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Nikogayos Tigranian. New album.

Armenian Folk Dances,

Mugam Arrangements

World Premiere Recording

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Nikoghayos Tigranian belongs to the first generation of composers and folk song collectors who laid the foundation of an Armenian national style. Tigranian’s piano transcriptions of folk dances is perhaps his most important legacy, emulating folk instruments and capturing and preserving colourful depictions of Armenian folk life that are simple in texture and rich with harmonic and melodic detail. His interest also extended to Persian improvisational vocal-instrumental poems or mugams; expressive pieces that influenced contemporaries and subsequent generations of composers.

NIKOGHAYOS TIGRANIAN (1856–1951) ARMENIAN FOLK DANCES • MUGAM ARRANGEMENTS, OPP. 2, 3, 5, 6 AND 10 Among the first generation of composers and folk song collectors in Armenia, Nikoghayos Tadevosi Tigranian (1856–1951) stands alongside other important figures such as Komitas Vardapet, Tigran Chukhadzhian, Kristapor Kara-Murza and Makar Ekmalian. It was Tigranian and his colleagues who began the systematic collection of folk songs and dances, and laid the foundation of an Armenian national style.


Tigranian was born on 31 August 1856 in Alexandropol (now Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia), one of ten siblings. His father, Tadevos Nazareti, was a military man, and his mother, Yeranuhi Gorovants, was well-educated. Tigranian lived most of his life in the city, which was particularly famous for its rich folklore, the living tradition of folk singing and the ashug culture which had emerged from the music of popular bards and troubadours around the 16th to 18th centuries. His parents were themselves interested in both Eastern and European music, the latter of which was gradually reaching the Caucasus. While Tigranian showed early musical promise as he began his school studies, he contracted smallpox when he was nine years old and lost his sight. His parents, fearing for his fate in a city without schooling for blind children, resolved to find a means to educate him at all costs, and began to look further afield. In 1874, the International Sanitary Congress was held in Vienna, and Tigranian’s parents took him to it, hoping that specialists might offer some hope for the restoration of his sight. The doctors were unable to help, and recommended that he be sent to the Viennese Institute for the Blind. Tigranian’s parents fought their way through various administrative hoops in order to secure him a place, and he was finally given the opportunity to study there. Not only did this provide him with an extensive secondary education, he was also given lessons by Wilhelm Schenner of the Vienna Conservatory, studying music theory, harmony, composition and piano. He studied particularly hard as a pianist, working on repertoire from Bach to Liszt, and took extracurricular courses in violin playing and instrument restoration. In 1880, Tigranian returned to Alexandropol and threw himself into the collection and study of local music, from sazandars, singers and ashugs—performing musicians, often working in small ensembles with traditional instruments.


Tigranian’s skilful transcriptions preserve the intonation and rich metric patterns of this music, while making them accessible to music professionals not only in Armenia and Russia, but in Western Europe as well. Over the next ten years, he transcribed many mugams, which draw together poetry and instrumental improvisation which have been passed down through an oral tradition. In this undertaking he was much assisted by his uncle, Agamal Melik-Agamalian, who was a famous tar player (a long-necked stringed instrument related to the guitar), with a fine knowledge of important melodies. Tigranian recorded and transcribed all of his uncle’s mugams, such as Bayati-kurd, Bayati-shiraz, Nouruz Arabi, Shakhnaz, Gidzas and Heydari. At the same time, he began to compile arrangements of Armenian folk dances for piano. A selection of these dances forms the first half of this album; they were also a particularly important collection in the development of Armenian piano music. In 1893, now in his late 30s, Tigranian travelled to St Petersburg to study with the Conservatory professor Nikolai Soloviev. He also took the opportunity to study the works of the leading Russian composers of the century—Glinka, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov—and in the late 1890s he toured Russia, Georgia and Armenia as a concert pianist. His programmes often included his folk dance and mugam transcriptions. In 1899, he first met Komitas Vardapet (often considered the father of Armenian art music), and the two men became great friends, spending days at a time in discussion of the style and form of Armenian music. Komitas told him, at every meeting, ‘I come to use the musical treasury of Nikoghayos Tigranian.’ In turn, Tigranian remarked, ‘I do not know anyone like Komitas who would feel and understand the spirit and character of our folk music so deeply.’


