Prayer in song. A brief history of Armenian liturgical chant.

Less than a century ago, music had a different significance for Armenians. For most Armenian people, music was not a subject of intellectual conversation; it was part of their nature. Even city dwellers, with their customs, as well as learned people like the clergy preserved a good part of this nature which was expressed through liturgical chant. Being nothing more than a prayer in song, liturgical chant remained, despite its doctrine, its musical theory, or other rules which it necessarily contained, a natural expression of these people who, after all, belonged to a nation who did not hesitate to sing at any opportunity.
While the singer of the Koghthen province solemnly proclaimed “the skies were in travail…”, According to the tradition, the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew sojourned in this land where they sowed the good seed. Until the adoption of Christianity as the State religion at the beginning of the 4th c., this people who liked to sing so much, had adapted part of their melodic patrimony to the psalms that they were propagating orally. The real beginning of a specific liturgical chant tradition was to occur with the invention of the alphabet at the beginning of the 5th c. The first songs, which instead of reproducing the Gospels, expressed the emotions they aroused, are traditionally attributed to Saint Mesrob Mashdots, who had laboured diligently to invent the Armenian letters, and to Saint Sahag Barthev who was the Catholicos at that time. The fact that the origin of these songs is attributed to these figures is significant: the prayer in song would trace its path between emotion and dogma, remaining dependent on the melodies of oral tradition, and at the same time establishing, through scholars, a close relationship with the written tradition.
The next centuries were marked by an increase in feasts, the regulation of the rites and, consequently, the propagation of songs. Armenians did not yet intend to use parchment for music, but one day, in the 7th c., it became evident that the richness of the repertoire could cause a disaster. It was the Feast of Transfiguration. A crowd of clergymen who had come from different regions was gathered on this occasion and the Catholicos himself was present. Everything was normal until one of the choirs started singing the Patrum which belongs to a song series inspired by the prophet Azaria’s canticle. The other choir replied, with the same melody-type, but with a verse that belonged to another song, because the choristers didn’t know the first one. The two choirs exchanged eight verses, each belonging to a different song, composed in a different region. As a result, the Catholicos ordered that a selection of songs be made to be sung during offices and that every diocese in Armenia must use this selection.
This first collection was also the first step in organizing the musical element of the rites, for without an established order and length, the repertoire was continuing to grow. Feast day canons were gradually being fixed and completed with new songs. Thus, a relationship between the religious chant and the manuscript tradition was established. Moreover, the scholar clergymen started writing in their commentaries and other texts about the nature and the manner of singing. They were sometimes obliged to state that these songs were nothing but prayers in song. These scholar clergymen were themselves musicians; they were called philosophers. For Armenians, no one could be called a philosopher if he weren’t versed in this art they cherished so much. Chroniclers would later write that the classification of melody-types in eight modes (oktoechos) was made in the 8th c.; but the authors of that period didn’t feel the need to mention it! After all, no philosopher would want to limit his creativity within eight established modes. It remains so today. We now find about twenty modes carefully classified into the eight canonical modes: an example of a combination of dogma and emotion. Two women left their mark on the prayer in song of the 8th c.: Sahagatookhd and Khosrovitookhd (tookhd meaning simply “daughter of”). The former taught music behind a curtain in her retreat in a cave. One of her songs, dedicated to the Virgin has come down to us. The latter, a princess from the famous region of Koghthen, had a brother who was captured and taken to Damascus when he was four years old. The prince returned to his country as a young man and embraced the religion of his fellows. He was executed, and Khosrovitookhd composed an ode which is still sung today. As for the role of the manuscript, it could not be limited to commentaries and classifications. During the 9th c. the beginnings of a neumatic notation would appear. Today, thanks to manuscript fragments found inside bindings, we know that Armenians began to use punctuation, intonation or other symbols as musical signs at the same time as the Byzantines and Latins.
This evolution took place during a prosperous period when Armenia had recovered her Kingdom four centuries after having lost it. During the 9th and 10th centuries, at the beginning of the Armenian renaissance, new liturgical chant forms appeared. Although the great majority of prayers in song were based on traditional melody-types, these new forms used original melodies which were more melismatic, more extended and with more ornamentation. These elaborate forms developed in parallel with the mysticism of that part of the world. Krikor of Nareg also contributed to the musical refinement of the period, with visionary prayers in song. In the 11th c., the famous city of “one thousand and one churches”, Ani, was a source of inspiration for many musician-philosophers. Numerous chants using the melody-types were added to the canons, and churches vibrated to the newly composed melismatic chants. One of the pieces that has reached us from that period is an anonymously composed Stabat Mater. During that century, neumatic notation continued to develop, although it remained secondary to the oral tradition. Furthermore, it was during this century that the priest, Boghos of Daron, wrote that the chants based on the melody-types and through which clerics and other scholars expressed their emotion and beliefs were called the sharagan. Scribes wrote that this word meant shar-agan, “row of jewels”. Later linguists rejected this definition, but too late; it had become accepted jargon. The name of these chants remained sharagan, and Armenians no longer dispute the origin of the word.
