Recent Research on Armenian Music

Anna Arevshatyan, The Theory of Musical Modes in Medieval Armenia
Yerevan: Gitutyun, 2013


The Institute of Arts of the National Academy of Sciences and the Editing House Gitutyun have published The Theory of Musical Modes in Medieval Armenia (336 p., in Armenian) by Professor Anna Arevshatyan, one of the most prolific musicological medievalists. This work is the result of investigations conducted during the last decade. Separate parts and components have been presented to scientific circles in different years and in various formulas. Let us mention only one of Arevshatyan latest monographs, which can be considered a starting point for the present volume. I am referring to The Armenian Medieval Commentaries of Modes, published in 2003. 

The present book is devoted to the explanation of medieval conceptions and interpretations of the “Mode”, one of the theoretical bases of medieval musical creation, to its parallels in other cultures and to a number of other issues.

It is well known that the Armenian medieval professional art of musical-poetic composition, in other words the art of Armenian sacred chanting, was mostly a modal art in terms of musical mentality. This means that a number of canonic theoretical melodic formulas, i.e. modes were important for it. Almost all the processes of medieval professional musical art, both in creation and performance, were based on them. Modes were part of the theoretical, aesthetic and theological conceptions of Armenian medieval musical neumatic khaz notation. In Arevshatyan’s book the modes are studied in all these aspects, including their pagan ideological elements, and then in their early Christian and medieval dimensions. The list of authors is impressive: from the Cappadocian fathers to St. Grigor Tathevatsi (1346-1409) and his disciples Thovma Metzopetsi and Arakel Siunetsi. The following two great authors who studied the modal mentality in modern times were Grigor Gapasakalian and Komitas, even if the author considers Gapasakalian to be a theoretician who summarized the medieval tradition.

The scope of the book is not only limited to the Christian tradition. Taking into consideration the fact that the modes and their equivalent musical notions were common to the whole medieval musical art, the author transfers her observations in the field of comparative studies, including the analogous traditions of the Near-East, and even that of the Islamic culture.  

The essential musicological aspect of the work is stressed in a separate chapter, a study devoted to the fourth plagal mode. Beginning with the early Middle Ages some modes were already mentioned, accompanied by groups of sacred chants and even songs. The issue of interrelation between certain modes and certain sacred chants, or a group of sacred chants, is one of the most complicated problems of the Armenian medieval professional musical-poetic art.

Anna Arevshatyan succeeds in explaining such an interrelated phenomenon in the frame of the fourth plagal mode turn. She shows that in the Armenian Christian tradition numerous works devoted to martyrs are composed in one or another close mode, which is evidently related to the character of that mode and its medieval perception. She also observes analogous conformity in Georgian hymnography which leads her to search for the source of this phenomenon in Byzantine art.

Of course, we agree that this approach can be established in comparative studies. Nevertheless, we would prefer to explain the Armenian and Georgian hymnographic parallels (which are not strange among other numerous parallels existing in the two Christian traditions) from the perspective of the historical relations of the two Churches, rather than by the existence of a third supposed common source for their hymnographic legacy. Putting aside various other arguments, we shall observe, for instance, that in the early period of Christian hymnography formation, before the beginning of the 7th century, the Georgian Church was one of the Sees depending on the Armenian Church, with all the consequences that result from this fact.

However, there is an important conformity observed by the author which can be an important landmark to solve the aforementioned complicated problem. The academic value of the present work by Anna Arevshatyan is undisputable, as all the ancient and medieval texts known in Armenian literature and related to this problem, with their transposition in modern Armenian, are referred to in it. Therefore, the book becomes an important study of the modes and an important source at the same time.

The results of the investigation are accessible to readers through Russian and French large summaries, which is important in the scope of the dissemination of the results of modern Armenology studies.

Mher Navoyan,
English Version by Aida Charkhchyan