How does a song become a national anthem? As we listen to the anthems of many great nations, we seldom find behind them prominent composers or major poets. A song, sometimes even of a folk nature, captures the imagination of the people and inspires patriotic feelings, thereby carving its place in history.
Perhaps an exception was recorded when the European Union adopted the choral section of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, based on Schiller’s exhilarating lyrics.
On the eve of its 15th anniversary of independence, the Republic of Armenia is at a crossroad, trying to adopt a new national anthem, which reflects today’s realities and expresses the nation’s hopes for the future.
In the early days of independence, a haphazard decision was made to adopt Mer Hayrenik (“Our Fatherland”) under suspicious circumstances, along with the old flag and coat of arms. At that period, President Levon Ter-Petrossian believed that by some cosmetic compromises he could win over the ARF (the Dashnag) party. Therefore, some arm-twisting took place and some of the members of the Parliament were asked to press the right buttons to muster the necessary votes. In the meantime, the conductor and composer Loris Tjeknavorian – to whom Armenia owes so much for brightening its dark and cold days – performed the old anthem with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra to revive the popularity of Mer Hayrenik, which was the national anthem during the First Republic.
The adoption of that anthem, along with the other national symbols, was one of the rash decisions of the first president, the other one being the selection of Catholicos Karekin I for the throne of Echmiadzin, in the naive belief that he could break the Dashnag party’s back and also magically solve the church division. Both blew up in his face!
There was no serious criticism about the flag. We can even safely state that it had unanimity around it. But the coat of arms remained an eyesore, and Mer Hayrenik an earsore, so to speak. Some critics even ridiculed the coat of arms as that of a zoo with extinct animals in it.
The diaspora did not have much say and followed through by singing the national anthem obediently.
However, the anthem did not generate much enthusiasm and there was always resentment for its continued use. A few words in the lyrics were changed: “Our Fatherland, miserable and abandoned” became “Our Fatherland, free and independent,” yet the anthem did not fire up popular imagination; while singing there was always a Freudian slip and the bleak previous lyrics popped up again. One would only feel like crying rather than being fired up by patriotic sentiments. Although the lyrics were by a historic freedom fighter and national poet, Mikael Nalbandian, it was a song originally called Italian Girl’s Song, a far cry from Armenia’s destiny.
We believe that the coat of arms, symbolizing the First Republic needs reconsideration or revamping, but at this time the issue is the national anthem. Positive steps have already been taken and a competition has taken place. The issue was brewing for some time. The drive to change the anthem was mostly conducted by poets, composers and intellectuals. One particular writer, poet David Hovhanness, ran a series on the national TV, discussing the possible alternatives and he invited a national debate on this hot issue. His views were well documented and for a frivolous poet, very well balanced. He presented all the alternatives and offered his comments on them, without excluding others’ suggestions, including those of his detractors. His final recommendation was to adopt the song Hayastan (“Armenia”) popularized by celebrated singer Armenak Shahmouradian. The song’s composer was Gabriel Yeranian (Dicran Chuhajian’s teacher) and the lyrics by Mirza-Vanantetzi, not necessarily household names, yet they had produced a piece of music and lyrics which touched the Armenian soul. The song was later rearranged by Komitas, who characterized it as a highly patriotic song, not necessarily based on Armenian authentic traditions. The lyrics, especially, are not very sophisticated, but the refrain, the repetition of the word “Hayastan” with ascending crescendo inspired patriotic fervor. The only drawback would have been the nature of lyrics, mostly written in classical Armenian.
Today, Armenia is at the threshold of adopting a new national anthem. Minister of Culture Hasmik Poghosian has already held a competition and a select committee has screened 85 entries. The commission, which has screened the submissions, includes Vigen Sargsian, Karen Avagian, respectively aides to the president and the prime minister; poetess Silva Kaputikian, composer Edward Mirzoyan and the artistic director of the Armenian Chamber Orchestra, Aram Gharebekian. All are respected authorities. Except for Gharabegian, the diaspora is not represented in a meaningful way in that commission. It is true that the selection of a national anthem is mostly an affair to be conducted by the state, but we are a divided nation and only by mobilizing all our forces can we achieve success. For example, during the election of the catholicos of all Armenians, the diaspora has an imposing presence. Similarly when telethons are organized to rebuild Karabagh and Armenia, the diaspora is not excluded. Besides, when an anthem is selected, those of us in the diaspora will sing along with Armenia. Children from Sydney to Syria, from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, will sing the anthem in unison.
It is also reported that all 85 entries to be considered were from Armenia – that does not sound very credible. Some diaspora participation must have been included, although no attempt was made to invite diaspora participation.
The first round of the selection process has already been announced. The results are out and the majority of votes went to the composition of Tigran Mansourian, based on the Yeghishe Charentz lyrics (Yes eem anoush Hayastani). He is followed by Yervand Yerznkian’s work based on a poem by Ararat II; Edgar Hovhannissian’s work based on the poem by Vahagn Davtian and finally the composition of Robert Amirkhanian based on a poem by Ludwig Nourian. Given Amirkhanian’s popularity as a composer of many patriotic songs, his fifth-place showing does not seem to be believable.
Aram Khachaturian’s music, based on new lyrics by Soghomonian, was also included. This was the national anthem of Soviet Armenia, but at this time it is presented with new lyrics. However, people familiar with it will not be able to overcome the old lyrics (“Sovetekan Azad Ashkar Hayastan” – “Armenia, free Soviet country”).
Not all the finalists are familiar. Segments were played by the minister of culture on tape during a newscast on national TV. Charentz’ poem is extremely popular as a catchy patriotic piece, further popularized by Ashot Satian’s music, but it does not necessarily reflect all the attributes of an anthem. Mansourian’s music seems outstanding, like Amirkhanian’s, whose lyrics may be more apropos, although written by a lesser composer than Charentz. Edgar Hovhannisian’s music has always been performed with extreme patriotic fervor.
What will be the destiny of Mer Hayrenik, the anthem mostly cherished by Dashnags, which was opposed to Soviet Armenia for so long. It looks like the party – and the anthem – were abandoned, especially since the song was not even among the five finalists.
After a critical article by Ara Martirossian, in the daily Azg, blaming Dashnags for abandoning Mer Hayrenik, it seems that a proprietary feeling has been triggered and the ARF has made a last stand by a martial announcement. Indeed, Gegham Manukian, a parliamentary deputy from the ARF has announced that the party will likely draft a bill to uphold the status of Mer Hayrenik and he hopes that the bill would pass. We do not believe that the bill stands a chance, unless Robert Kocharian’s administration caves in, like it did when Echmiadzin was deleted from the new constitution, as the center of Armenian Apostolic Church, by sheer political expediency. The ARF pressured and the administration did not appreciate its historic significance and gave in.
Singing Mer Hayrenik has made us cry over almost a full century. We do hope that crying is spared this time around and more joyous alternatives are chosen, as Armenia needs those alternatives to brighten its future.
We concur with the minister of culture who has stated: “It is very difficult to make the right choice.” No matter what the outcome, there will always be detractors and critics.
Under no circumstances can Mer Hayrenik and Sovetakan Azad Angakh be adopted, both for political and aesthetic reasons.
It looks like Mansourian’s and Amirkhanian’s works stand the best chance, possessing all the attributes of a proper anthem. Perhaps Mansourian’s international stature may weigh heavier.
But yet, we don’t know where the political currents may lead our national anthem.
Edmond Y. Azadian