Every Armenian is familiar with ԿոմիտասՎարդապետ, Komitas/Gomidas Vartabed, revered musicologist and priest of the Armenian Church, whose 150th anniversary of birth we celebrate this year. While his collection and transcription of folk songs are perhaps his most important legacy, he is also renowned for his original compositions and for his gorgeous harmonization of the Armenian Badarak, the Divine Liturgy. Though the polyphonic (music for simultaneous multiple voices with different melodies, often explicitly with harmony) setting of the Badarak by his teacher Մակար Եկմալյան/Makar Ekmalian is most commonly sung in Armenian churches in the United States, many consider Komitas’ setting the most beautiful. Both Ekmalian and Komitas were innovators of Armenian liturgical music. Prior to the nineteenth century, the Armenian Badarak and other daily services were sung strictly in monophony, a single voice (not necessarily a single person) with a single melody. The introduction of polyphony and harmony in Armenian Church singing was one of the major innovations of the last two hundred years—and it didn’t go unchallenged.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Armenians often went to study in Europe or Russia, and students of music were no exception. There, these young Armenians learned European musical theory and Western notation. Earlier in the nineteenth century, Hampartsum Limondjian, to replace the neumatic system of the khaz, whose meaning had been lost, had developed a new Armenian notation. Using the Hampartsum notation, the melodies of the Armenian Badarak, as well as the sharagans, the hymns of the Armenian Church, were notated. In fact, a young Makar Ekmalian worked with Tashjian on the notation of his Hymnal in Etchmiadzin. Later in the nineteenth century, the combination of the availability of notated melodies in the Hampartsum notation and students who had studied Western musical theory and notation in Europe and Russia led to the transcription of Armenian music in Western notation. It also led to experiments in harmonizing and adding polyphony to the monophonic melodies transcribed earlier in the century.
Perhaps the first person to introduce polyphony and harmony into Armenian Church music was Krisdapor (Christopher) Kara-Murza (1853-1902). He studied music in Italy, and then returned to Tbilisi (Tiflis). In Baku in 1886, he presented his version of the Badarak (cf. Poghosyan-Zeltsburg). Kara-Murza also spent at least a year in Etchmiadzin, where he was another instructor of young Komitas. Ethnomusicologist Jonathan McCollum relates an anecdote that exemplifies the opposition to the introduction of polyphony to Armenian liturgical music: Catholicos Makar I, who became Catholicos in 1885 confronted Kara-Murza, saying, “God is one, therefore the singing of sharagan should be in one voice.” Kara-Murza supposedly replied, “Why do you forget God is a trinity, namely the union of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” (Couymoujian 1943, quoted in McCollum 2014:219). Similar debates surrounding the introduction of harmony and polyphony raged in the Constantinople Armenian press at the time.
Nonetheless, in addition to Kara-Murza, several people began to harmonize the Armenian Divine Liturgy and to compose polyphonic music. As early as 1873 a Ukrainian in the Crimea, M.L. Kropivnitsky premiered a three-part arrangement of Armenian liturgical music (cf. Poghosyan-Zeltsburg). In 1877, commissioned by the Mkhitarist monks of Venice, an Italian Pietro Bianchini published a Western notation of the Divine Liturgy. In 1896, Ekmalian published his harmonized version of the Divine Liturgy. Komitas Vartabed was critical of both of these publications, and worked on a polyphonic setting of his own. Though it was not published during his lifetime, his version of the Divine Liturgy remains one of the two most frequently sung multi-vocal arrangements of the Badarak. The other, even more common in the United States, is Ekmalian’s. In addition to these two well-known ones, the setting of Bianchini and Kropivnitsky, and the work of Kara-Murza, there are several other polyphonic arrangements of the Armenian Divine Liturgy. Levon Chilingarian, whose version of “Amen, yev unt hokvooyt koom” is often sung during Badarak, and who was a choirmaster in Istanbul and Jerusalem at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, has a version of the Badarak. Closer to home, the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral of the Eastern Diocese of New York’s own Khoren Mekhanajian has composed a polyphonic setting for the Divine Liturgy.
