In February 2015, the Chilingirian Quartet recorded 10 Armenian songs notated for posterity by Komitas before 1915 and arranged for string quartet by Sarkis Aslamazian. Poignant and lyrical, the songs are around 3 minutes in length. Each video performance has rare archive family photos together with historic images
We are releasing these short films one every 3 days up until the official commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on 24th April 2015. The first song appears here on Tuesday 24th March 2015. We will also be providing some historical background on specific photographs.
In July this year, Levon and some members of the Chilingirian Quartet will play 2 songs from Komitas at Iona Abbey, Scotland, as part of the Mendelssohn on Mull Festival, to mark the centenary of 1915. It should be a very moving and spiritual occasion in this centre of Christianity on the west coast of Scotland. We’d love to hear your comments on the films Do write to the quartet here This multimedia project created by filmmaker Kevin Laitak
Song 1: Hoy Nazan Im
Levon’s grandfather and mother
My grandfather Levon Chilingirian served as Choirmaster in Baku in the 1890’s and later in Constantinople and Smyrna. He was the first to introduce the organ into the Armenian Church in the early 1900’s. He was exiled to Jerusalem in 1922 where he died in 1934.
“Again, quite wonderful. This is so beautiful. Enchanting music. Great performance again” Ian
Levon Chilingirian writes about the photograph above which features in the next song:
The Boghossian Family is my wife, Susan’s maternal grandparents, later to change their name to Paul in the USA. Stepan and Isgouhi Boghossian (later Paul) had five children in the photo taken in Kessab, circa 1910.
Before Stepan went to the U.S. in 1914 they had a sixth child. Isgouhi was marched to the Deir Zor desert with her children and lost four of them. Her surviving daughter also died soon afterwards. She was a deeply religious woman and always kept her faith and never dwelled on the horrors she must have witnessed. Somehow, husband and wife found each other after the Great War and they moved to the U.S. where Susan’s mother was born in 1922. Helen Paul Pattie is now 93 and living in Minnesota, photographed here in the Lake District, England, 2014.
Song 2: Shoushigi
Song 3: Yergink Ambel (It’s Clouding Over)
26th September 1869 -22nd October 1935 was an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer and choirmaster. He is considered the founder of Armenian national school of music and recognised as one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology. Orphaned at a young age, Komitas was taken technical Cathedral, Armenia’s religious center, where he received education at the Gevorgian Seminary. Following his ordination as vardapet (celibate priest) in 1895, he studied music at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He thereafter “used his Western training to build a national tradition.
He collected 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 interested in other cultures and in 1904 published the first-ever collection of Kurdish music. 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”
During the Armenian Genocide along with hundreds of other Armenian intellectuals—Komitas was arrested and deported to a prison camp in April 1915 by the Ottoman government. He was soon released under unclear circumstances and experienced a mental breakdown and developed a severe case of Posttraumatic stress disorder. 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 psychiatric hospitals in Paris, where he spent the last years of his life in agony. Komitas 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. (content from Wikipedia)
Interesting article here about Komitas published in The Guardian 2011http://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/apr/21/komitas-vardapet-folk-music-armenia from which this is an excerpt:
‘Soghomon Soghomonyan – his original name – was born in 1869 to Armenian parents in Turkey, where the Christian minority endured routine discrimination.. Even in his teens he was a pioneer ethnomusicologist. Using the notation he had learned in the Armenian liturgy, he wrote down what he heard, devised three-part arrangements, and formed a student choir to sing them. Soghomonyan’s appetite for songs was voracious – one day, he noted with pride, he collected 34. His account of the ploughing song he found in the Armenian village of Lori reflects a remarkable ear: in his transcription, music, movement, and complex social relationships are seamlessly interwoven. In another village, he observed a girl singing to her dead mother: her plangently disordered song, he wrote, “expresses the sadness of her lot, and her inner world. If other orphans had heard it, they would have joined in. But after a while, that song would be forgotten. Because for the peasant, creating a song is as ordinary and natural as casual conversation is for the rest of us.” As an encapsulation of the essence of folk music, this could still not be bettered.’
