[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 44
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 46

 p441  Chapter XLV
Armenian Music Secular and Religious

Early Period

Little is known about the first of the two periods of Armenian music. National historians tell us that Pagan Armenians had plenty of singing and played on instruments.

For 150 years after the conversion of the Armenians to Christianity, their music was mostly of Greek and Syrian origin. The national type begins with the invention of the Armenian alphabet in 405. As in all the western countries, so in the Near East, the preachers of the new religion did everything in their power to suppress the old pagan music. Khorenatsi brings forth, almost unwillingly and despisingly, some fragments of the songs of the past — songs of wedding, dancing and rejoicing, as well as songs of a laudatory or funereal nature. There were, even in the lifetime of Khorenatsi, improvisers, mercenary singers and troubadours, the most famous among them those of the district of Goghten (the modern Julfa and Akulis, home of the Zog dialect). Like the Greek rhapsodists up to the fifth century, they went around reciting in songs the great deeds of their ancestors. "The Song of Vahagn" was among the most precious of them. The Cymbal, used by the singers, was a special Armenian instrument of music.


The art of singing attained considerable progress in the 5th century A.D., presenting the same characteristics of the religious chanting of other countries of the time: simplicity and homophonyº (single voice) and psalmody. In the same period was founded a rich heritage  p442 — poetic and musical, collected in the Sharakan,​1 the Armenian Hymn-Book by Boghos Taronetsi (Paul of Taron), in the 11th century.

The Sharakan is a thesaurus of sacred songs, partly original and partly translated from Greek liturgy. Some of the hymns, attributed to the Katholikos Sahak the Great, and to Mesrop Mashtots, do not seem to belong to the early Golden Era of the 5th century literature. Among the authentic authors of the Sharakan may be cited the following:

Katholikos Sahak II, 6th century; Katholikos Komitas I, 7th century; Katholikos Hovhannes Otznetsi V, 8th century; Stepan Sewnetsi, 8th century; Katholikos Petros I, 11th century; Katholikos Nerses Shnorhali (the "Graceful"), 12th century; Nerses Lambronatsi, 12th century; Khatchik Taronetsi, 12th century; and Hovhannes Blouz, 13th century. The subjects of these hymns are taken from the life and mysteries of Jesus Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of the Saints of the Church. Some of its contributors are also the composers of the music of their text. The Sharakan was particularly enriched by the poetry and melodic intonations of Nerses Shnorhali.​a

The Eight Modes​b

The eight church modes were adopted by the Armenians, following the Greeks, — some of them as far back as the 5th century, while othersº were introduced by Stepan of Sewniq, three centuries later. The eight modes are divided in two categories, one half "authentic" and the other half "plagal" (cadenza). These modes have been carefully studied, particularly by Spiridon Melikian, whose book was published in Tiflis, in 1944, but these researches have not yet brought definite results. It is by virtue of the attachment of the Armenians to their tradition that the spirit of the ancient religious chant can still be heard in the music of today.

The neumes,º the ancient musical figures (the Khaz), were introduced by the same Khatchatour Vardapet of Taron, who arranged the Sharakan in neumatic notation. The codices of the Sharakan show us neumes in various forms and combinations that are difficult to decipher.  p443 They have been studied by European and Armenian experts, the celebrated Komitas among them, but a sure clue has not yet been found. Nevertheless, it was deemed possible, in the 18th century, with the help of antique songs transmitted to us through the human voice, to make an approximate transcription of the liturgical songs in a new notation much like the modern European. The work was accomplished mainly by Papa Hampartzoum Limonjian of Constantinople (1768‑1839). His pupils and other artists completed the work. In the imposing volume of the "Adyani Sharakan" (the Altar Song-Book), printed in 1874, are collected the church hymns, with the new notation. Many others followed the above. Despite its advantages for the teaching of the chants, it would seem doubtful whether the Armenian notation can be diffused. The intervals of the Armenian music, unknown in Europe and America (minors of the half-tone), would require a different notation.

[image ALT: An engraving of some elaborate lettering in Armenian script with a capital letter on the left and a cross on the right. It is an example of Parakir lettering from a 10th‑century Armenian manuscript of the Gospels.]
From a Gospel of Tenth Century in "Parakir" letters, Ornamental

Musical Practice

Lazarus of Pharbi (Parbetsi), reports that Katholikos Sahak was "learned in musical signs." The art of singing was intensely cultivated  p444 later. The Metropolitan Stepan of Sewniq and his sister Sahakdukht, musician and composer in the 8th century (who taught the choir from behind a curtain), achieved special fame. The monastery of Tadev was also a center of music training in the 9th century. Samuel, the head of the school of Kamrtchatzor, 10th century, was a "master in Holy Scripture and in the art of singing," says the chronicler Stepanos Vardapet Assoghik.

The Arabic Influence

Armenian music was decisively marked by the Arabic influence, prevalent in the Near East during the 8th and 9th centuries. Ashough is a term under which are known the troubadour, the singer, the story-teller, the versifier and the player on instruments.

From the 10th to the 20th centuries, a space of one thousand years, there have been perhaps a thousand Armenian ashoughs, several among them being women and clergymen. The ashoughs dealt in various subjects — the romantic, heroic, religious, moral, descriptive, historic, patriotic, didactic, etc.

The role of the ashough has been of much importance, as indicated by Frédéric Macler. The ashough became a pastor and interpreter, a sort of divine oracle, inspiring good ideas and manners, and higher ambitions.

