms a static background to the solo tenor voice.    

© 2019 Dn. Haig Utidjian, PhD 

Lost Treasures of Armenia

18-20 Jan 2019

Seattle and Portland

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