By Taleen Babayan
The religious, spiritual and cultural influences of Gomidas Vartabed headlined the 2019 Reclaim Conference in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth, in an all-day event and concert dedicated to the visionary church figure, held at the Western Diocese in Burbank, California, on Saturday, April 6, under the auspices of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America.
While Gomidas is known throughout the world as the savior of Armenian music, notating and preserving centuries-old music, essentially saving it from annihilation before the Armenian Genocide, he was first and foremost a valued member of the Armenian Church, contributing greatly to its mission and to its Divine Liturgy.
Establishing the tone of the conference in his opening remarks, Rev. Fr. Vazken Movsesian noted that the Armenian Church is “alive” but encouraged further engagement.
“We are learning about Gomidas Vartabed today as a man of the church,” said Fr. Vazken, who highlighted that Gomidas had a deep understanding of his faith. “Our whole intention is to reclaim Gomidas because he believed in the church and understood God through the Armenian Church.”
Reflecting on Gomidas as an Armenian clergyman, Rev. Fr. Vazken Boyadjian, pastor of the Holy Resurrection Armenian Church in Redmond, Washington, recognized him as a “prophet.”
Despite the difficulties Gomidas faced in his life, from being orphaned as a youngster, to surviving the trauma of the Armenian Genocide, he “never fell down and never lost his faith.”
“The opposite occurred, and he became victorious over his hardships,” said Fr. Vazken, elaborating on the difficult childhood of Gomidas, born Soghomon Soghomonian in 1869, losing first his mother, then his father, who was a Deacon in the Armenian Church.
To grapple with these losses, Gomidas began to sing as a way to relive his memories with his parents, and due to his good voice, he was enrolled at the Gevorgian Seminary at Etchmiadzin at the age of 12, although he did not know how to speak Armenian due to the restrictions of the Ottoman government.
“Gomidas served our people with his talents,” said Fr. Vazken, who remarked that he stayed true to his roots, not only by setting out to protect the music of the Armenian people, but by remaining by their side through their gravest time in history.
“He strengthened the spirit of the victims during the Armenian Genocide by praying for them and singing to them during the death marches,” he said. Fr. Vazken also revealed a lighter side to Gomidas, who enjoyed Armenian dance and telling jokes, even staging the plays of Hagop Baronian with his friends. Ultimately, Gomidas ventured into the countryside to write down the songs of the Armenian people that were passed down in the oral tradition, which segued into the day’s second talk “Gomidas Vartabed as a Discoverer of the Armenian Identity,” led by Rev. Fr. Zacharia Saribekian, pastor of the St. Apkar Armenian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, who highlighted that Gomidas was a man “filled with the Armenian Spirit and the Holy Spirit.”
Fr. Zacharia noted that following the Armenian Genocide, Gomidas again became an orphan but “through suffering a new birth occurred.”
He read from the writings of famed poets Yeghishe Charentz and Barouyr Sevag, who reference Gomidas in their works as a creator and compare him to Mesrob Mashdots because one was a prophet for the Armenian language, and the other for Armenian music.
“Gomidas returned to us the Armenian songs,” he said. “He brought these unique words and melodies back to the ears of Armenians.”
As a spiritual leader, he showed the Armenians how to serve the church, and as a music teacher, he taught his students how to find their inner selves and how to discover their own identities, “understanding the souls of his students and reaching them on a soulful level.”
“Gomidas was chosen by God,” said Fr. Zacharia. “The biggest gift he gave was his life.”
Following lunch, the program continued with a discussion titled, “Revealing Gomidas Vartabed’s Character From His Personal Letters,” led by Hayk Madoyan, Ecumenical Officer of the Western Diocese.
While Gomidas wrote often to those close to him, from the Armenian poet Hovhannes Toumanian to the Armenian singer Margarit Babayan, only 184 of his letters have been preserved. Through his personal writings, however, Madoyan concluded that “Gomidas was an ordinary man like us who faced his share of challenges.”
The content of the preserved letters reveal 10 different characters of Gomidas, according to Madoyan, including an eagerness to learn, work ethic, glimpses of research, kind heartedness, self expression in art, internal and external struggles, issues with nervousness, cheerfulness, patriotism and love for church, conviction and vision. Madoyan read selections from the letters aloud, which brought to life Gomidas’s persona, such as showing glimpses of his research when recounting to Babayan his experience visiting Mount Ararat to collect Kurdish melodies.
“It’s important we go to the source and take the time to read the personal letters of Gomidas in order to better understand him,” said Madoyan.
During his segment, Archbishop Derderian elaborated on the Divine Liturgy of Gomidas Vartabed and the Gomidasian Badarak, which is “more pure, more cleansed and more to the roots.”
