The sharagan

The sharagan songs constitute the substance of the musical system of Armenian liturgical chant. The Sharagan book, or with its contemporary name Sharagnots (which contains the sharagan), is organized as a cyclical repertoire which begins with the birth (to the world and suffering) of Theotokos and ends with her Assumption (birth to heaven and glory). It contains specific chants grouped in canons for almost every feast or commemoration day of the liturgical calendar. The tempo of a sharagan may vary according to its function, and this may cause a modification of the melody by extension or contraction. More than 1,300 songs of diverse length are gathered in the present book of Sharagan. Each is attributed to a precise canon, but a certain number of songs can also be sung in other canons or during rituals other than the offices.
The genesis of the sharagan was and remains the most controversial subject in Armenian liturgical chant. Armenian historiographers wrote nothing about sharagan authors until the 12th c. Author lists were established from the 13th c. on and they obviously show a process of giving a written foundation to the sharakan tradition. According to the tradition, Saint Mesrob, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet (5th c.), and Saint Sahag, the Catholicos of that time are the first sharagan composers.
The great majority of sharagan songs are in prose, and are always in classical Armenian using a codified language. This makes it considerably more difficult to determine the date each song was created. The main exception to this are the songs of Saint Nerses the Gracious which can be recognized by their specific style and language. Each sharagan verse is composed of a single sentence. Sharagan songs usually have three verses, but they may also have four, five or more. A few sharagan have thirty-six verses, each beginning with an Armenian letter in alphabetical order. Some sharagan are acrostics and probably reveal the name of the author.
The sharagan songs have three characteristics which determine their usage and help to identify them:

  • The literary theme
    Resurrection, Penitence, Pentecost, the Cross, Rest of the souls, Theotokos, and Martyrs are the principal themes of the sharagan. The literary theme of the sharakan sung at great feasts corresponds particularly to the themes of these days.
  • The canonical genre
    It is now generally admitted that sharagan songs were first inserted into the offices by singing them alternately with the psalms and canticles, and then replacing them. The sharagan genres are determined by the names given to these psalms and canticles in the Psalter.
  • The mode
    The sharagan songs constitute the only repertoire of Armenian liturgical chant in which not only the system of the musical oktoechos, but also traditional melody-types and their variation system appear. Each sharagan belongs to a single mode and is sung only in that mode.

Aram Kerovpyan

Armenian Modal Chant