Music & Dance
By Robert Atayan
music plays an important part in Armenia's rich artistic heritage. It is
eminently traditional and has a resonance characterized by a delicate structure.
Naturally, even today it has an important place in the life of the people.
Armenian music is ancient in origin and continuous in development as seen
from pre-Christian mural paintings, archaeological finds, the earliest
historical chronicles, mediaeval miniatures, and the songs themselves,
some of which have transmitted elements from pagan civilization. From the
fifth to the third millennia B.C., for example, in the higher regions of
Armenia there are rock paintings of scenes of country dancing. These dances
were probably accompanied by certain kinds of songs or musical instruments.
Archaeological excavations have uncovered in various parts of Armenia bronze
sleigh bells and small hand bells from the second millennium B.C. These
instruments were used for the musical accompaniment of ceremonial rituals.
In the Lake Sevan region a cornet and drum skins have been discovered dating
from the first millennium. At Karmir Blur, near Erevan, bronze cymbals
have also been found. At Garni and Dvin double-flutes, probably used by
shepherds, made of stork's claw bones have been uncovered.
levels of the population loved and practiced music: Tigran II and his son
Artavazd II had royal musicians in their court. In the fifth century Moses
of Khoren (Movsés Khorenats'i) himself had heard of how "the old
descendants of Aram (that is Armenians) make mention of these things (epic
tales) in the ballads for the lyre and their songs and dances." The Epic
Histories attributed to P'awstos Buzand, describe a royal feast of the
fourth century, during which an orchestra of drums, flutes, trumpets and
lyre players performed their polyphonic music for King Pap.
Contemporary musicology confirms
the thesis that the main characteristics of Armenian national music are
distinguished by a monotone, single voice structure and a special tonal
system. Melodic and rhythmic inventions were created parallel to the formation
and evolution of the spoken language (ashkharapar).
Over time, the treasure of popular
melodies was constantly enriched with fervor. The ballad "Mokats' Mirza,"
the vast national epic David of Sasun, a colorful narrative about the period
of Arab occupation of Armenia, and other songs dating back to the Urartian
period (ninth to sixth centuries B.C.) are musical documents that represent
the ancient branch of the epic-minstrel style of Armenian folk music. The
two periods that extend from the fifth to the seventh and from the tenth
to the thirteenth centuries mark decisive stages in the evolution of this
At both times, numerous masterpieces
were created in every domain: pastoral songs, urban music, ancient troubadour
style, verse songs for male voice, religion. Music was adapted to a wide
range of uses: work, lyricism, epic-historic-heroic, morality and character,
etc. The hymns dedicated to work and the pastoral life that have been preserved
are of high quality, including improvised horovels, songs dedicated to
nature, hayerens and antunis, mediaeval compositions sung by the troubadours.
Profane songs in verse also date from these periods.
In the late Middle Ages, when Armenia
lost its sovereignty and was divided between the Ottoman Empire and Persia,
the sentiment of the people assimilated and inspired songs of nostalgia
and sorrow. From this period come works dedicated to migration and homelessness:
Krunk, Kanch' Krunk, Antuni, etc. In the seventeenth century the Armenian
branch of the oriental style of minstrel music developed thanks to the
troubadours Sayat Nova and Jivan.
instruments held a very special place in the customs of the Armenian nation
during the Middle Ages, as the historians and poets of this period relate
in their numerous reports. For example, Nersés Shnorhali when speaking
of the city of Ani, says, "There was always singing and lyre playing."
In mediaeval miniatures representations of all musical instruments -- string,
wind, and percussion -- are depicted. These instruments, which in a general
way are common to all people of the Near East, always maintained regional
particularities faithful to the musical characteristics of each nation
and true to its particular conceptions and aesthetic tastes.
In the fourth century Armenia adopted
Christianity as its state religion, but it was especially in the fifth
century, after the creation of the Armenian alphabet, that there was a
notable development in sacred music used in churches to replace the earlier
pagan variety. Yet, Christian hymns still used or were inspired by important
elements from the pagan tradition and even adopted some of its ancient
melodies. In the fifth century schools of higher education (Vardapetanots')
to train doctors of theology were created beside Armenian monasteries;
music was among the subjects taught in them. Thanks to the efforts of the
discovers of the new alphabet, Mesrop Mashtots' and Sahak Partev, the foundations
of artistic musical composition were born. Musical and aesthetic theories
were greatly developed, giving birth to the creation of special musical
signs. The composition of these characters (to indicate ancient Armenian
pronunciation and explicit signs for reading the music) together with the
musical notes themselves, led to the birth of the khazes. Fragments of
ninth century manuscripts already using these khazes have been discovered.
Later, between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries this system of musical
annotation was to be developed.
When comparing surviving documents
of religious music such as hymns called sharakans in Armenian with non-canonical
songs, one notes that a different system of musical signs or khazes is
used for the latter. This khazographic system was developed over time and
perfected to enable the exact registering of songs with every element needed
to form a particular category. These notations found in numerous
ancient Armenian musical manuscripts kept at the Matenadaran in Erevan
and in similar libraries throughout the world have still not been satisfactorily
deciphered. From the fifteenth century on the khazes were understood less
and less and, therefore, rarely used. By the nineteenth century they disappeared
completely. The oral transmission of just how these melodies were to be
sung survived. These unwritten melodies were transcribed in a new musical
annotation system created by Hamparts'um Limonjian in 1813 in Constantinople.
This superior transcription system enabled the preservation of a rich treasure
of vocal and instrumental art. The prevailing styles of this newly transcribed
music are that of the sharakans (religious hymns), odes, and other religious
works. These works were gathered and studied at the turn of the twentieth
century by the eminent Armenian musicologist and compose Gomidas Vartabed.
One of the important particularities
of Armenian religious music is that it is very similar to genuine folk
songs and their style. In spite of the painful vicissitudes that have almost
permanently been imposed on the Armenians, they have preserved their music
and transmitted a vast repertory of both melancholic and joyous melodies.
Folk music, popular professional music, minstrel songs and Armenian medieval
monody, taken as a whole, cannot be classified either as Oriental or Occidental.
It has a musical character of its own with very rich means of expression.
Valery Brussov, the well-known translator of Armenian poetry, once said
that this music reflects "pain without falling into despair, passion without
grief, and admiration without indulgence."
This complex and ancient heritage
has played a decisive role, in every respect, in the process of creating
a distinctively national Armenian music in the modern period. Armenian
classical music still turns to national elements for its compositions.
Such a tradition reinforces the artistic aspirations and creative imagination
of composers, artists, and the public alike in all domains of musical life.
Folk music is still very much alive in Armenia and in the diaspora. Such
traditional instruments as the saz, kaman, kamanch'a, t'ar, sant'ur or
canon, and percussions still form an integral part of folk ensembles.