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Armenian music & musicians

he Armenians have a wonderful melodic genius: the beauty of their tunes matches fully the best Gregorian and Synagogue examples, and excels the Byzantine chant." This is how Eric Werner, the American musicologist, assessed the significance of Armenian liturgical music in his book "The Sacred Bridge".

The beginnings of Armenian music are buried in antiquity. Nevertheless, we know that music accompanied other early forms of artistic expression, such as poetry, pagan rites, historic drama and pantomimes. Most Armenian music makers were career musicians, full-time professionals, who composed melodies and disseminated them among the people. The vipasan (rhapsodist) improvised music that was most primitive in character. Another type of career musician, the kousan (minstrel) appeared during the pre-literate era and initially entertained at royal banquets and other formal occasions. The most significant of the professional musicians was the ashough (troubadour); in addition to composing music and poetry, he sang and accompanied himself on a musical instrument, usually the kemantche - a bowed string instrument. The best-known Armenian troubadour was Sayat Nova (1717-1795), an extraordinary musician, as well as a humanist and patriot. His melodies are elaborate yet structurally lucid, highly original yet very singable, and rhythmically taut yet packed with expression.

The origin of Armenian church music may be traced back to the 5th century. Nurtured by the melodies of pre-Christian Armenia, and the secular songs of everyday life, it developed into a unique manifestation of the Armenian faith, mind and soul.

The earliest musical expression of worship was the chanting of psalms. Little more at first than slight intonation of the text, this chanting later developed into a form displaying a clear melodic line; typically it included a particularly expressive pattern of embellishment, or melisma, in which one syllable of a word would be sung to an extended melody.

In addition to the psalm, another type of liturgical chant, the sharakan, emerged. The sharakan is the most sublime and enduring evidence of Armenian hymnography. Stylistically there are two distinct styles of sharakan; the earlier one in which the text is sung with the same music for each successive stanza, and the later one whose text follows each specific verse. The number of sharakan in the Armenian liturgy was increased considerably by Nerses Shnorhali (the Gracious) (1102-1173), a notable musician and theoretician, as well as a humanitarian and a reformer.

KomidasStructurally the melodies of Armenian sacred music depend on a method of modal classification, which is a system of octoechoes. Each of the eight modes in the octoechoes provided a specific frame of reference with certain melodic designs, rhythmic patterns and ornamentation which the perform-musician used as a model for the creation of new melodies. The music was notated in ekphonetic signs, symbols indicating relative movement of pitch. They first appeared in Armenian manuscripts of the 8th century and developed during the 13th century into a highly complex system of symbols called manrusoum. However, as a result of deteriorating socio-political conditions in Armenia, this style of notation eventually fell into disuse and finally became unintelligible. Despite exhaustive research, the meaning of these signs remains essentially unclear.

Among more recent Armenian musicians, Komidas (1869-1935), a clergyman, stands alone. He collected nearly 3.000 folk songs, presented important papers and contributed articles of great ethnomusicological interest. He revived the national music, both sacred and secular, purified it from years of acculturation, and restored to it the dignity it deserves. Through his efforts, Armenians again took pride in their cultural heritage, salvaged their national legacy from total destruction, and regained their musical identity.

. Armenian music in its authentic, unadulterated form belongs to the Middle Eastern tradition. It is monophonic and , when appropriate, accompanied mainly by percussion instruments. Moreover, the concepts of rhythmic cycles as opposed to Western metric divisions and the use of melodic formations rather than European scales are so germane to the principals of Middle Eastern esthetics that it is rarely, if ever possible to fuse the Oriental and the Occidental arts into a cohesive, meaningful kind of expression. 

Courtesy of:
Armenian Youth Federation, Greece.
Web site: http://behemoth.compulink.gr/armen-yth/ 

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