Symphony Nr. III, ‘A Tribute to Komitas’. Version for Symphonic Wind Orchestra, Op. 65

I. Recollections                  attacca:
II. April 1915                        attacca:
III. Grief                                 attacca:
IV. Eternal Peace

Dedicated to the commemoration of the great Armenian bard Komitas

In April 1915, the Turkish government started to carry out a long standing plan to exterminate most of the Armenian people living in Turkey. The execution of this plan has become widely known as the Armenian genocide. One of the many victims of the gruesome atrocities that took place during this genocide is the great Armenian ethnomusicologist, musician and composer Soghomon Soghomonian, better known as Vartabed (Father) Komitas, who lived from 1869 to 1935. Together with several other prominent Armenians, he was arrested on April the 24th, 1915, and transported to Chankiri in Central Anatolia. Some weeks later, he was released and brought back to Constantinople. However, he couldn’t cope emotionally with what he had experienced and witnessed.

Soon, the first signs became apparent of what we would now call a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disease still unknown at the time and therefore neither diagnosable nor treatable. He got into such a deep state of depression that his friends decided to take action. Against his will he was brought to the Hôpital de la Paix, a Turkish military hospital in Constantinople. Unfortunately, his emotional condition worsened to such a degree, that his friends decided to transfer him to a private clinic in Paris. For financial reasons he was later moved to the cheaper state institute Hôpital Villejuif, where he spent the remaining thirteen years of his life. He died in 1935, 66 years of age, as a result of a bone infection. The destiny of his creative legacy was no less tragic. The majority of his manuscripts was destroyed or got lost.

For a very long time I nurtured the wish to write a large-scale composition that in some way reflects all this, as a tribute to the great Armenian bard. During many years, I collected lots of sheet music and recordings of Armenian folk music, much of which notated by Komitas. Contact with the Dutch Marine Band about a new piece to be written for them provided a fresh impetus for realizing my wish, which eventually led to the Dutch Fund for the Podium Arts NFPK benevolently granting me two commissions for a symphony in four movements: one for the first two movements, and later a subsequent one for the third and fourth movements.

The entire symphony is based on motives from compositions by Komitas and on Armenian folk melodies, as notated by him, complemented with motives from Turkish folk tunes. The events of 1915 play an important part in the whole of the symphony, and are at the heart of its second movement. The division in movements is as follows:

  1. Recollections    attacca:
  2. April 1915           attacca:
  3. III. Grief               attacca:
  4. Eternal Peace

I. Recollections. During composing, I imagined Komitas in the Hôpital Villejuif looking back on his life until April 1915. In the sombre slow introduction there are two principal melodies: Ervum èm (Mourning song) and Lord, have mercy from his Armenian liturgy Patarag. Also, bits from a threatening sounding Central Anatolian tune are announced. And a glimpse from Komitas’ carefree Song of the Partridge people familiar with music for wind orchestra will know it from Alfred Reed’s Armenian Dances is heard, too. In the ensuing Allegretto, Komitas’ song Garun (Spring) and the movements Unabi and Marabi from his cycle of six Armenian dances for piano are the principal themes. In essence, this music has a friendly and delicate atmosphere, but ever again an element of tension and threat emerges. Now a forceful Allegro follows, in which several themes are being treated from a different perspective, reflecting conflicts and violence prior to 1915. Finally, the musical material is recapitulated. This time, the music never succeeds in recapturing the friendly and delicate atmosphere that was sometimes realized earlier on. There is more anguish and grief now, and the movement ends on a sombre note..

II. April 1915. Allegro barbaro. The Anatolian melodies that had already been indicated in the first movement, are at the heart of this movement, complemented with a Turkish tune for the zurna, an instrument that Komitas hated because of its shrill sound. At times, Komitas’ Ervum èm breaks through, and at one point, his Lord, have mercy is predominant.

III. Grief. Here, Komitas’ Lord, have mercy is the central theme, alternated with his famous song Krunk (The Crane), a song of an expatriate, an Armenian in the Diaspora, asking the crane if he has perchance any news from his motherland.

IV. Eternal Peace. Principal theme here is Komitas’ Et-Aratsch from his six Armenian dances for piano. His Song of the Partridge, featuring fleetingly in the first movement, now serves as a secondary theme. To me, Komitas comes across as having a very gentle nature and a refined taste. I imagine that he has found rest and peace in the hereafter. Since this isn’t possible without total forgiveness, I have taken the liberty to let the Anatolian melodies that appear in the first and second movements return at the end of the symphony, now in a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere.


Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy conducted by Jan Cober

Osaka University Wind Orchestra conducted by Yoshinori Kubota

There is also a version for symphony orchestra, Op. 65a.