“The Gomidasian Badarak has been considered the miracle of all Badaraks,” said Archbishop Derderian. “What captures my attention when I hear, listen and sing this Badarak is the success and talent of Gomidas in being able to harmonize the words and the music that has been harmoniously intermingled and cannot be separated.”
Archbishop Derderian elaborated on how the meaning of the words embody the hymns, from Der Voghormia to Soorp Soorp and how the “level of his endearing and wondrous creation has captivated, inspired and moved a people in search of its identity.”
Citing past research from Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, of Blessed Memory, Archbishop Derderian said the former Patriarch of Jerusalem coined the term, “Vehapar of the Armenian Song” when referring to Gomidas. He also noted that to “truly capture and encapsulate the essence of genius of Gomidas Vartabed,” a series of extensive lectures and seminars would need to be studied on an academic level due to the breadth of his accomplishments.
“Gomidas embraced the sacredness, sanctity and mystery of the Divine Liturgy,” said Archbishop Derderian. “He was moved by the humility of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and served his Divine Liturgy to the faithful so that through his sacrament the faithful may embrace God’s presence in their lives.”
The final presentation of the conference, “The Genius of Armenian Music,” led by Professor Vatche Mankerian, focused on the musical gifts of Gomidas.
Although more than half of the 4,000 songs Gomidas collected, wrote and transcribed were lost, Mankerian emphasized the pieces that survived, including “Hov Arek Sarer” (Come, Breeze), which depicts the Armenian villager. He played this song for audience members, which was recorded and sung by Gomidas himself in Paris in 1912. As his captivating voice filled the room, the past fused with the present, particularly when Mankerian played “Antuni” (Homeless), sung by Armenag Shahmuradian, an opera student of Gomidas Vartabed.
“To this day this song is close to our heart and a relevant song unfortunately,” said Mankerian, while elaborating on the many genres of music and themes that the music of Gomidas encompasses, from happiness to sadness, to daily life work to weddings.
“People sang these songs for all different occasions,” he said, noting the German discipline Gomidas adopted while a student at Frederick William University in Berlin at the turn of the 20th century. “The genius of Gomidas is that he realized these songs of the countryside had value.”
To express the impact that Gomidas continues to have in the Diaspora in the 21st century, not only among Armenians but around the world, Mankerian concluded by playing compositions by the Hover Chamber Choir performed during a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
“Musicians who are aware of their identities can continue this work in a more modern approach,” he said.
In his closing address, Archbishop Derderian reflected on the profound conference, remarking that “Gomidas Vartabed is a giant in our Armenian Church.”
He thanked the conference speakers and highlighted their spiritual strengths and dedication.
“We have to feel and live the spirit of Gomidas Vartabed,” said Archbishop Derderian. “He is in the blood of every Armenian and we leave here today invigorated.”
Following the conference, a tour of St. Leon Cathedral and the Zorayan Museum was led by Madoyan, where guests learned more about the exterior of the Cathedral, such as the presence of its symbolic khatchkars, to the interior of the sanctuary and the handiwork of the stained glass windows.
The program culminated in a special concert dedicated to Gomidas Vartabed’s 150th Anniversary that took place at Kalaydjian Hall and featured folk songs for string quartet by Gomidas Vartabed, performed by the Aslamazian String Quartet, Armenian Chamber Orchestra and directed by Armen Der Gevorkian; Gomidas Piano Suites, arranged and performed by Professor Vatche Mankerian; and the Gomidas Chorals performed by the St. Leon Shnorhali Choir, led by musical director Alenoush Yeghnazar and piano accompaniment by Gegam Achtchian.
“The concert was a great success and covered different genres,” said Yeghnazar. “The guests were impressed with the music and the family-oriented atmosphere and they said the selections left them wanting to hear more.”
The conference and subsequent concert humanized Gomidas Vartabed and enlivened him not only as a cultural icon but as a dedicated servant of the Armenian Church. Through the discussions about his life and works as well as his music, guests gained a much more thorough understanding of Gomidas, his mindset and his innumerable contributions to the Armenian religion, faith and culture.
The participation of the youth in this wide-scale event was a testament to the everlasting presence of Gomidas Vartabed in today’s world. Aside from helping with logistics, the younger generation, many of whom are members of the ACYOA of the St. Leon Cathedral, participated in the conferences and were on hand to assist in any capacity.
“The youth executed their responsibilities very conscientiously and I was very proud of the way they handled everything,” said Fr. Vazken Movsesian, who noted that the first Reclaim in 2017 targeted the youth of the church, which remains a priority of the Western Diocese.
“The Reclaim Gomidas Conference teaches us about one of our church’s greatest known clergyman and one of the greatest Armenian musicians whose music touches our souls,” said youth member Deacon Gevork Takmizyan. “Gomidas Vartabed is the reason why I continue my service on the church altar and he plays a big role in my life as a musician, whose music will continue to live within me.”