Immortal Voice of a People: Gomidas @ 150

In the Armenian musical heritage, one voice rings out above all others: the immortal voice of Gomidas Vartabed. This week marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.

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Music is an essential element in the life of the Armenian people: an inspirational force that binds us together. Our hymns to the glory of God, our tender folksongs that exalt human life, are a vital thread weaving Armenians together across generations and geography.

In a musical heritage that traces back to antiquity, one voice rings out above all others: the immortal voice of the “holy father” of Armenian music, Gomidas Vartabed.

His inspired genius stands at the apex of our musical heritage: the summation of all the Armenian music that had come before him, and the inspiration for all that would come after. This year marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.

That birth occurred in the humblest of settings. He was a veritable homeless boy, born Soghomon Soghomonian in Gudina (Kutahya) on October 8 (September 26, by the Old Calendar), 1869, and orphaned early on. A chance meeting with a clergyman brought him to the notice of Holy Etchmiadzin, where his beautiful singing voice (and his youthful unfamiliarity with the Armenian tongue) brought Catholicos Kevork to tears. He was enrolled as a seminarian, and later sent to study at Germany’s Berlin Conservatory.

Ordained as a vartabed, Fr. Gomidas would spend his productive life traveling from one Armenian village to another, notating the songs chanted by Armenian peasants. He classified some 2,000 sacred and folk melodies, often arranging them for concerts.

Ironically, the world he so lovingly preserved was destroyed in his own lifetime, never to be restored. Indeed, had Gomidas never traveled the Anatolian heartland recording the age-old music of Armenian country folk, these treasures would be lost beyond recovery today.

Heartbeat of His People

Gomidas was himself a personal victim of the calamity that struck the Armenians of Ottoman Turkey. As the greatest Armenian cultural figure of his age, he was among the intellectuals rounded up for exile and execution on April 24, 1915. Through the intercession of sympathetic, influential figures, Gomidas survived the Genocide. But his mind and spirit would never be the same. He was eventually institutionalized in Paris, where he spent his remaining years until his death in 1935.

His mortal remains were interred in our homeland, in the Armenian Pantheon. His spirit would live on to spark the musical genius of Khachaturian, Hovhannes, and countless others down to our present day—and surely far into the future.

The 150th anniversary of his birth is being marked throughout the Armenian world as a celebration of Gomidas’ life and work—and rightfully so. But it is also a reminder of the precious burden Armenians must uphold, to remember, preserve, and celebrate the creative achievements of our people with intense conviction and ardor.

Keep that in mind on Tuesday, October 8: Gomidas Vartabed’s 150th birthday.

Gomidas rendered an incalculable service to his people—and to the world—by bringing our beautiful heritage into the light of day before twilight fell. He is undoubtedly the most significant Armenian musician of the modern era. And in his role as the bridge between the medieval and the modern, the provincial and the metropolitan, the remote villages of the Armenian heartland and the far-flung settlements of the Armenian diaspora, he has a claim to being one of the most influential Armenian figures of all time. In the words of one of his most ardent disciples:

“The voice of Gomidas is the undisguised heartbeat of the Armenian people.”

By Christopher H. Zakian, with respect and gratitude to Maestro Şahan Arzruni.

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