Posthumous vibes: The sun and hope of Harutyun Topikyan’s eternal love
December 13, 2020
More than 40 days ago, on this day, amid the chaos of COVID-19 and the existential battles on various fronts in Artsakh, one of the titanic figures of Armenian choral music, Maestro Harutyun Topikyan, the artistic director and conductor of the Yerevan Chamber Choir succumbed to the vicious virus, months after candidly exposing his unwavering love for Komitas Vardapet in a candid interview with h-pem contributor Gohar Topchyan.
Maestro Harutyun Topikyan was not only the founder, but also the brain, heart and soul of the Yerevan State Chamber Choir, leaving behind a trail of world-class concerts and more than fifteen albums—at least half of which include the complete spiritual and secular choral works of Komitas Vardapet; an unprecedented achievement for the ethnomusicologist he adored.
Last year, true to its mission to perform the entire choral heritage of Komitas, the YSCC performed 220 songs in seven concerts dedicated to the 150th birthday of the founder of the Armenian national school of music. For an entire year, Topikyan carried the legacy of Komitas from rural and urban squares to castles, festival venues, museums, concert halls, and churches.
The choir’s concerts have mesmerized audiences throughout Europe, United States, Armenia, and Artsakh. However, those who were privileged to attend its rehearsals have always described the contagious enthusiasm and passion of the maestro as absolutely fabulous. One could easily admit that Topikyan’s vast knowledge, his exquisite attention to detail and his profoundly humane interpretation of especially Komitas’ music made the rehearsal even more captivating than the concert itself.
Yet the man who had collaborated with the likes of Riccardo Muti at La Scala and embarked on a worldwide concert tour with the world-famous jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, possessed an aura of modesty and vitality when he sat down for an exclusive interview with h-pem and talked about his exceptional dedication to Komitas.
The interview with Harutyun Topikyan was about Komitas Vardapet, whose life and music have been an endless source of study and a true inspiration for many, including Topikyan himself. The interview was conducted after a visit to the Komitas Museum-Institute and served as a perfect opportunity to assess the vast heritage of one of the most outstanding Armenians of the 20th century.
Check out our video section to see the Yerevan State Chamber Choir in action and share your impressions with us. To hear more of their songs, visit YSCC'S website.
Gohar Topchyan: Can we talk about the special role of Komitas in your professional life?
Harutyun Topikyan: In fact, my graduate thesis at the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan was about Komitas. Over the years, my research continued to expand. However, there should be no misunderstanding in this regard. Of course, it is great to perform Komitas in front of an audience. However, whenever my friends and I perform Komitas, we do it with utmost love. It is like a return to Komitas. As if his music puts everything in order and reinforces the foundations of everything we do. Komitas holds the answers to many important questions concerning choral approach, morality, and honesty.
Each generation will rediscover Komitas and his colorful world, fall in love with him and pass him down to the next generation.
G.T.: What do you think about the way the world perceives Komitas?
H.T.: Interestingly, just like Bach, Komitas remains powerful and intact, no matter how his music is interpreted or presented. There are many performances of Komitas, but not all are of good quality. His popularity is sometimes exploited. However, we should aim at making Komitas accessible to new audiences. I have met well-educated people in Germany who have apologized for not having known his genius. It is our fault that he is still not widely known in the world. Komitas was the harbinger of impressionism in music, discovering that colorful world. He was an expert who created a distinctive place for Armenian music by studying the music of other cultures. For instance, Russian musicologists viewed him as an intermediary source for Jewish sacred music. A man of extensive knowledge in his profession, his lectures were always well attended by eminent scholars at international conferences.
G.T.: Can we say that Komitas has not been performed with due diligence?
H.T.: Yes, absolutely! When we embarked upon the large-scale recording project of Komitas’ choral works, it was intended to present Komitas to the world. But soon we realized that it was us who needed Komitas. During the Soviet years, Komitas’ legacy was misinterpreted. His works were not performed quite as often, and people did not feel a spiritual connection to his music. Komitas was another cultural monument worth presenting to foreign guests. There was, however, the talented Komitas Quartet, whose distinguished musicians understood the core of Komitas’ music. Nevertheless, the Quartet was a diversion, a post-Komitas genre, and an ode to Komitas. There was the issue of presenting Komitas’ choral works to Armenians and international audiences. It surprises me when websites dedicated to Komitas give priority to quartet performances of his choral compositions. Komitas’ power was in his ability to compose choral music, of which we should be proud, since very few cultures have produced choral music— like the Hungarian one, which created a powerful national style of choral composition, thanks to Zoltan Kodály.