|Melodies of the Liturgy of the Holy Apostolic Church of Armenia||Amy Apcar’s setting of the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, first published in Calcutta in 1896 and reprinted in 1920. One of the earliest printings of the Divine Liturgy in Western notation and polyphony, it preserves some of the distinctive melodies of the Julfa Armenians.|
|Armenians in India, from the earliest times to the present day : a work of original research||By Mesrovb Jacob Seth, himself a member of the Armenian community of India. An early and comprehensive history of the Armenians in India.|
|From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean : the global trade networks of Armenian merchants from New Julfa||Sebouh Aslanian’s recent masterpiece of early modern world history tells the story of the New Julfa Armenians in their interconnected merchant networks that spanned the globe. Many of these merchants were based in India.|
Today, however, we focus on one of the least-known and most remarkable people to publish a polyphonic version of the Armenian Badarak, Amy Apcar. Amy Apcar, a scion of one of the most influential Armenian merchant families of Calcutta, India, was born in 1863. In 1896, the same year as Ekmalian, she first published her Melodies of the Liturgy of the Holy Apostolic Church of Armenia. In 1920, she published an enlarged and revised edition, complete with a gontag, an encyclical, from Catholicos Kevork V, who called her “the most noble and pious damsel, Amy Aratoon Apcar, Our spiritual daughter and true child of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.” In Apcar’s own preface to the Second Edition, she explains that she has prepared this incredible work for “the preservation of ancient ecclesiastical melodies” and for “the use of the choir of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, Calcutta,” which she herself often directed. In addition to the Liturgy, over the course of her life Apcar published Western notated hymns for Holy Week and for other services. A more-than-capable musician and musicologist, her setting of the Divine Liturgy is one of the first complete polyphonic settings transcribed in Western musical notation.
Her transcription is remarkable and important for several reasons. First, we may note that Apcar is the only woman in our entire list of musicians who published settings of the Divine Liturgy and one of the few women in the history of Armenian liturgical music. Sahakdukht Siwnetsi, sister of the famous bishop Stepanos Siwnetsi, who composed sharagans, is a notable early predecessor. And while the choirs of Armenian churches today are often heavily populated by women, in Apcar’s time at the turn of the century, the choirmasters of Istanbul and other centers were almost always men. Apcar’s achievement, then, is impressive.
Yet it is important for another reason, one which she hints at in her own preface when she states that she has completed the work for “the preservation of ancient ecclesiastical melodies.” The melodies we have today almost all stem from nineteenth century Istanbul. Even the famous Hymnal published in 1875 in Etchmiadzin was transcribed by Tashjian, from Istanbul, partially based on the singing of another Istanbul musician. The wealth and variety of melodies of different regions and monasteries sung throughout historic Armenia before the Genocide has largely been lost. Apcar’s setting, then, preserves a fascinating variant: the Armenians of Calcutta, one of the major centers of the Armenians of India.
Our short musical introduction today is far too limited to give a full picture of the rich history of the Armenians of India. However, a brief introduction is warranted. We have already glimpsed this oft-forgotten part of the Armenian Diaspora in our discussion of Armenian periodicals in the Zohrab Information Center’s collection: the very first Armenian periodical, Azdarar, was published in Madras, India. This fact becomes less surprising with a quick glimpse at the background of these communities. While there are earlier references to Armenians in India, almost all of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Indian Armenian communities derive from the merchant networks of the New Julfa Armenians. In 1604, Shah Abbas I of Persia forcibly moved the rich and connected Armenian merchant community of Julfa, in the present-day Nakhichevan province of Azerbaijan, to his new capital in Isfahan. These merchants flourished, setting up international trading companies that for decades rivaled the prominent state-sponsored firms of Britain and the Netherlands. Incredibly wealthy and cosmopolitan, these Armenians had connections stretching from Isfahan to East Asia and as far as Mexico. The Indian subcontinent, especially Madras and Calcutta, was a major center for Julfan Armenian families. They established churches, schools, and printing presses throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Great figures of Armenian history, such as the adventurer Joseph Emin, hailed from these communities. Sebouh Aslanian’s recent book traces these merchant networks and provides a brilliant introduction to the Julfan Armenian networks centered in the South Asian subcontinent.
Among these merchants was Arratoon Apcar, born in 1779 in New Julfa in Isfahan. He founded the firm Apcar & Co., first in Bombay, before settling in Calcutta in 1830. His younger brother, Gregory Apcar, joined his brother in Bombay as a member of the firm, moving with him to Calcutta. Gregory’s son, Arratoon Gregory Apcar, was one of the prominent members of the Calcutta Armenian community during the nineteenth century. As a historian of the Indian Armenians writes, “Miss Amy Apcar of No. 44 Chowringhee Road, Calcutta, referred to on pp. 468-69, a highly accomplished lady, is a grand daughter of Gregory Apcar. She has inherited the piety, the benevolence, the nobility, and the urbanity of her revered father, the late Mr. A. G. Apcar” (Seth 1937:531). Seth’s earlier assessment of her refers to her musical abilities. As the granddaughter of a Julfa merchant, recording “note by note” the singing of “the late Rev. P. H. Jacob,” “one of the best known” students of Archbishop Thaddeus who “personally undertook the revival of the ancient manner” of the singing of Julfa, Amy Apcar’s setting of the Divine Liturgy likely preserves an ancient and unique set of Armenian liturgical melodies. Given the current standardization and homogenization of liturgical music, Apcar has left us an invaluable resource. Her volumes of Armenian liturgical music, one of the earliest polyphonic publications of Armenian liturgical music, are also a magnificent source of liturgical diversity, a testament to the rich Armenian liturgical praise of Jesus Christ.
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