The period of the Cilician Kingdom (1187-1375) and the one immediately preceding it, were rich not only in new chants but also in manuscripts about music. The prayer in song captivated the souls of the learned, and not only those of the religious orders. However, the clergy found that this enthusiasm for chant was too agitated, and brought disorder to the prayer in song. Furthermore, these times of prosperity promoted an evolution in musical creativity which could dissociate music from its function.
The Catholicos, Saint Nerses the Gracious (1101-1173) found it necessary to write the following in an encyclical: “Do not let sacred words pass through prayers as water passes through a pipe, whether it be psalmody, the reading of the Scriptures, prayers of the offices or the Divine Liturgy… but let them flow from your spirit and your heart at that very moment”. Saint Nerses the Gracious composed numerous songs in prayer. Inspired by the psalms, he composed one for fortress guards, in order to bring their rowdiness under control, as one chronicler wrote.
During the Cilician period, neumatic notation flourished. For part of the repertoire, this system consisted of brief musical indications for the singers who were already well versed in the melody-types that were used in simple chants. These new melismatic chants required an adequate notation system since they were being transcribed. Many neumes could be grouped together for a single syllable and the knowledge of the melody-type alone was no longer enough. Specialized instruction in neumatic notation became necessary for anyone wishing to chant the prayers, since it had become a complicated procedure.
During the reign of Levon II (1187-1219), a certain Krikor, called the Deaf, undertook the editing of the Sharagan. He was so named because it was said that he put wax in his ears to protect himself from coarse and vulgar melodies. Nonetheless, he accomplished his task so well that his version was copied for several centuries throughout all the regions of Armenia. Krikor moulded the neumatic notation, which had become a field of great erudition, to the melodies that were springing up.
It was during the following century that the first lists of sharagan author-composers appeared. These lists of famous names which are highly symbolic, have inspired much writing in recent times when there has been less singing and more commentaries.
At that time, various regions of Armenia developed their own musical traditions but they were all, to a certain degree, influenced by the evolution of the prayer in song of Cilicia. In the 14th c., neumatic notation reached its most elaborate and complex level. It was not an exclusive form of expression but a specific one, developed for the needs of a specific kind of music, of a family of definite melody-types. Consequently, it was only accessible to those who were immersed in this music through the oral tradition. A salutary balance was established between the oral tradition and the neumatic notation. Although wars never ceased for long periods on Armenian soil, the prayer in song was able to continue uninterrupted as it was taught in monasteries. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, however, scribes often made notes in the colophones that their tasks had been completed “in these bitter and vile times”. At the same time, the prayer in song of the Armenians was undergoing a new phase, characterized by a decline in the teaching of the neumatic notation. As a result, an increasing number of melismatic chants had to be memorized — quite a challenge for this people who loved to sing so much.
In the 16th c., a well known philosopher-clergyman, Ghoogas of Keghi wanted to reform the practice of liturgical chant. He thought that the rites and chants were too long (he was a forerunner of contemporary man!), and the young people were not as they used to be. He undertook a new edition of the sharagan preparing shortened versions and composing appropriate melodies. He believed that with such a reform, the song in prayer would more easily traverse the ravages of a country in turmoil. The reform was rejected and the new version so effectively banished that there is no remaining trace except for the description of a chronicler. The 17th c. is marked by increased activity in the monasteries, but as far as liturgical music is concerned, clerics and cantors returned to earlier customs of writing little while continuing to sing as usual. A Book of the sharagan, complete with songs in neumatic notation, was first printed in 1665 in Amsterdam. Other editions of the Book of the sharagan were published over the next two centuries. The 18th c. was a turning point for the prayer in song, for it was during this period that the famous “foreign influences” evoked often by Armenians, became stronger. A veritable community had been built up in Constantinople, where the prayer in song resounded continuously. At this same time, Ottoman music was reaching the height of its development and was starting to spread. Thus, circumstances were favorable to the introduction of new melodies to the prayer in song, upsetting the natural gradual process of assimilation of influences. The determining role attributed to 18th and 19th centuries is closely linked to the dearth of information about the musical traditions of Armenian monasteries and also to the lack of interest manifested by the intellectuals of those times.