Feedback on the Songs
Lovely to receive feedback about the songs and the project. We love to hear what you think. Keep your comments coming! Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter or email your comments using the contact form at the bottom of the page. Thanks
“This is a beautiful project – thank you so much”, Sossie
“Beautifully played and presented.
Very appropriate too.
Thank you”, Roubik
“I think it very fitting that you are creating a memorial in respect of the terrible events of the 20th century in Armenia..we will certainly watch your productions”, Jan & Michael
“Dear Suzie, Again, quite wonderful. This is so beautiful. Enchanting music. Great performance again. Alas no-one would ever write anything beautiful about my walk!! Ian
“Thank you so much for sending us these vibrant, touching recordings. It’s a really lovely project and you all sound full of life” – Sheena
“these songs are deeply moving and you play them most beautifully, as usual. Wonderful. A truly special and worthwhile initiative. Bravo everyone”, Garo
“This is a beautiful project – thank you so much”, Sossie
“Just a quick message to record my delight at these wonderful little films. The music is so vibrant and sparkling, which is the more poignant when you consider the horrors which were to overtake these creative and peaceable people. It has been a revelation and a joy to watch the recordings and I continue to look forward to the next one as the days go by. Thank you so much”, Arderne
“I am really enjoying all aspects of the Armenia project, thank you very much. Not only is the playing and filming really beautiful but all the history and photographs are so interesting and moving also. I only started watching today but I have caught up with all five. I shall forward them to various friends –one is half Armenian and both she and her 95 year old Armenian mother will love them”, Margaret
“Just a little note to tell you that I am enjoying the Armenian postcards that you have recorded. This must have brought us so many personal feelings and experiences….the whole thing remembers real people in a poignant and charming way”, love wissam”
“Thank you so, so much for sending these songs. I’ve enjoyed them so much, and listen to them in bed before gong to sleep! It’s so lovely to see you all playing so wonderfully too. And I’ve learned a lot more about Armenia and the terrible genocide, which was a blurry fact at the back of my mind before this”, Sue
“Thank you SO MUCH for sending these beautiful Armenian songs. I was totally transported, both by the music and the heartfelt playing. And this has made me aware of the approaching centenary of yet another terrible genocide, about which I should learn more”, Michael
“I’ve just been watching your videos and reading about the project – which is absolutely wonderful. I love the images, the music and the touching stories, and I am finding the combination so powerful!”, Cheryl
“Incredibly moved by these ‘postcards’ and am forwarding them to all my friends. We NEED to remember what happened in the past to avoid same mistakes/tragedies in the future. Just been to ‘Playing for time ‘ at Sheffield Crucible. Need I say more?”, Barbara
“Thank you so much for introducing me to these beautiful settings of Armenian songs. I have enjoyed them all so much but particularly Shoushigi and Shogher Djan (and more to come). The accompanying photos as well as the footage of the quartet playing make this a very moving experience. It has been an education learning about the Armenian genocide and an inspiration to hear this vigorous and poignant music”, Charles
Song 4: Al Ayloughs
A recording of Komitas singing
“It has been an education learning about the Armenian genocide and an inspiration to hear this vigorous and poignant music”, Charles
Song 5: Chinar Es
Levon Chilingirian interview
Song 6: Shogher Djan (My dear Shogher)
Vahan Bedelian & his focus on music
Vahan Bedelian (above) was my great-uncle (my mother’s uncle, writes Levon Chilingirian).
He was educated in Adana and at the Darson (Tarsus) College. He was a violinist but also was a deacon in the Armenian Church for most of his very long life ( he lived well into his 90’s)
When our family was exiled to Aleppo during the First World War he saved them from deportation into the Deir Zor Desert by playing his violin to the Turkish Governor. As soon as he arrived in Cyprus in 1922, he formed a choir and played a very important role in the rehabilitation of the community through music. He formed and conducted orchestras, bands and choirs in Armenian, English, Greek and Turkish Schools and was active for well over 50 years.
