Monday, April 10, 2017

A Musical Response to the Armenian Genocide

This coming Friday (which happens to be Good Friday), ECM will release its sixth album featuring the music of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian; and, as usual, the recording is already available for pre-order from It consists of only a single composition, a setting of the Latin Requiem text sung by the RIAS Chamber Choir Berlin with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, all under the baton of Alexander Liebreich. If my records are correct, this is the longest Mansurian composition to show up on an ECM release.

It is also probably the most emotionally intense, since the composer has dedicated it to the victims of the Armenian Genocide that occurred in Turkey between 1915 and 1917. This make the album a “centennial release” of sorts, albeit the anniversary of an occasion that has had to endure considerable controversy in its recognition that involves geographical regions that are equally controversial. For example, the cover of the album is a photograph of Armenians deported from Turkey making their way across desert toward Aleppo, a city currently suffering under a new generation of struggles:

courtesy of ECM
Mansurian himself was born in Beirut to Armenian parents (in 1939); and his first school was a French Catholic institution there. The family only moved to Armenia in 1947, settling in Yerevan; and Mansurian was a graduate from the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory (named after an Armenian composer and musicologist, who was also an iconic Armenian spiritual figure). As he matured in his career, Mansurian developed professional relationships with colleagues such as Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Arvo Pärt. It is important to note that, regardless of such connections, his own compositional voice is decidedly unique from those of any of those three colleagues.

It is not easy to keep track of Mansurian’s compositions. His scores are not included on IMSLP; and, on Oxford Music Online, he gets only a single paragraph for The Oxford Companion to Music by Judith Kuhn. It would therefore not surprise me if this was the first recording made of his approach to sacred music. This deserves attention, because that approach is rather unique.

To consider the nature of that uniqueness, one can begin with Mansurian’s own words (translated from the Russian by Edmund Griffiths):
From the psychological viewpoint of an Armenian at prayer, the intonations in which we hear the Kyrie Eleison pronounced in the works of Bach or Beethoven, say, are almost entirely unlike a prayer: We hear something more like a demand addressed to the Almighty. So … it became clear to me that the singers in my Requiem needed to posses the same psychology and character traits as the figures drawn in ancient Armenian manuscripts.
To be fair, Johann Sebastian Bach was Lutheran; so it was likely that his own acts of prayer were in German, rather than Latin. As a result, for many of us, regardless of what faith (if any) we follow, listening to the two “Kyrie” movements from the BWV 232 Mass setting (in B minor) is a matter of getting deeply involved in two significantly extended and elaborately structured fugues. Living in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven may have been closer to Catholicism, but the resources required for the performance of his Opus 123 Mass setting are so demanding that expecting them to be part of a celebration of the Roman rite would be tantamount to absurdity.

Nevertheless, with the division of the church into separate “Roman” and “Oriental” cultures, there followed as a corollary, a division in approaches to incantation of sacred texts. That division is clear when one listens to, among other factors, the chromaticism in Komitas’ own liturgical settings for choir or when one encounters the almost wailing portamento in the chant by a priest (a quality also encountered in services at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue). However, if Mansurian appreciates these differences in theory, they are not particularly evident in the practice behind the composition of the music on this new recording. One might almost say that, while his cultural roots are in the East, the roots of his music-making practices run deep into the soil of the West.

To be fair (again), the limitation may be mine, rather than Mansurian’s. For all of my enjoyment of the Divine Liturgy CD of Komitas’ music produced by New Albion Records over fifteen years ago, I simply do not have the “listening experience base” to encounter this new recording with “Armenian ears.” In other words the mind that listens to Mansurian is much closer to the mind that listens to Beethoven, even if Mansurian’s mind is closer to one that listens to Komitas.

Having established my position, I have to say that, in light of how much painful controversy has erupted over the Armenian Genocide, I find that Mansurian’s approach to the Requiem text goes down the ears with less stress than I might have anticipated. However, that may well have been his intention. Perhaps he was seeking out the same sort of calm resignation that one encounters in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 45, his “German” Requiem, which sets Biblical, rather than liturgical, texts. Were that to be the case, then I would happily acknowledge that Mansurian probably comes closer to my own personal attitudes towards faith than does any other living composer of “sacred music.”

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