Every deacon and many choir members have encountered the enigmatic symbols in the pages of liturgical books such as the Շարակնոց/Sharagnots (Hymnal) or the Ժամագիրք/Jamakirk (Book of Hours). They appear as squiggles and lines above and between the rows of written text. Sometimes, singing a melody from memory and looking at these symbols, they seem to make sense. The pitch rises where a diagonal line is written above the final syllable or an ornate flourish occurs where a spiral appears. From these correspondences, some deacons might claim that they understand the խազ/khaz, these unusual signs dotting the liturgical books of the Armenian Apostolic Church. They do not. Writing in 1959, Robert Atayan states that, “if in the 18th century and during the beginning of the 19th century a few individuals were able to sing and write with the khazes, by a slightly later date this was completely forgotten and the ‘key’ to the khazses lost” (102). Hambardzoum Limonjian, in creating a new system of musical notation between 1813-15 (his notation is the subject of next week’s discussion), had already come “to the conclusion that it was no longer possible to revive the ancient Armenian notation system” (Atayan 104). Today, it might be possible to “reverse engineer” the most basic signs from known and established melodies, but the “key” or “code” to the khaz remains as obscure as it did to Limonjian.
What exactly are these strange symbols strewn throughout the pages of Armenian liturgical texts? The khaz, as they are called, are neumes, a kind of musical notation. Prior to the development of the five-line staff and modern Western musical notation, neumes were the major way to represent music on the written page. Systems of neumes are found in both the Latin Catholic Rite as well as in the Byzantine Rite. These notational systems allowed for the possibility of transcribing (to some degree) Gregorian Chant and the hymns of the Byzantine Octoechos. Neumes do not contain as much information as the modern Western musical notation. They do not always, by themselves, provide any indication of rhythm—though in the case of the khaz several researchers think that certain of the neumes did denote meter or length. In many cases, they don’t represent a full melody and are not tied directly to pitches. Rather, they mark changes in pitches, melodic patterns, and the relative movement between notes. All systems of neumes, like the Armenian khaz, work with the text and are not generally abstracted from the written text that is sung. The khaz, then, are the first musical notation for Armenian singing, especially for the sacred music of the Armenian Apostolic Church. They appear in many liturgical books where there are melodic songs, not just the sharagan, which while today is used generically for “hymn” is actually a specific musical genre, but also books containing other genres of songs, such as taghs and steghis.
In short, the khaz are the ancient notation system of music for the Armenian Church and are a major source for that music. Losing the ability to read the khaz in a systematic way is one of the major losses of the Armenian Christian tradition and of Armenian culture more broadly. Atayan writes that “deciphering the Armenian khazes is one of the major problems for Armenian culture” (130). Deciphering the khazes has indeed occupied many of the great musicological minds of Armenians and others interested in Armenian Christianity and Armenian music. Perhaps the most famous person to grapple with the khaz system was Komitas Vartabed himself, whose 150th anniversary of birth we celebrate this year. Komitas, in a series of letters and articles, described his research into the khaz. Many people think that he either had figured out the system or would have, had the Genocide not interrupted his work, led to the loss of much of his research, and eventually drove him to madness. Since the Genocide, a few scholars have made progress in the history and notation of the khaz. Robert Atayan’s monograph on the subject remains the most comprehensive discussion. More recently, Rev. Dr. Vrej Nerses Nersessian and Haig Utidjian have advanced our knowledge of the khaz. For practical singing purposes, however, they remain fundamentally obscure.
|The Armenian Neume System of Notation||Robert Atayan’s study of the Armenian khaz system of notation (translated here into English by Vrej Nersessian) remains the most comprehensive examination of the enigmatic musical notation system.|
|Essays on Armenian Music||Edited by Vrej Nersessian, one of the 20th century’s experts on Armenian music. Essays are in English, German, and French, including a discussion of the khaz in Armenian manuscripts.|
|Armenian Sacred and Folk Music||
Original essays on Armenian Music by Komitas Vartabed himself, collected with an introduction by Vrej Nersessian. Some of the essays are in German or French, but most have been translated into English by Edward Gulbenkian. The essays include Komitas’ discussion of the state of his research into the khaz.
Even the origin of the khaz notation remains relatively obscure. Robert Atayan, through careful examination of Armenian manuscripts, argues for a slow development of a native neume system of musical notation. He argues against other, earlier scholars, who suggested that either the Latin or the Byzantine (or some combination of them) system of neume notation was the source for the Armenian khazes. In part, these scholars relied on a statement in the History of the Armenians by Kirakos Gandzaketsi that says that Khachator Taronatsi, the abbot of the monastery of Nor Getik who lived from 1100-1184, “brought them [the khaz] to the east” … and “wrote them down and taught these to many others.” However, Atayan shows that khaz notation first shows up on manuscript fragments such as Fragment No. 512 of the Matenadaran, produced sometime in the 800s, nearly 300 years before Khachator Taronatsi lived! Atayan also demonstrates the development of the khaz from these early fragments until the end of the Cilician period in the 1300s. He suggests that Gandzaketsi, writing in the northeastern parts of the historic Armenian homeland, meant that Taronatsi brought the more developed system of khaz to the eastern monasteries from Cilicia where the notation had undergone innovation alongside the musical innovation of Catholicos Nersess Shnorhali. So, we can say that the khaz as we see them reproduced in printed material today date at least to the 9th century!