The Neume (or Sequence)

After the introduction of the neume, the system rapidly spread throughout the Armenian nation, specially in Cilicia, the Monastery of Arkagaghin being a main center. At that time, a number of hymns were composed, full of flourishing notes and rich in sentiment, to which the musicians gave the name of "Manrousmounk" (Little Studies). These hymns are in neumatic notation, of which the codices give seventy different variations, all with different names.

The 13th century produced a number of notable poets and composers, one of them "Badveli (the Reverend) Nerses," the son of King Leon II of Cilician Armenia (1280‑1300). Among the principal centers of sacred music in modern times which remained faithful to the ancient tradition, were the monasteries of Etchmiadzin, Jerusalem, Armash, and St. Lazarus in Venice. The Abbot Mekhitar, the founder of the Mekhitarist Congregation, was deeply versed in the singing of the Sharakan, and taught his pupils the traditional tunes of the national hymn-book. Among musical celebrities who  p445 resided in European countries were: Father Minas Bzhishkian of Trebizond, who introduced the organ in the Armenian churches of Poland; Archbishop Edward Hurmuz, Father Augustin Kouyoumjian and Abbot Ignatius Kuréghian. The vocal polyphony (plurality of sounds) was introduced into the Armenian community when it was possible to organize professional singers and choruses. Among the masters of such movements are: Tigran Tchukhajian of Constantinople (1836‑1898), author of Léblébiji Horhor, Zémiré, Olympia, etc.; Christopher Gara-Murza (1854‑1902) of Crimea; Marcar Ekmalian (1854‑1902) who wrote the chorals of the Holy Mass, and had an active part in the compilation of the music of the Sharakan of Etchmiadzin, in the modern Armenian notation; Komitas, born in Turkey (1869‑1939), who made extensive researches in documents concerning the original Armenian singing. Komitas traveled all over Armenia, exploring even the most obscure corners of the country. He was thereby able to collect a great number of songs of every variety, many of which he published, after harmonizing them. He also organized concerts of choruses for the execution of sacred and popular songs. To his credit may be cited, furthermore, the elimination, to a great extent, of the nasal and monotonous plaintiveness of the church music. Unfortunately, he was compelled to cease his labors, on account of a nervous breakdown, contracted during the horrors of the Armenian Deportations in 1915 and 1916. For almost ten years confined to a hospital, he died in Paris (1935).

Parts of the Armenian Holy Mass chants were published in European notes, by B. Bianchi in Vienna, in 1877. The melodies in three or four voices, by Ekmalian, were also published in Vienna, in 1896.

The Armenian Breviary (Zhamagirq), and the Liturgy were partly or wholly translated into English and published in London and in the U. S. A. The one published by the late Rev. Thoros Thorosian of Fresno deserves special note.

Music in Soviet Armenia

In 1355, even before the invention of the printing press, Grigor Soukiasian of Sourkhat, Crimea, wrote a treatise on Armenian music. It was almost five centuries later that the same subject was, with some hesitation, taken into consideration by Armenian publishers. In the middle of the 19th century, Nigoghos Tigranian developed instrumental music in Tiflis,º and his example was followed in Constantinople. However, attempts at using organs or harmoniums in  p446 churches raised protests, and the general progress was slow and largely dependent on the preferences or caprices of certain patrons, financing musical publications.

The efficacious and scientific way towards the advancement of Armenian music began with the Soviet régime in the Armenian republic. The progress in that respect within the short space of 25 years, is amazing, indeed. There are now printed hundreds of songs on every phase of life, the major proportion being devoted to labor — in the field and factory, at home and on the hillside. They include such items as plowing, sowing, irrigating, threshing, corn-cracking, wheat-grinding, churning, flock-gathering, dancing, weddings, lullabies, wrestling, and many others, besides the popular festival songs, — those of Vardavar (Transfiguration), of Hambartzoum (Ascension), etc. In short, music now plays an important part in the life of the people in the homeland. The Opera House of Erevan is regarded as one of the most beauti­ful of its kind in theº U. S. S. R. The Conservatory has produced many great musicians. The Philharmonic Orchestra of Erevan gives regular concerts. The Komitas Quartet won the first prize in moscow, in the competition of the year 1939. A. Spentiarian and Aram Khatchatourian have won world-wide reputation as composers.

In the repertoire of national operas, the following are the best known: "Almast," by Spentiarian; "Anoush," by A. Tigranian; "Loussabats," by Haro Stepanian; "Seda," by A. Ghevondian; "Sappho," by A. Mayilian; "Aregnazan," by Grigor Sewny. The last named artist is well known among Armenians in the United States, where he died.

Nor did Soviet Armenia lack in the production ofºmartial music. More than 100 war songs were registered to its credit during the great patriotic conflict of the Soviet Nation against Germany.

The Author's Notes:

1 The word Sharakan is interpreted in various ways. It may mean a series or string of gems, agn in Armenian being a precious stone. According to Adjarian and Abeghian Sharakan is a compound word, Shar (= row) and the particle akan, meaning pertaining or relating to the row (of hymns), referring to the eight church modes in use in the Armenian Church.

Thayer's Notes:

a For a sampling of St. Nerses' hymns, attractively translated, see W. H. Kent: St. Nerses the Armenian and Our Lady (in the Catholic weekly The Ave Maria).

b Kurkjian wrote "(ecclesiastic) forms" thruout; I've substituted the standard term "(church) modes". Similarly, he wrote "codes" to mean "codices", and the plurals "plagali" and "neumi", all of this apparently under the influence of an Italian text. I've restored the standard English forms plagal and neumes.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 6 May 09