Tigranian’s career was rich and varied. An outstanding composer, ethnographer and pianist, he was an expert on the music of several regions besides Armenia (including Georgia, Persia and the music of the Tatars), and taught and wrote extensively about these subjects. His pioneering work in recording and transcribing Armenian music was to have a significant impact on both the understanding of local folk traditions and the development of Armenian art music informed by these folk roots. His younger contemporary Aleksandr Spendiarian (Spendiarov) dubbed him ‘the great musician-orientalist’. In 1922, Tigranian opened a school for blind children in his home town of Gyumri, and was appointed its principal. He died in 1951 at the age of 94. Tigranian’s piano transcriptions of folk dances—perhaps his most important legacy—first began to appear in the late 1880s during a period of intensive work on the collection, recording and transcription of local folk music. They are exclusively Armenian and focus in particular on the folk ashug melodies that existed in Gyumri, and are the first such attempt to capture music of the Armenian oral tradition in this way. In his 25 transcriptions, he seldom made significant changes to the melodies as he found them, seeking to capture the distinctive rhythms and harmonic patterns of the music without translating them into a more familiar Western classical idiom. ‘In the dances,’ the composer wrote, ‘various states of the dancers are transmitted by rhythm, beginning with ornament and energy, and ending with calm.’ The majority of the dances included on this album are round dances, frequently performed and so-called simply because all participants stand in a circle to take part. In the short continuous group of Three Round Dances (Kyandrbaz, Vard Koshikes and Shavali), Tigranian unites three melodies of strongly contrasting character which point at many of the harmonic devices common to this idiom: above all, to the use of both major and minor thirds in scales, so that in the Kyandrbaz, the two notes are frequently sounded together, one in each hand. Dyuz Par is poised and balletic, a theme with five variations. Two of the dances hail from specific regions and peoples: the Round Dance of Gyumri (from Tigranian’s home town), moving from a mournful opening to a passionate energy as it builds, and Round Dance of the Erzrumi (Erzurum is in Turkey), with its forceful octave interjections. Back and Forth sees a melodic line lightly turning and pirouetting over left-hand chords, while the cheery Ver-ver features a striking duet of treble lines in its central section. Several of Tigranian’s transcriptions are of dance songs, in which the lyrics are principally concerned with love. Song and dance always occur together in Armenian culture, which explains the flexibility and rhythmically rich shapes of the melodies. Faten Kitam is a passionate dialogue between a girl who has dropped her ring in a river, and the young man she asks to retrieve it. He agrees to do so only if the girl admits that she loves him, and the music provides a melodic back and forth between speakers. In the end, he recovers the ring, and she becomes his wife. The Rangi is a light, skipping women’s dance, while Zourni Trngi and the Daghstani dance are both intended for men. Zourni Trngi is particularly energetic, the rhythmic patterning of the music dominating the dance while melodic figures are repeated. The Daghstani is also full of rhythmic stresses which sound sometimes surprising to a Western European ear—at moments, the emphases almost fall like a Ländler before they are disrupted by the real pattern of the Armenian dance form. Findjan, which opens the album, is particularly lyrical and here Tigranian uses original material in constructing the piece. In a number of these arrangements, Tigranian seeks to imitate folk instruments, above all the zurna, which is a reed instrument, a little like an oboe. The result is a highly coloured depiction of Armenian folk life, simple in texture and rich with harmonic and melodic detail. Other instruments are also hinted at in his writing: the dap and daira (drums), and the specifically Armenian variation of the oboe, the duduk. Tigranian’s interest also extended to recording mugams, improvisational vocal-instrumental poems. He recorded both sung and instrumental version of mugams, including working closely with the brilliant tar virtuoso Agamal Melik-Agamalian. These pieces form the second half of the album. We begin with his earliest transcription, Bayati-kurd, Op. 2 – Bayati is an Arabic word for poetry. The piece, an elegiac work, consists of three sections: a slow introduction (Tchobane), the principal part of the piece (Bayati) and the closing section (Guiaff). Bayati-kurd begins with a beautifully wistful melody, giving way to increasingly impassioned harmonies in the central section—the effect of the major and minor thirds, and Tigranian’s writing seems to hint at both Rachmaninov piano music and jazz in this passage. His following opus, Bayati-shiraz, Op. 3, begins dramatically, and the melodic line is clearly intended for a singer. Shakhnaz, Op. 6 is a particularly important piece, since Tigranian saw fit to transcribe it for violin and piano as well as for solo piano (as heard here). Its vivid opening, full of grand chords and tremolos, leads to an expansive unfolding over the course of the piece. The rather shorter Heydari, Op. 5 hints at a solemn procession, while Nouruz Arabi, Op. 10 depicts the awakening of nature—morning in Arabia—as the mysterious introduction gives way to a sparkling bright sunrise and grand conclusion. Tigranian’s mugams were to influence both contemporaries and subsequent generations of composers: Aleksandr Spendiarian, Mikhail Ippolitov- Ivanov, Reinhold Glière, Spiridon Melikyan and Aram Khachaturian.


Mikael Ayrapetyan

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