… Barracks in Çankırı Province were the venue to provide a stop for the exiled people. Everybody was broken-down and despondent; and everybody’s gaze was with expectancy fixed on Komitas, not only as a priest, but also as a leader, as one to be trusted unconditionally. Komitas started singing Ter Voghormea, the Armenian “Lord have mercy”. People were listening to his song petrified. In a moment the silence was broken by a cry followed by the sob of all the people. The Turk officers were confused by the occurrence; how could they understand what was happening?…

Vardapet Komitas (1869-1935) was a man of great popularity; he taught music not only to Armenians but also to high-ranking Turks, who entrusted Komitas with the musical education of their families. Foreign ambassadors and high government officials attended his concerts and visited his home in Constantinople. An Ottoman minister used to sing an Armenian lyrical song - K'eler, c'oler ("He walked and shone") - every time he climbed the stairs to Komitas's house. When the Ottoman government police arrested Komitas Vardapet at his home on the night of 24 April 1915, no one believed that he would be exiled or harmed. It was suspected that there had been a misunderstanding when Komitas was arrested. But there was no misunderstanding; he was deliberately selected as one of eight hundred Armenian intellectuals, including members of parliament, writers and poets, teachers and professors, doctors and lawyers, clergymen and artists who were arrested and banished into exile that night.

Most were murdered in exile. Komitas was one of the few to return and survive. After the intervention of Henry Morgenthau (1856-1946), then US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Komitas was allowed to return to Constantinople, but what he had experienced during his seven-week exile shattered his life and destroyed his creative spark. Whether due to depression or despair, Komitas ceased his research and all creative activities.

Komitas began his musical career collecting folk music in the field and became one of the pioneers in understanding the value of folk music for systematic academic research. Komitas developed an efficient method of fieldwork to collect folk music. As singing was an integral part of the villagers' lives, they were reluctant to expose this personal aspect of their culture to foreigners. Komitas would therefore join in with village activities (work, weddings and other ceremonies) or collect music in secret. He collected about four thousand Armenian folk songs and melodies. He was interested not only in Armenian music, but also in identifying the music of neighbouring nations for comparative study. Thus, Kurdish, Assyrian, Arabic, Turkish, Georgian and other folk songs appeared in his collections alongside Armenian music.  

Once a young country girl was working in the yard and singing. Komitas was hiding in a hollow of a tree, listening to the girl’s song, watching what she was doing and transcribing her song. Evidently she was an orphan, as guessed from the content of the song. Suddenly an elder woman came out from the house and shouting on the girl led her inside the house. Komitas was very angry with the woman since she broke a natural scene he was recording. But he did not leave the hollow, rather he stayed in his lurking place an hour or more hoping to see the girl sing and work again. He was not disappointed, suddenly the girl came out and continued her work and song from the point she had left, as if nothing had occurred. This kind of approach helped Komitas build a method to collect cultural layers which otherwise would be invisible.

A drawing of Komitas Vardapet by Grigor Khanjian.

Komitas is depicted by the Armenian painter Grigor Khanjian (1926-2000). The painting is entitled “Berlin: The Crane”. As a migratory bird, the crane appears in a famous Armenian migrant folk song collected and arranged by Komitas. It is common to call the migrant songs “antooni”.

Komitas' musicological research was mainly based on his collections of Armenian folk and church music. He presented the results of his research in articles published in Armenia and Europe. His research allowed him to uncover the theoretical foundations of Armenian music and to formulate the paths of its development. Komitas also presented his research to the public in the form of lectures and recitals. Most of his major projects, such as books, were left unfinished because of the genocide. 

Komitas had the ability to highly impress the audience. After a paper presentation about Armenian medieval khaz notation held in Paris in the framework of a congress of the International Music Society, Komitas was invited to present one more in the same event. The next Sunday, the participants visited the Armenian Church in Paris to listen to Armenian music and to get closer acquaintance to the culture Komitas was presenting. 

Front page of the Parisien "Musica" Journal, 1914.

A photograph taken in the Armenian Church in Paris is printed in the front page of the 142th issue (1914) of the Parisian “Musica” journal. The participants of the Congress of the International Music Society visited the Church to participate to Armenian Divine Liturgy.

His compositions, based on his collection and research, proposed a new style of musical composition, called "Armenian style" by his Berlin teachers. His works suggested new harmonic and contrapuntal devices derived from the inner structure of folk and church music. Any attempt to classify Komitas's style within existing approaches is doomed to failure, for it is a truly original style of music. 

