Armenian musical notations and instruments

Percussion Instruments. Photo: Gulbenkian Foundation Archive

By Robert Atayan

Folk 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 Yerevan, bronze cymbals have also been found. Garni and Dvin double-flutes, probably used by shepherds, made of stork's claw bones have been uncovered.

All 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 (Movses Khorenatsi) 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 Pawstos 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 music.

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.

Musical 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, Nerses 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 Komitas Vardapet.

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, kamancha, tar, santur or canon, and percussions still form an integral part of folk ensembles.

Source: Armenian Studies Program at CSUF