Claude Debussy admired him. What Bartok had done for Hungary’s folk music, and Marius Barbeau for Quebec’s, Komitas did for Armenia’s.
His real name was Soghomon Soghomonian. An ordained priest, he collected and transcribed over 3,000 pieces, more than half of which were subsequently lost as a result of the genocide. Only around 1,200 survive. Some of them he found in villages on the slopes of Mount Arafat where Noah’s Ark had landed. He was also a prolific arranger of ancient liturgical music, composer of new liturgical music, of songs, dances for piano and at least one string quartet. His music is remarkably evocative and moving. Samples can be found on YouTube. Isabel Bayrakdarian has recorded some of his songs.
Komitas was also a poet. His verse has not yet been translated into English.
Throughout its long history Armenia has been part of the Persian and Ottoman empires, and of the Soviet Union. It gained its independence in 1991. The country has a population of more than three million and its own language and alphabet.
In 1915, Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire, at war on the side of Germany. On April 24 the Armenian genocide began in full force. On that day Komitas was arrested. The next day he was put on a train together with 180 other Armenian notables and sent to the city of Çankırı in northern Central Anatolia, at a distance of some 300 miles. U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau intervened with the government and, by special orders from Talat Pasha, Komitas and some others were dispatched back to the capital. He suffered tremendously and never recovered.
Komitas lived for another twenty years in psychiatric institutions, in Paris and other places. Experts differ on the nature of his illness and on the cause of his death.
On July 6, 2008, on the occasion of Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebration, a bronze bust of Komitas was unveiled near the Quebec National Assembly.
Source: a conversation with Howard Aster, world traveller and publisher