To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, composer Petros Shoujounian wrote four string quartets that draw on medieval Armenian liturgical chants. The Armenian born composer, who lives in Canada, now has released a recording of the quartets on ATMA Classique with Quatuor Molinari, a group in residence at the Conservatory of Music of Montreal.
Called Noravank, the recording is a beautiful homage to the estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians of all ages who were exterminated by the Ottoman Empire starting in 1905, culminating in 1916. But it is also a rich celebration of Armenian faith, history, and culture.
The quartets are named after the 13th century Armenian monastery that was once a major center of faith and culture and which has served as an inspiration to Shoujounian. To create his quartets, Shoujounian relied on manuscripts of chants that were notated and transcribed by Nikoghos Tahmizian, the Armenian born musicologist whose discoveries brought this liturgical music to light.
Each movement of these quartets also is named after a river in Armenia, which is especially significant since many Armenians were baptized in rivers when the nation embraced Christianity in 301. In the liner notes, Shoujounian states that the names symbolize how “water is essential to life, and rivers are the veins of a country, just as faith nourishes and sustains our existence as creative and forward-looking people.”
From the mournful opening to the joyous end, we cannot but help be saddened by the loss of so many souls to barbarity and yet uplifted by the faith of a suffering people. These are not chants of a liturgical choir. Instead, this is music that blends the history, culture, and liturgy of a people as absorbed and heard by one of its faithful sons.
In this case, the son is a composer, an artist, who demonstrates with this work, like Górecki and Pärt, that religion and faith can inspire new art. But that, of course, depends upon the grace of God and the faith and soul of the artist.
With the Molinari Quartet, Shoujounian has found the perfect artistic partners for this recording. While clearly a work to be performed in public, and one that should inspire any audience, Noravank is also a work that can be enjoyed in solitude. The brilliant interplay between the cello, viola, and violins is at times delicate, at other times powerful. In each moment, this is music perfectly interpreted by the Molinari Quartet that is bound to touch the heart and soul of the listener.
Shoujounian provides liner notes that reveal his intention for each movement. He emphasizes in these notes sadness, solitude, prayer, forgiveness, faith, darkness, renewal, humility, praise, hope, and light. And all are there, as he says, in this recording. Ever present is faith.
This is not the first time Shoujounian has drawn inspiration from Armenian liturgical chant. In 2001, he produced 18 religious chants for soprano and small orchestra. That year, he also performed three pieces for the anniversary of the conversion of Armenia to Christianity in 301 by Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia.
With Noravank, Shoujounian has created a new work inspired by tradition that captures the heart and soul of the Armenian people. Solemn, sad, and dark as well as joyous, exalting, and hopeful, Shoujounian’s string quartets are prayers of indomitable Christian faith and of everlasting memory.