Komitas (born Soghomon Soghomonian, October 8, 1869 – October 22, 1935) was an Armenian composer, scientist, singer, choral conductor, and public figure. Komitas’s father was Kevork Soghomonian, a shoemaker who loved music, composed songs, and had a beautiful voice. The composer’s mother Taguhi was a carpet weaver and also possessed bright musical abilities.
Komitas’s childhood was bleak and full of hardships. He lost his mother when he was not even a year old. Because of the business of his father, his grandmother took care of him.
At the age of 7, Soghomon entered the local primary school, after which his father sent him to Brusa for further education. However, he would fail his studies and return home 4 months completely orphaned. His father had died, and Soghomon was left alone aged only 11 years.
Deprived of a place to live, Soghomon was often seen sleeping on the cold stones of a local laundry. He already possessed superb signing skills, and it is not by chance that he would be nicknamed “the little roving singer” in Kütahya, his native city.
In 1881, the high priest of Kütahya G. Dertsakian was to leave for Etchmiadzin to be ordained a bishop. At the request of the Armenian Catholicos, Dertsakian was to bring one singer orphan boy with him to study at Etchmiadzin Theological Seminary.
12-year-old Soghomon was chosen out of 20 orphans. Since it was forbidden to speak Armenian in Kütahya at that time, the boy spoke Turkish and to the greeting of Catholicos Gevorg IV replied: “I do not speak Armenian, but I will sing if you want.”
And he performed Armenian sharakans (spiritual anthems) with his beautiful soprano, not understanding the words. However, thanks to his exceptional abilities, Soghomon in a short time perfectly mastered the Armenian language.
In 1890, Soghomon was ordained a monk. In 1893, he completed his studies at the seminary and assumed the rank of priest. He adopted the name Komitas, which was the name of 7th-century Armenian Catholicos and outstanding poet Komitas.
In the seminary, Komitas was appointed a music teacher. In parallel with the teaching, Komitas headed a chorus and an orchestra of folk instruments, processed folk songs, and wrote the first studies on Armenian church music.
In 1895, Komitas was ordained an archimandrite. In the autumn of the same year, he left for Tiflis to study at a music school. However, he would change his intentions and study a harmony course.
The further events of Komitas’s life were connected with Berlin, a large European music center. He arrived in Berlin to study under the patronage of the Catholicos, receiving funding from the largest Armenian oil magnate Alexander Mantashev.
In September 1899, Komitas returned to Etchmiadzin and immediately began his musical activity. In a short time, he radically changed the system of teaching music in the seminary, created a small orchestra, and brought the choir to perfection.
He visited various parts of Armenia, recording thousands of Armenian, Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish songs and creating song covers. He was also seriously engaged in research, studying Armenian folk and spiritual melodies, working on deciphering Armenian Khazes (Armenian musical notes) and on the theory of voices.
Komitas would eventually leave Etchmiadzin for Constantinople. He wanted to create a national conservatory with which he linked the further musical fate of his people. But the composer failed to implement this enterprise (as well as many others). His inspirational ideas met only the cold indifference of local authorities.
The art of Komitas astonished famous musicians like Vincent d’Indy, Gabriel Fauré, and Camille Saint-Saëns. In 1906, after one of his concerts, outstanding French composer Claude Debussy excitedly exclaimed: “Genius father Komitas! I bow to your musical genius!”
Komitas paid special attention to the creation of spiritual works. In this area is remarkable his masterpiece “Patarag” (“Liturgy”) written for a male choir.
No less important area for him was musicology. At the conference of the International Musical Society in Paris, he read two reports – “Armenian Folk Music” and “On the Old and New Notes of Armenian Sacred Music” – which was met with great interest among the conference participants. Komitas was also invited to read an additional report on the topic “The time, place, accentuation, and rhythm of Armenian music.”
In April 1915, Komitas was arrested along with a number of prominent Armenian writers, publicists, doctors, and lawyers. After the arrest, he was exiled deep into Anatolia where he would witness the brutal extermination of his nation’s bright minds.
Despite the fact that, thanks to influential personalities, Komitas was returned to Constantinople, this nightmare left a deep, indelible imprint on his soul. Komitas retreated from the outside world and took refuge in his dark and heavy thoughts, broken and sad.
In 1916, Komitas’s health deteriorated, and he was placed in a psychiatric clinic. However, there was no hope of recovery. Medicine was powerless before the devastating disease. The genius of Armenian music found his last refuge near Paris, in the hospital of the town of Villejuif where he would stay for nearly 20 years.
On October 22, 1935, Komitas passed away. In the spring of 1936, his ashes were transported to Armenia and interred in Yerevan. Today, Komitas is resting in the Komitas Pantheton.
No less tragic was the fate of the creative heritage of Komitas. Most of his manuscripts were destroyed or scattered around the world.
“The Armenian people found and recognized their soul, their spiritual ‘I’ in the music of Komitas. Komitas Vardapet was a beginning without an end. He must live by the Armenian people, and the people must live by him, now and forever.” (Catholicos of All Armenians Vazgen I).