Fr. Daniel Findikyan, Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan Professor of Liturgy and Dean of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, opened the Seminary's Spring Lecture series with a talk entitled, Our Strength and Our Song: Armenian Sacred Music Yesterday and Today. It was attended by a large audience including two guests from Armenia who were visiting at the time - Mr. Levon Melikian, an architect and professor at the Yerevan Institute of Architecture, and his wife, Dr. Irna Shahinian, a renowned scholar at the Matenadaran in Yerevan.
Before beginning his formal talk, Fr. Daniel opened by stating that the Spring lecture series was being dedicated in memory of Mr. Edward Essayan, through a generous contribution of the Essayan family. "Edward was a long-time friend of the seminary, who shared his love of learning with his wife Anita," said Fr. Daniel. He continued, "I am so pleased that Anita is here with us tonight and happy that the Essayan family was able to plant a seed in an endowment fund to pay for the lecture series for years to come."
Fr. Daniel opened his lecture by sharing how he "discovered God" while attending church as a child in Binghamton, NY. "Deeply moved by that music, sometimes moved to tears, I felt power in those old hymns whose words I could not understand at that time." Continuing he said, "But a power that could only come from God, no one could compose such beautiful, mesmerizing music unless that person had seen the almighty, had been touched by God." "And so, the magnificent, sacred music of the Armenian Church became for me a witness to our magnificent God and to God's awesome and gracious presence in the midst of the Armenian people, and in the midst of us today."
Insprired by Psalm 118
The title of the lecture series was inspired by the 14th verse of Psalm 118 " the lord is my strength and my song, he has become my salvation. Fr. Findikyan noted that two ways of looking at sacred music are through musicology and from the perspective of the liturgy. Armenians developed their own system of notation named khazakrootyoon. It was a native Armenian system for recording sounds and for transmitting melody and music into written form. Fr. Findikyan noted that we unfortunately no longer have the key to this system. The Armenian art of singing is not fixed, he said, and "implied in our system is always a bit of freedom and spontaneity."
Our music was written by Armenians, for Armenians, and for use in our church. The sharagans of the church were composed for specific functions and texts in the use of the Armenian liturgical services. As a liturgioligist, Fr. Daniel offered the following questions: what are the sharagans, where do they come from, who wrote them, when are they to be sung, and why at a given point of a service. "Each element of our liturgy" he said, "is inserted with great care into the matrix of our worship services with a particular function."
The modern critical study of the sharagnots began in the early 19th century when a Mkhitarist Vartabed named Gabriel Avedikian wrote a thick, two-volume work called Patsagragan Sharaganats, or explanation of the sharagnots. He was followed by a vartabed of Etchmiadzin named Nersess Der Mikaelian, who wrote a work in German at the beginning of the 20th Century for his studies at his university in Berlin, on the historical development of the sharagnots as a piece of literature and as a compendium of Armenian hymns.
"Our great Catholicos of blessed memory, Karekin I, wrote his Vartabedagan Asdijan thesis (receipt of the order of vartabed) in which he did a theological assessment and analysis of the sharagnots." Fr. Findikyan stated, "This was done topically and thematically in which Karekin Vehapar lifted up certain themes that tend to reoccur in the hymns of the sharagnots and wrote a very interesting piece of work which is overwhelmingly theological in its approach."
Fr. Findikyan said, "In the last ten years, there is another area which has emerged with a number of scholars, who don't have Armenian last names, turning their attention to our Armenian sharagans." This work began with a Benedictine French monk named Charles Renoux, who in the early to mid 1960's, devoted himself to the Armenian liturgical tradition, specifically, to the Armenian lectionary or Jashots Kirk. A lectionary is a system by which a church selects and appoints specific bible passages to be read at services throughout the year.
Armenian lectionary… one of Christendom's oldest
The Armenian lectionary is one of the oldest in Christendom to survive; it comes out of the very cradle of Christianity, Jerusalem. It was in the context of Fr. Renoux's work that he recognized that the sharagans in the Armenian Church are nothing but interpretations of sacred scripture; they were the earliest bible studies for the people. During his research, Fr. Renoux compared the Georgian hymnal with the Armenian sharagnots and discovered that, on a feast such as Palm Sunday, the hymnals of the Georgian and Armenian churches were identical. "What was less expecting and more surprising," Fr. Daniel noted, "is that some of the hymns were identical word for word." Fr. Renoux concluded that both hymns must have come from a common source such as an original hymn sung in Greek by the earliest Christians in Jerusalem.
Fr. Daniel said, "Armenians were present in Jerusalem from the earliest times. The Armenian Church in the fourth and fifth centuries was beginning to emerge as a force in the lives of the Armenian people, being able to translate, communicate and build a Christian tradition and culture using the letters of Mesrob Mashdots." He continued, "It would not be surprising at all that Mashdots, and perhaps some of his disciples in Jerusalem, would record some of the hymns that they were hearing and singing in the holy places, and transport them back to Armenia, where they would translate them into words that suited our people and our culture."