The following is based primarily on the “Armenian” entries in the Encyclopedia of World Music (Manukian 2001) and the Grove Music Online (Pahlevanian et al 2014).
In some way, what defines Armenians is not just the fact that as a people they have lived on the Anatolian plateau for over 2500 years, but for economic and political reasons, some of which are extremely tragic, sizeable Armenian communities as early as the 5th century have developed outside of Armenia. This, in turn, has developed a strong immigrant or diaspora identity. Today, the Armenian diaspora is estimated at 7 million while the population of the country itself is less than 3 million. The Armenian American musician Richard Hagopian reflects on the implications this has for the recognition of Armenian culture in his CD Armenian Music Through the Ages (1993). “As an ethnic minority spread out through many countries, much of [Armenians’] contribution to the arts, architecture and music was seen as ‘Persian Art’ or ‘Ottoman Architecture’ [and] deciphering the Armenian element in these contexts is sometimes difficult.” Thus, while mugham and ashiqs are defined as Azeri, the Armenians were well known performers of these musics. Armenian ashiqs are known as gusans and ashughs and I will discuss them in context of the Transcaucasian urban style in a subsequent post. What I want to focus on in this section, however, is what I found to be the most unique part of traditional Armenian music, the lyrical quality of their folk songs.
Armenian folk songs, like many other traditional musics of the world, feature songs for a variety of calendric and life rituals. This music is relatively accessible through iTunes, Naxos Music library, and even on YouTube. Face Music (an independent Swiss label http://www.face-music.ch/mainpages/catalogonstock.html) and Celestial Harmonies produced a number of CDs with informative liner notes that were very useful for my research and offer a good starting point for new listeners of Armenian folk music. It should be noted, however, that none of these CDs are field recordings. Rather they are staged performances of field transcriptions or recordings. Most striking is the abundant sing-song quality of the work songs and other genres that is not as evident in Georgian or Azeri folk songs. This lyrical expressivity has a distinct flavour in Armenian music. According to Manuka Manekian, author of the Encyclopedia of World Music’s entry on Armenia, lyrical songs form the richest branch of Armenian music. They represent a musical form which over a millennia has developed in a reflective relationship with sacred music to define Armenia’s most unique musical genre.
Musically speaking, the lyrical song typically develops within the narrow range of a 4th to a 7th, based on simple diatonic scales. They often feature beautiful tunes, modal nuances, verse structures and interchangeable use of cantilena, recitative, and song and dance rhythms – as shown in the notated musical examples below. Lyrical songs exist as lullabies, some children’s and work songs, and nostalgic songs, which in Armenia are known as pandukht or anduni. They are also known as secular tagher (plural for tagh – more of which I discuss momentarily). Among these, “Kroon” (the Crane) and “Anduni” (Homeless) are the most well known. From commercial recordings and YouTube uploads you can see there are numerous versions of these.
Sacred tagh developed out of the reflective secular-sacred musical practice which blossomed in 10th to 11th centuries, a period of political stability for all of Transcaucasia. Sacred tagher (plural for tagh) differed from other sacred chants with their richly ornamented and long-phrased aria-like melodies. Pahlevanian et al. (2014) attribute the virtuosic structure to urban influences. The secular branch of tagh developed in the 13th-18th centuries, after which tagher merged partially with folksongs and ashugh songs. In comparison to peasant lyrical songs, this lyrical form shows greater melodic development. Under Soviet cultural policy of the early- and mid-20th century, this lyrical vocal form became the basis for much duduk music – the double reed cylindric aerophone (also known as the Azerbaijani balaban) that became Armenia’s national instrument. (For more on the duduk see Nercessian (2001)).