Throughout the history of Armenian liturgical chant, there have been several musical centers with their own original traditions outside of the homeland. In Jerusalem, for example, Armenians have had a church community where their songs have been sung over the centuries. In Caffa, in the Crimea (today, Theodosia), musical manuscripts were copied since the 15th century. In the 18th c., other important centers developed: New Julfa in Iran, the Mekhitarist monastery in Venice, Italy, and the inevitable Constantinople which would be the source of both the misfortune and the deliverance of Armenian church music.
Over the course of the same century, some of the melismatic chants would disappear for the simple reason that the neumatic notation had become incomprehensible. Certain well-known choristers transformed some of these chants using melodies in vogue at that time, today known as the ottoman style. At the beginning of the 19th c., the future of Armenian liturgical chant became linked to Constantinople, for a major event would take place in 1812: the creation of a new musical notation system. It was created by four Armenian musicians of the Roman Catholic faith, each of whom was specialist in a different musical branch. Their concern about the changes evolving in Armenian liturgical chant united them in their task. This radical solution, already late, found strong opposition amongst the ordained choristers. They instinctively defended their tradition against the rigidity of a modern notation system and the restrictions it would cause; only later would they discover how much their musical milieu had diverged from the inherent rules of the prayer in song. Thus the new musical notation remained separate from musical life for nearly 30 years. During that time, the choristers developed their improvisational virtuosity and the very original melodies coming from Armenian monasteries were becoming more and more vulnerable. One of the creators of the Modern Armenian Musical Notation, Hampartzoom Limonjian, thanks to his nomination as music teacher at the church of the Patriarchate, was able to introduce the system. From the second half of the century, some of his students became the founders of the renewal movement of Armenian liturgical chant. It was the beginning of an era of musical transcriptions and of ardent discussions about the state of liturgical chant and the originality of the melodies themselves. The transcriptions were taken from the singing of renowned master-singers, in order to establish one definitive version, especially for the sharagan which, because of their age and their importance in the rituals, were at the heart of the debate. The musical milieu of the Constantinople Armenians at this time was so concerned with the state of its own musical traditions, that it neglected the surviving musical traditions in far away Armenian monasteries. Almost all of these monasteries would be destroyed and would disappear from the surface of the earth in the first decades of the 20th century. A large number of transcriptions of liturgical chants, and original ones at that, were published in Vagharshabad (a former name of Etchmiadzine, Holy See of the Armenians) between 1874 and 1880, thank to the perseverence of the Catholicos Kevork IV, who received his musical education at the church of the Patriarchate in Constantinople. Other transcriptions, all in the new notation, were published over the next fifty years as ordained choristers became accustomed to the idea of having song transcriptions. Nonetheless, the oral tradition remained important and choristers used the notation only for melismatic chants. Over the last two decades of the 19th c., the Armenian press printed numerous debates about the state of liturgical chant and the originality of its melodies. Many personalities wrote about these subjects, but not all were singers, for even at that time Western classical music was very à la mode amongst the Armenian intelligentsia. On the other hand, the philosophers who had once been able to both sing in prayer and express their ideas about them had become rare. Fortunately, they were enthusiastic enough to have animated debates and thus transmitted precious information through the press.
The last years of the century were even more agitated, as polyphony and the harmonium made their entry into the Church of Armenia, where they would remain for the Divine Liturgy, commonly sung in three or four part harmony. The debate in the press became more heated and some amusing anectodes about the first celebrations of the Divine Liturgy with polyphonic arrangements were described. After these years of confusion, the westernizing process had left its impression on traditional choristers and everyone had become accustomed to hear polyphonic choirs. However, debates continued to fill press columns. In 1910, Father Gomidas came to Constantinople. There, he assembled a chorale of 300 young people to sing in concert. Part of the programme, consisting of liturgical chants, was censored by the Church and again, the Armenian press flared up. This would be the last episode of the great conflict between conservatives and progressives. A few years later, it would be 1915, the Genocide of the Armenian people. In the aftermath, Armenian liturgical chant would gradually have to retrace its age-old path which now included the polyphonic versions of the Divine Liturgy, commonly accepted in the new conditions of the Diaspora. Over the 20th c., master-singers from the principal traditions of the 19th c. transmitted their knowledge as well as possible. If their heritage, still learned today by groups of ordained choristers, contains some stylistic shortcomings, it is still charged with a sincere perception of ritualism capable of sustaining the Armenians’ devotion to the song in prayer in the future. Today, prayer is still sung in the traditional way in the Diaspora, particularly in the Near East, but little in Europe, and very seldom in the New World and in Armenia. This fact is little known by Armenians themselves. They have, since the days of yore, changed their singing schedules, while traditional liturgical chant has remained the “early riser”.

Armenian Liturgical Chant