Ouverture spirituelle • Eastern Christianity V: Sacred choral music from Armenia


• Sacred choral music from Armenia


End of concert approx. 12:20 pm.

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Armenian sacred music is one of the oldest branches of the Eastern Christian musical culture. The main period in its development lasted roughly from the 5th to the 15th century. Christianity penetrated into Armenian reality in the middle of the 1st century, brought by Apostles St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew. In 301 AD, Christianity became the sole state religion in Armenia and in 405 AD St. Mesrop Mashtots created the Armenian alphabet. These events, along with the translation of the Bible have created prerequisites for the development of church culture.
The 5th century is considered the first important stage in developing of new independent sacred chants in addition to the existing biblical psalms and hymns. Until that time, the main form of musical organization of the church ceremony was psalmody. The psalms were sung to an Eight-mode system. In the 7th century these independent chants, adjacent to psalms and prophetic blessings, so called ktsurds, were compiled in a separate book, thus becoming a prototype for the Armenian Sharaknots (Hymnarium). Ktsurds served as a foundation for the main genre of Armenian sacred music, sharakan. Alongside of sharakans, later a highly developed type (genre) system of Armenian chants was formed.
By the early 8th century the khaz system special musical notation for recording of sacred melodies – is beginning to develop. After the 15th century the khaz system was gradually declining. In the 19th the main medieval Liturgical hymns were re-recorded in New Armenian Notation and published, including Sharaknots, composed of more than 1800 sharakans. In the second half of the 19th century the sacred melodies reflecting the monodic thinking, along with Armenian folk songs became a foundation for Armenian school of homophonic/polyphonic music. One of the best examples of that art is Komitas’ Patarag (Liturgy).

Prof. Mher Navoyan, Artistic director of “Geghard” Vocal Ensemble

Motive Ouverture spirituelle, © Robert Mertens




Ex oriente lux: the sun rising in the East became a symbol for Christian faith – and remained a catchphrase even after the ‘East-West Schism’ had divided the disparate traditions of Christianity into a Western and an Eastern church. From the perspective of modern historians, this was not a singular event in 1054, but a process of estrangement stretching over decades, even centuries, due to increasing linguistic, cultural, political, economic and of course theological differences, culminating in the catastrophic sack of Christian Constantinople by an army of Venetian crusaders in 1204. It was no coincidence that the Eastern tradition chose to call itself ‘orthodox’ (literally, ‘right in religion’) – after all, it worshipped in Greek, the original language of the New Testament. Even the spoken word of God was music, and song its most intense augmentation: no instrument but the human voice was able to express the effect of the Holy Ghost adequately. This conviction, manifest in sumptuous choral works, was handed down to the various traditions rooted in the Eastern church, spreading geographically from Africa to Asia. Ensembles from Russia, Armenia, Greece, Lebanon, Egypt and Ethiopia will offer resounding examples of these different traditions.
Echoes of these can be detected in works like the large-scale Concerto for Choir by the native Russian Alfred Schnittke – in the anti-clerical Soviet Union in 1986, this was as much of a scandal as the religious fundaments of the music of Estonian Arvo Pärt, particularly revered in the West today. His musical self-discovery in the 1970s went hand in hand with his conversion to the Russian-Orthodox faith. In a sublimated form, the latter may have already been present in the Symphony of Psalms which Igor Stravinsky, himself Russian-Orthodox, expressly did not conceive as a symphony featuring sung psalms, but psalms in a symphonic setting.
The ‘Western’ programme of the Ouverture spirituelle mirrors the status of choral music in the Eastern church, especially in great oratorios written in the Catholic or Reformed traditions. Of course the tradition of beginning the series with Joseph Haydn’s Creationcontinues – conducted this year by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It reaches its contemporary culmination with the world premiere of Peter Eötvös’s dramatic Halleluja – Oratorium balbulum; classical milestones include Mozart’s Mass in C minor at St. Peter and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. While the prophet in Eötvös’s work is afflicted with a stutter, the biblical Daniel in George Frederic Handel’s fascinating oratorio Belshazzar suffers no such impediment: summoned by the Babylonian king – truly a ‘monstrous human beast’, characterized by a pig’s grunt arising from the orchestra pit – Daniel interprets a mysterious writing on the wall (the well-known ‘menetekel’) to foretell his imminent end. The victorious Persian Cyrus liberates the Israelites from their Babylonian slavery: he too, appears as a light from the East.

Walter Weidringer

Tanslated by Alexa Nieschlag

as part of the Ouverture spirituelle

As in previous years, we are grateful that the Herbert Batliner European Institute will cooperate again with the Salzburg Festival, accompanying the Ouverture spirituelle with academic presentations and discussions. Complementing the concert programme focusing on Eastern Christianity, the Disputationes feature issues of intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

The first event takes place on July 22, 2016.
Three rounds of public conversations follow as part of the Ouverture spirituelle.