In 1927, he undertook an educational journey to Western Europe. Primarily he visited Germany and France to enhance his musical knowledge. In Paris, he visited the asylum where Komitas was confined. He requested a meeting, but Komitas was not in a mental state to allow this. Having waited for a long time, Vahan finally asked the nurses to hand a letter explaining that he was a devoted church deacon from Cyprus and that it would be the greatest honour to greet him.
Komitas apparently just threw the letter onto the floor and ran out to the garden and refused to see him. Subsequently Vahan asked to have the letter back and on his return to Cyprus, had it framed in his music room. All his students were made aware of the significance of this Holy Relic!
Vahan Bedelian produced many many outstanding students. His nephew, Manoug Parikian( my maternal uncle) went on to lead the legendary Philharmonia Orchestra of the 1950’s and subsequently had distinguished career as a soloist, chamber musician and Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Vahan’s son Haroutune Studied at the RAM, won the BBC VIolin Competition and went on to study with Ivan Galamian in New York at the personal recommendation of Yehudi Menuhin. He has been on the Faculty of UC Irvine in California for almost 30 years, performing throughout America and Europe and producing many outstanding students.
Song 7: Kelle Kelle (Walk, Walk) A woman admires a man’s gait
Song 8: Echmiadzni Bar (The Wild Dance of the town of Echmiadzin)
Song 9: Haprpan A duet between a boy and a girl
In the final song, ‘ Karoun A’, (It snows in Spring, A young lady loses her love) to be performed here, Levon Chilingirian writes a few observations.
my grandfather (below) was one of many choirmasters and composers who lived and worked in Constantinople from the late 19th Century until the sad events of 1915 and the final exile for surviving Armenians in 1922. He was mostly self- taught and from losing both his parents from a very young age and becoming an orphan he eventually established himself as one of the leading musicians in Constantinople. He was also the first person to introduce the organ into the our Church in the first decade of the 20th Century. The music in the photo below is written in his own hand
Aghtamar Monastry (below) was left into serious disrepair by the Turkish Government until only very recently, when restoration work was carried out to this 1000 year old gem. Until 1915 there was an adjoining Monastry and a thriving community of priests. It is situated on an island on Lake Van, one of the 3 Lakes in Historic Armenia
“I have just heard the ninth postcard. Thank you so much. I have loved them all. Of course I had to listen to them all again to enjoy the wonderful pictures separately. It was particularly moving for me to see the boy Manoug standing with his fiddle behind the big drum (in number 8). And of course I then had to listen to them all again. Your playing is consummate. Lovely passionate sections, and moments of such eloquence and purity.My love and admiration to you all”, Ian
Song 10: Karoun A
Final song marking Armenian Genocide centenary 24th April 2015
Susie Mészáros, violist of the Chilingirian Quartet, reflects on the playing of the viola part and the songs featured here
This year marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide, which saw the systematic extermination and displacement of a million and a half Armenians by the Turkish state in it’s attempt to rid the Ottoman Empire of an entire Christian people. Such was the scale and cruelty of this genocide that Adolf Hitler himself referred to it when he was preparing to invade Poland, exhorting his generals to be merciless and brutal: “Send to death mercilessly and without compassion men, women and children…Only thus shall we gain the living space we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
During the early years of the 20th century and leading up to 1915 an Armenian priest named Komitas was collecting folk songs in much the same way as Bartok and Kodaly did in Hungary – recording and transcribing for posterity the music of the Armenian people. Komitas survived the purge physically, but was mentally destroyed by the experience and spent the rest of his life in anguish, eventually dying in a Paris asylum. Among the Armenian diaspora were many musicians such as the family of Levon Chilingirian, the leader of my quartet: the Chilingirian Quartet, who fled to Cyprus. Also among these was Sergei Azlamazyan, an Armenian cellist and composer and co-founder of the Komitas Quartet who eventually settled in the Soviet Union. Azlamazyan wanted to be able to perform music from his homeland and so arranged for string quartet a number of songs from those collected by Komitas.
