In friezes from the walls of ancient pagan buildings we see depicted singers with musical instruments of various kinds, entertaining royal audiences or singing in a group. From these it is evident that music had a place in the earliest civilization of Armenia. Of course, Armenia, like the countries that surrounded her in pagan times, had her strolling minstrels and troubadours, who used musical instruments and their own melodies to accompany the stories they told. From these, no doubt, developed the folk music of the Armenians, which has been described as "lively and distinctly peculiar to the Armenian people, although showing sometimes foreign influences, either Persian or Turkish."
The beginnings of liturgical music came in the fifth century, when so much of the work on an Armenian liturgy was undertaken:
"Christianity introduced a new kind of poetry, namely Church hymns and chants. These were called, in Armenian, sharkans. They were not only written in meter, but were composed with a view to being sung. The word sharakan means "row of gems" Historians of the Middle Ages say that the sharakans were written mainly by the "translators," i.e. by the writers of the fourth and fifth centuries. As a matter of fact, very few sharakans were written after the thirteenth century. Since then, no prayers or hymns have been introduced into the Armenian Church.
It is said by writers of the Middle Ages that St. Sahag arranged the sharakans for ten voices and St. Stephanos for twenty-six voices, corresponding to created things - elements, plants, birds, and animals. There were also women sharakan writers. One of these was Sahakadukht, who lived in the eight century. She not only wrote, but also composed music, and taught singing. Out of modesty, she used to hide behind a curtain, whence she gave instruction to both sexes. Singing was considered a great art in Armenia, and musicians were called "philosophers" Several such "philosophers" were canonized and had the word "philosopher" prefixed to their names… When Catholicos Petros Getarardz went to Constantinople, he took with him a company of musicians, whom he presented, as a gift, for the service of the Byzantine court."
By the end of the fifth century, the musical canons were set. But it was not until the ninth century that a system of notation, called the Khaz system, was used. In liturgical music books today, the marks used for this system are still included, but their meanings have not been deciphered because while they indicated the pitch, rhythm, and nuance, which the singer was supposed to use, they assumed that he already knew the basic melody. Today at the Armenian Academy of Sciences in Yerevan, musicologists are attempting to decipher this system with the aid of computers.
Under the influence of Nerses the Grace-filled, the Armenian hymnary was expanded in the twelfth century, for besides his poetic abilities he had much musical talent, and wrote some of the most beautiful liturgical music to be found in the church. It is said that when, as Catholicos, he was distressed to hear his guards singing Turkish ditties, he composed some of his music to give them something better to sing. In any case, his music is beautiful. One example is Norasdeghdzyal a hymn sung in three parts during the morning service, which speaks of the newly-created life God has offered us and conveys, by the purity of its melody, a sense of the new beginning that the Resurrection, the "morning" of the Church, brings to us.
Nerses was the greatest Armenian liturgical composer to come for many centuries, but closer to our own time stands another great figure. Komitas Vartabed. This sensitive young man received some of his early training under Makar Ekmalian, whose compositions of the Divine Liturgy are sung in many Armenian churches today. Later, he received further instruction in Berlin, and began writing some of the more than three thousand songs and compositions which are attributed to him. He took hundreds of old folk songs, arranging them in the way they were meant to be sung, with a pure national flavor. His work attracted the attention of many Europeans; "Debussy's opinion, in which he called Komitas a great composer on the basis of only one of his songs ("Homeless"), is well-known."
Komitas' greatest achievement is his arrangement of parts of the Divine Liturgy, which he wrote down and restored to their original style. The beauty of the Komitas Liturgy, performed today in churches throughout the world is matchless. After he died in Paris his remains were moved to Armenia to be buried there with other beloved artists. Through the work of Komitas, many people in Europe were for the first time exposed to Armenian music in its original form, unchanged by the influence of the Turkish and other Eastern, but foreign influences which had imposed themselves on the culture of the country.
Armenian folk music was arranged symphonically for the first time by Spendiarian, early in the twentieth century. His symphonic piece, Yerevanina sketches, was based on popular folk melodies, including one written by the eighteenth-century bard, Sayat Nova. With this work, and with others like it, Spendiarian became the greatest influence on Armenian symphonic music.
Spendiarian also took a poem by a classic Armenian writer, Hovhannes Toumanian, and based on it the opera Almast, which depicts the Armenians trying to defend their homeland. This lovely piece, which also contains many of the folk melodies, which Spendarian grew to love, has been performed in Moscow, Tbilisi, Odessa, Tashkent, and other places in the Soviet Union. In 1933, the Yerevan opera house which was later to be named after Spendiarian had its grand opening with a performance of Almast.
The operas of Armen Tigranian, whose Anush is not only beautiful but exacts incredible vocal feats from its singers; the ballets and symphonies of Aram Khachaturian; the haunting quality of Alan Hovhaness' music - all are based on the music which the Armenian church and people handed down to their children.