The eyewitnesses tell that in a Komitas concert held in Paris, the French composer Claude Debussy bowed before Vardapet and said that he was one of the great composers of the time. This was Debussy’s reflection on Komitas’s “Antooni” (Arm. “homeless”), a migrant song which would become one of the symbols of the Armenian Genocide.

Born into a traditionalist Armenian family in Kütahya, a town in the west of the Ottoman Empire, Soghomon (Komitas's birth name) was orphaned at a young age. His mother died, leaving the six-month-old baby in the care of his aunt and grandmother. His father died when he was ten.

As an orphan, he was sent to a seminary in Vagarshapat (now Etchmiadzin) in Armenia to study liturgical singing. A priest from Kütahya, who was going to Etchmiadzin for higher ordination, was asked to take the orphaned boy with him to study at the Gevorgian Theological Seminary in Etchmiadzin. Soghomon was chosen from a large number of candidates. He soon moved to Etchmiadzin and studied there for about ten years. He was ordained a deacon in 1890. In 1894 he was ordained archimandrite and given the name Komitas in honour of Komitas I Aghtsetsi, the 7th century Armenian Catholicos, musician and author of sharakans (Armenian hymnal church music). In 1895 he was ordained to the spiritual-scientific degree of Vardapet.

Komitas studied music and musicology in Berlin from 1896-99. He graduated from the Philosophical Faculty of the Humboldt University (then the Royal University) and the Richard Schmidt Conservatory. Komitas' activities in Berlin led to a high appreciation of Armenian music by his teachers, including the renowned musicologists Richard Schmidt, Oscar Fleisher, Max Friedlander and Heinrich Bellermann. Komitas was invited to become a founding member of the newly formed International Music Society. His opinion was regarded as the most authoritative in all matters relating to Eastern music.

After his studies, Komitas lived and worked in Etchmiadzin, travelling from time to time to other cities and countries for collections, fieldwork, concerts, lectures and other work activities.

In 1910 Komitas moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to continue his activities there, where there was a large Armenian population. One of his main projects was the establishment of a music conservatory, which the Ottoman government was keen to see. Another project was the Gusan Choir, which consisted of up to 300 singers and had a busy concert schedule. Meanwhile, Komitas never stopped collecting, researching and composing in Constantinople.

Komitas survived the 1915 genocide, but the price was too high. He stopped working for the most part and contact with people became undesirable for him. He spent the first few months trying to come back to his old life. He worked on his piano works, which cheered up only his friends. He wrote poems; and in them one can trace a shadow of optimism. He wrote a new work entitled The Lord's Prayer, but unlike his many versions of arrangements of the Lord's Prayer, this was not a traditional one, but an original composition in which the composer prayed for salvation and protection through the voice of children. None of his attempts to return to work were successful. Komitas wrote one last disappointed narrative about his reality, which he ended with a short sentence: "My heart is broken".

Komitas spent the last nineteen years in psychiatric hospitals, first in Constantinople and then in Paris. He didn't work, he had few contacts, he preferred silence. Reflection on the genocide overwhelmed Komitas.

The genocide did not spare a significant part of Komitas' work and research. Not all of Komitas' legacy is available today. This includes collected music, research and works. Komitas' research on medieval Armenian non-linear khaz notation disappeared, an extremely important field that had been forgotten over the centuries and deciphered by Komitas. Many projects remained unfinished, including operas, orchestral and other works. The whereabouts of many valuable manuscripts are unknown, while some are hopefully still to be found in hidden places.

For most Armenians, Komitas's music is their identity. He is an outstanding figure in the perception of 'Armenian-ness'. On the other hand, some of his songs have become symbols of genocide and protest against it.

Crane, where are you coming from? I am a servant of your voice.
Crane, do you have news from our country?
Don’t run! Soon you will reach your flock.
Crane! Is there no news from our native land?

It seems that this song has nothing to do with the genocide; it was written in the Middle Ages by unknown authors. The singer hopes that the crane will be informed about the homeland and that it will pass on the news. Komitas turned this song into a song of protest, challenge, nostalgia and optimism for the future. Many exiles sang the song in their own way, but few survived.

by Tatevik Shakhkulyan


Komitas, Komitas Vardapet, Vrej N. Nersessian, and Vrej N. Nersessian. Armenian sacred and folk music. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.

Kuyumjian, Rita Soulahian. Archeology of madness: Komitas, portrait of an Armenian icon. Yerevan, Armenia: Gomidas Institute, 2001.

Shakhkulyan, Tatevik. "Komitas and Bartók: From Ethnicity to Modernity." International Journal of Musicology (2016): 197-212.

Articles associés