My quartet decided it would be a fitting tribute for this important anniversary to film performances of ten of these songs and release one song every three days leading up to the official commemoration day of 24th April. Along with the films there is a wonderful archive of photographs from the family album of Levon Chilingirian and his wife, also Armenian. Levon was the nephew of the great violinist Manoug Parikian, who appears in some of these rare and precious photos. The performances of the songs are interspersed with archive pictures, and the two together make a most poignant and touching record. The songs were filmed in the Armenian church of St Sarkis in London, and the project was devised and produced by filmmaker Kevin Laitak.
There is nothing quite like music to evoke the spirit of a people, the intangibility of which tells certain things more eloquently than words. In music we hear suggested the pattern of language through rhythm, inflection and articulation; the essence of a people’s relationship with dance and movement born from physical activity and labour (think of all the spinning, threshing, ploughing songs…); the overarching mood and disposition of a nation’s psyche. It is a call to the senses in a very direct way, bypassing the cerebral and overtly conscious. Folk songs are passed down through generations as an aural tradition much as the art of playing an instrument is passed down from master to student, by example. So classical musicians revisiting folk song are reminded of the building blocks of their own musical tradition which over time naturally evolves into something more sophisticated, abstract and self-conscious through its refinement. It’s good to make that journey back to one’s cultural fatherland once in a while.
These particular songs are a joy to play. As violist in a quartet my role in repertoire like this would for the most part be fairly fixed and determined. I would mainly be accompanying in the traditional way, providing harmony, texture and rhythm. But happily the viola part has been quite generously provided with solos in these songs, used as it were as an alternative vocal line – the contralto perhaps. The joyful Vahan-Bedelian (1)“hoy Nazan Im” is a boisterous greeting song where the viola stabs through with syncopation and bubbling, rippling lines.
“Shoushigi”, dedicated to a little girl, features a most warm and loving melody which is taken over by the viola for a whole verse. I adore playing this one, with its lilting dotted rhythms and sweet line. In some songs, such as “Al Alayloughs”, the viola has the last word, reminiscing the melody in a more wistful way to round off the song. Quite often the viola makes melodic interjections and commentary, such as in the lugubrious middle section of “Shogher Djan”, dragging the other instruments as if by gravity into the deep viola voice. At other times it provides waves of the most rich and searing harmonies – delicious and seductive.
“Kelly Kelle” is a conversational song about a woman’s admiration of a man’s walking gait! The viola strides along with the main melody, radiating vibrant warmth from the lower strings. Just because the register of the viola is lower than the violin’s doesn’t mean it necessarily depicts the male character – to me it is a deep and mature woman’s voice.
“Karoun A” – the sad Spring song which speaks of a young lady who loses her love. The viola seems to be mourning, weeping long sorrowful notes over and over. “Echmiadzni Bar” is a wild dance, very eastern in character, throughout which the viola plays the same tune as the violin but an octave lower. It is tough and gutsy, later becoming dreamy and filigree, then bursting back to its former punchiness.
“Haprpan” – a boy/girl song, full of conversation and fun, loving and longing. The viola is very busy with rhythms both bowed and plucked as well as the occasional cheeky interjection. The remarkable thing about these songs is the absence of awkwardness in marrying one form – folk song – with the medium of classical instruments. There seems to be no fault-line between the two elements, the best of each shining with ease and without compromise. There is richness, there is simplicity. Azlamazyan uses the instruments in a quite classical way without ever resorting to over-folkiness, yet we are without a doubt hearing folk music.
This has been a most powerful and fulfilling project. These songs are important because they are a magic thread that links us to a society that was all but obliterated. It’s astonishing how the songs together with the images connect us in a very human way with a terrible history that is not widely known in the West. We’ve had incredible feedback on the films, so the last word is from Arderne, one of the many people who wrote to us: “The music is so vibrant and sparkling, which is the more poignant when you consider the horrors which were to overtake these people. It has been a revelation and a joy.”
Article first published in the British Viola Society newsletter, May 2015