G.T.: What steps should be taken to better present Komitas to the world?
H.T.: We need to be consistent in our efforts. For more than two decades our choir has been faithfully performing Komitas, and we will continue to perform his music. You may ask, how long can you keep on performing Komitas? Well, till eternity, just as there can be no end to watching the sun and the stars.
You may ask, how long can you keep on performing Komitas? Well, till eternity, just as there can be no end to watching the sun and the stars.
G.T.: Do you have a special approach when it comes to interpreting the music of Komitas?
H.T.: I do have my own approach towards performing Komitas. Composers often do not know how to perform the music they write— only a good performer can do that. Komitas was an equally talented performer, a genius, in this respect. His polyphonic music often contains hints or codes for a brilliant performance. Moreover, he always gives us hope for a better tomorrow. Art is all about giving hope, bringing love, and preventing despair. In this sense, Komitas is a universal figure who loved his land, his life, and his work, who appreciated nature’s beauty and felt part of it. In "Անտունի" | "Antuni" ("Homeless") a song of profound tragedy, the challenge of bearing the pain rings through major chords. It is our fault that Armenian music sounds sad to international audiences. I always try to change that perception. Our music is bright and luminous. Some see the world in black and white. Whereas it is a colorful world that we live in. Great art or great composers like Beethoven cannot be described as simply sad or happy.
Komitas’ music, helps young people become more honest and confident citizens.
G.T.: What does it feel like performing at the concert hall of the Komitas Museum-Institute?
H.T.: The Museum is truly a temple of Komitas’ spirit. The architecture is beautiful, and the concert hall has good acoustics. It is a pleasure to sing there. After founding the Teachers’ Choir of the Mkhitar Sebastatsi Educational Complex, we performed together at the concert hall of the Komitas Museum. Just imagine the impact Komitas had on students when their teachers and principal sang his songs. Music, especially Komitas’ music, helps young people become more honest and confident citizens.
G.T.: If you had to define Komitas in one word, what would that word be?
H.T.: I always use the word “genius” when referring to Komitas. You need some expertise to understand and explain his genius. His polyphonic arrangements of Armenian hymns and verses are the result of his profound understanding of Armenian sacred music, which was monophonic. Komitas’ “Պատարագ” | “Patarag” (“Holy Mass”) is the highest expression of his genius and depth. Unfortunately, in the last century, especially during the Soviet era when human rights were ignored, Komitas’ own compositions were not treated well.
H.T.: Writing choral music is a taxing job for a composer. Thanks to Komitas’ legacy, we have wonderful compositions by outstanding composers like Edvard Mirzoyan and Arno Babajanian. Many less talented musicians tried to compose choral music in the 1950s, at a time when gigantomania took over the global art scene. It was the era of colossal symphonies. The Second World War was over, and people hoped humanity would live in peace. This was, of course, an illusion, and the world is still at war. Then came the likes of Edgar Hovhannisyan, Tigran Mansurian, and Yervand Yerkanyan, to carry forward the legacy of Komitas. Even younger composers like David Haladjian and Anna Azizyan, have produced some interesting works.
We need to define our post-Komitas identity in music, our approach to choral music, and set our future course.
G.T.: Does the Yerevan State Chamber Choir have a particular mission?
H.T.: The creation of several chamber choirs in Armenia is a great achievement for a small country with limited financial resources. There are superb choirs, and each has its own character and purpose. Under the auspicious of the late Catholicos Karekin I of All Armenians, we recorded the entire spiritual and secular choral works of Komitas. For me, it was a dream come true. At the time, I had an ambitious project called “An Anthology of 20th-21st Century Armenian Choral Music.” We recorded Edgar Hovhannisyan's works. That was a start. We need to define our post-Komitas identity in music, our approach to choral music, and set our future course.
All photos are courtesy of the Yerevan State Chamber Choir.
"Luys I Luso" project
Yerevan State Chamber Choir and Tigran Hamasyan in concert. (Saint-Sulpice church, Paris, October 20th 2015)
KOMITAS - "Berlin Liturgy"
Yerevan State Chamber Choir performs "Komitas and Us" (Dec.13,2019)
"Orhnyal e Astvats" (2016)
Yerevan State Chamber Choir and Tigran Hamasyan (from the project "Luys I Luso")
"Luys I Luso" project
KOMITAS - "Berlin Liturgy"
"Orhnyal e Astvats" (2016)
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