Atayan distinguishes khaz used specifically from music from khaz developed for prosody, the proper inflection and intonation while reading a text. Early Armenian writing connected to the Greek grammar of Dionysius Thrax attempted to adapt Greek pronunciation to Armenian, often using terms and ideas that don’t completely work for the Armenian language. Some of the symbols are shared, but Atayan insists we should distinguish between the khaz notation as it refers to reading and as used as a more full-fledged musical system. Some early Armenian historians attribute the development of the khaz to St. Sahak and St. Mesrob, concurrent with the development of Armenian writing and even before the explosion of interest in Greek prosody, but Atayan thinks that if there was an early notation system we have no way of knowing if there is continuity between that early system and the khaz system. Instead, Atayan says that “the final canonization [of the canon of hymns], and systematization of the modes, according to the evidence available, was carried out by Bishop Stepanos Syounetsi” (whom we discussed two weeks ago). If this is the case, it is possible that Siwnetsi himself had some hand in the development of the khaz system. At the very least, given the musical reform that occurred during Siwnetsi’s time and the fact that the first manuscripts with khaz on them come from the century after his time, it is probably in this milieu of liturgical and musical reform that the khaz system as we know it began to develop.
While we might be able to trace this development, we are still rather in the dark when it comes to meaning of the khaz symbols themselves. Komitas wrote that he had “discovered the key to the khaz” and that he could even “read simple examples,” but this key and his full research did not come to light before the Genocide. He lists “the elements of the Armenian khaz notation,” including khaz indicating pitch, timbre, volume, time, key, and cadence, among others. So, it seems the khazes were able to indicate many different musical elements. Robert Atayan, through a careful study of many manuscripts and largely limiting himself to the khazes used to notate sharagans (as opposed to the more melismatic genres of Armenian music), was able to discern patterns within groups of sharagans. Since each sharagan comes with a designated mode, Atayan looked at the similarities of khaz used to notate endings, beginnings, and phrases of sharagans that would be sung in the same mode. This allowed him to recognize certain recurring patterns of the khaz denoting repeated melodies.
Atayan’s study becomes more controversial, however, when he calibrates what he calls the “preserved music” to the patterns he observed in groups of shargans in the same mode. In other words, he took sharagan melodies are notated in the nineteenth century—largely relying on the Hymnal notated by Tashjian in Etchmiadzin in 1878 using the Hampartzum notation (all to be discussed next week)—and compared them to the khaz used to notate the same hymns in older sharagan manuscripts and printings. Through this method, Atayan claimed to have discerned a preliminary and tentative meaning for some of the most “basic” khazes. This method, however, assumes several things about the “preserved music” and its relationship to the khaz notation. Komitas had already warned about the ability to calibrate the eight modes designated in the Sharagnots collections with the eight modes as they continued to be sung. Haig Utidjian argues convincingly that, “ Any attempts to decipher neumes through recourse to comparisons with melodies constructed according to certain hypotheses and beliefs on the same neumes in the nineteenth century are all too likely to suffer from an element of logical circularity.” In other words, it is likely that the melodies Tashjian transcribed in 1878 were already partially “reverse engineered” from the khaz, and so it isn’t valid to use those melodies to try to move beyond the nineteenth century for an earlier meaning of the khaz. Nonetheless, Atayan’s study is tantalizing in the suggestions it makes for the use of the khaz. At the very least, he elaborates on Komitas’ categories for what the khazes would and could do, making compelling arguments about their ability to code relative pitch and meter.
The use of the khaz peaked during the Cilician period, when there were produced not only new sharagans, but when musical learning and production in general reached its apex. At this time, the broad study of music came to be known as մանրուսում/manrusum, “the study of the songs, music and khazes” (Atayan 80). Nersess Shnorhali, the most famous churchman of the Cilician period, insisted in his General Epistle that a candidate for the priesthood have a degree of mastery over manrusum before ordination. Likewise, slightly later in the eastern monasteries, especially Datev, music was considered one of the main paths of education and theological expression. Texts of manrusum, also known as Khazkirk, helped prepare monks and other clergy for the rich musical expression of love of Jesus Christ expressed in the hymns of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Even if, today, we don’t hold the keys to the khaz, musical expression remains as prominent a source for Armenian Christians today as it did during the height of knowledge of manrusum.
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