Alexander Comitas: Symphony Nr. 3 ‘A Tribute to Komitas’. Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy

Click on the timings below to start at the beginning of each of the movements. Recording of the premiere, by the Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy, conducted by their guest conductor Jan Cober, on Friday the 5th of July, 2013, in the Theatre of Kerkrade, The Netherlands, as part of the concert cycle of the World Music Contest (WMC) for wind bands 2013, in Kerkrade.

Opname van de première, door de Marinierskapel der Koninklijke Marine o.l.v. gastdirigent Jan Cober, op vrijdag 5 juli 2013, in het Theater Kerkrade, als onderdeel van de concertcyclus van het Wereld Muziek Concours (WMC) 2013 voor blaasorkesten.

00:09 I. Recollections
20:01 II. April 1915
29:54 III. Grief
45:38 IV. Eternal Peace

I also wrote a version of this symphony for symphony orchestra. Anyone who is interested in performing either version of the piece can contact me at alexander[at]

In April 1915, the Turkish government started to carry out a long standing plan to exterminate most of the Armenian people living in Turkey. One of the many victims of the gruesome atrocities that took place during the following months 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. He got into such a deep state of depression that he ended up spending the last thirteen years of his life in the French state institute Hôpital Villejuif, where he died in 1935. The destiny of his creative legacy was no less tragic. The majority of his manuscripts was destroyed or got lost.

This symphony is a large scale tribute to the great Armenian bard. It 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:

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 some threatening sounding Central Anatolian tunes 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 were already presented several times 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.

Painting: ”The last night of Komitas’ by Sarkis Muradyan.


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