Thursday, May 21, 2009
The CD that nearly got away
For Ascension Day, the story of Armenia Sacra, the CD that nearly got away. I had read about the beauty of the Armenian Liturgy, but had never come across a recording of it until I was staying at the Benedictine L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in Provence last December. The excellent shop run by the monks had the CD of Armenian liturgical chants on the French Jade label seen above , but it was a whopping 22€ for a single CD. So I didn't buy it, thinking I would find it far cheaper on the internet when I returned home. But I was to be punished for my infidelity. Not only wasn't the CD available at a lower price, I could not find a copy at any price. So I emailed one of the Brothers at the monastery and confessed my sin. He arranged for me to buy the CD, and it arrived faster than an Amazon delivery (Godspeed?).
In AD301 Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity. In the fifth century the Armenian Church broke away from the Orthodox Church, as did the Coptic Church and the Church of Ethiopia. Today 95% of the Armenian population are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and there is also a sizeable Armenian Catholics Church with a presence in many countries. The Armenian Church has a rich musical tradition, and the setting of the Divine Liturgy (Mass) by Makar Ekmalian (1856-1905) is most commonly used by both Orthodox and Catholic Armenians. It is this setting that is recorded on the CD by the Armenian Choir of Sofia in Bulgaria, directed by Bedros Paian. Unusually for a church that emerged from the Orthodox Rite, Makar Ekmalian's setting uses an organ and mixed voices.
Sometimes when I buy a CD like this 'blind', I find the music interesting but rarely return to it. This has certainly not been the case with Armenia Sacra. In fact the CD has been copied to my iPod and provides spiritual refreshment when I am travelling. There is a distinctive purity and beauty about this sacred music that reflects its Orthodox origins. But there is more than that; there is a sense of mysticism that may be explained by Armenia's land frontiers with Iran and Turkey, both countries with strong traditions of Sufism.
The excellent news is that you do not need to contact L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine in France to experience this wonderful music. Since buying the CD in January it has become available as an MP3 download from Amazon.com for just $9.99. There are also brief audio samples on the download page. Armenian liturgical chants may not be the music of choice for many readers. But randomness is a very special thing.
Armenia has many other musical links including:
* Alan Hovhaness, whose father was Armenian. Hovhaness was organist at an Armenian Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he was influenced by the Armenian composer/priest Komitas Vartabed. Read more in Alan Hovhanees - Mysterious Mountain.
* G.I. Gurjdieff, the mystic, spiritual teacher and composer was born in Armenia. Although he is most commonly linked with Sufism, Gurdjieff sung as a boy in his local Russian Orthodox Choir. It would take many posts to tell Gurdjieff's remarkable and unlikely story. But you can read about Keith Jarrett's ECM recording of G. I. Gurdjieff's Sacred Hymns, as well as a lot more Orthodox music, here.
But sadly Armenia is best known today for the terrible 1915 genocide in which more than one million Armenians were killed. The subject of that humanitarian tragedy came up when we were in Turkey in 2007.
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