on 28 July 2013
Armenian music is using three traditional instruments. The duduk and the zurna, two wind instruments of the vast family of the pipe, and the kamancha, a string instrument using a bow. These give Armenian music a very special sonority both extremely cosmic with the duduk, shrill with the zurna and bitter or sour with the kamancha. They add other instruments more in the European line, a violin of course, an organ, various violas da gamba and tambourines. As such many pieces, especially those using a duduk that can be amplified by the organ or other instruments, sound at times psychedelic, a music that can take you high into heaven and this remark brings the next point. But many of the sounds and compositions could be compared to the music produced in mountainous regions isolated in a way or another, like for example Corsica or Sardinia.
The music of Armenia is deeply articulated onto its national culture which is built on the language that has resisted more than twenty centuries thanks to an original alphabet invented in 405-406 by Mesrop Mashtots that devised 36 letters for his language. The first task was to translate the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, an objective which was quite common in those days. They did the same thing in Ireland or in England. But this language that was able to resist any attempt to destroy it found another inspiration: their religion. Armenia was the first state to convert to Christianity asq a state even before the Roman Empire and that story was long, and very conflict-loaded, especially with the surrounding countries who were all "pagan" at first, and then turned Muslim in a few centuries. During the crusade period they managed to be integrated in the Christian states in the Middle East, but that was only a short period of positive relations with the outside world and it explains their impact in medieval Europe especially with one Troubadour, Jaufré Rudel from Blaye, Aquitainia, France, who dedicated one of his eight surviving song to the story of a Queen of Armenia.
During May, when the days are long,
I admire the song of the birds from far away
and when I have gone away from there
I remember a love far away.
I go scowling, with my head down
so much that songs and hawthorn flowers
aren't better, to me, than the frozen Winter.
He is true who calls me grasping
and longing for a faraway love
since no other merriment pleases me as much
as enjoying a faraway love.
But that which I want is denied to me
since my godfather made it so
that I love and am not loved.
Then up to the Soviet Revolution, they were divided, integrated in various empires and negated in their independence and culture, both language and religion. The Soviet Revolution actually created an Armenian Republic within the USSR that could teach and use their language and enjoy some religious freedom. This period of slightly more than 70 years came after the tragic genocide performed by the Turks in 1915 when the whole world was fighting in France against the Germans. This genocide is still not solved in Turkey nor the world. Recognized by most it is far from being off the table and thus repaired and forgiven.
But after the fall of the USSR Armenia had to relearn its national fight especially against the surrounding Muslim countries and particularly Azerbaijan with the tragic fate of the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that is constantly under pressure from surrounding Azerbaijan. Armenia nowadays is still isolated though the international support it enjoys enables it to reconstruct itself and live in peace. Turkey is slowly evolving towards acknowledging their responsibility in the 1915 genocide and Azerbaijan, Syria and Iraq should evolved positively, especially the Kurds who are also speaking an Indo-European language, though they are Muslims but they also have a problem of national and cultural recognition and independence.
But the most important element is the fact that their cultural emergence was finally acknowledged in the world because of the great efforts of the French linguist Arthur Meillet who published his first grammar of the Armenian Language in 1903. This grammar remains a milestone on the road to the description and understanding of the language. It classified it in the Indo-European family and gave it the nobility it needed to find a new life. Armenian is very close to Greek and we can think the Greek migration to the Balkans, through Anatolia started there after the moving down west from the Iranian plateau and separation from the other branch of that family of languages, the Indo-Aryan subfamily that went down east.
It is in that region that the mystery of the Indo-European migrations to Europe can find its solution. Another migration probably based on a slightly differentiated group (the presence of the Kurdish linguistic area shows the Indo-Europeans were probably not unified in only one "dialect" and the second, or more, "dialect" moved across the Caucasus into the Russian plains and the n northern and western Europe. Armenia is thus central in the history of Europe, just as much as the Kurds and the Turks. The Kurds because they are our linguistic family moving down from the Iranian plateau, and the Turks because they are the modern descendants of the Turkic people who were the first Homo Sapiens in Europe under the appellation of Cro-Magnon and Gravettians.
The music itself is always sad, always mysterious, always feeling as if in danger, under some menace. And yet the mythology of Armenia is rich with dragons, a dragon killer, and that is so Indo-European since this dragon killer is a distant ancestor of Germanic Siegfried. But since Armenia was the first Christian State we may hope to get one day from some archaeological cache some old documents from the early Christians that could widen the Nag Hammadi library and the Dead Sea Scrolls, not to speak of the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and that could cast some light on how Christianity built its dogma in the third and fourth centuries. At least Armenia should be considered closely by Christian archaeologists.
But do not fall in any romanticism about the suffering of the Armenian people. History is cruel and there is no exception. But I regret that Armenian Christian music has not yet reached some essential sacred music festivals in France, for example La Chaise-Dieu that seems be very reluctant at integrating other Christian approaches that are not Catholic or Protestant, with a recent evolution towards Russian Orthodox music, but African, Latin American, Armenian, Asian Christian approaches are not at all considered, be they Catholic, Protestant, Anglican or whatever.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU