Meeting God at the Keyboard:

Reflections on Composing Armenian Church Music

from George Kirazian

 Compiled by Dér Stépanos Dingilian, Ph. D. © 2000

             I meet God at the piano keyboard!  The sharagan (hymn) that I compose, the final product, is fine.  But more enriching is the time we spend together, He and I.

            The whole Badarak (Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church), not just the sharagans, is an insight into God’s presence in every aspect of our lives. Rembrandt once said: “When a man loves one woman totally, completely, he loves all women.”  Likewise, when you experience God in the Badarak, you experience Him in all areas of your life.  You receive His presence, guidance and help “in all thy ways . . ..”

            I have been a student of music for nearly fifty years, from the time I was a student at New York University, and worked as an usher at Carnegie Hall.  In recent years I have written country/western songs, some waltzes, and have set some poems of favorite poets.  I did all of this simply because I enjoyed it.  But when I began taking part in the Badarak, suddenly everything was very different.  It was the entire setting, the total Church experience, not just the sharagans, that drew me in!

            For fifteen years I sang and studied the Badarak, - the translation, the Biblical sources, the rich meaning of the words and, of course, the melodies.  I know that we are often awed by the beauty of the sharagans.  But there is something even more beautiful, moving and profound than just the sharagans themselves: It is the whole spiritual movement that takes place in the prayers and the responses between the celebrant, the deacons and the choir.  The whole Badarak is connected and harmonized, not just the sharagans.  Again, many see the Badarak as a set of musical highs and lows.  But when you study the Badarak in depth, and release yourself to it spiritually, suddenly you find that it is all a set of highs that reveal God’s relationship with us and, in turn, enrich and transform every aspect of our lives.  I hope I can convey some of this in my music.

            After tasting these insights into the Badarak, I could no longer simply sit still, passively.  In my own modest way, I had to act upon the gift of composition that God had bestowed upon me.  If God had blessed me with this ability, then I had to respond to Him with thankfulness.  All my previous efforts in writing music seemed, in a sense, to be an apprenticeship.  But writing the music for the Badarak now became a calling. . . .

            I began writing the music in a traditional manner.  I started with the music for the Dér Voghormya.  I kept trying to blend the spiritual meaning of the words, traditional Armenian Church music and today’s (conservative) harmonies.  But I worked too hard at it; I labored, forced it. . . .  In time, I came simply to trust God, to let Him do the interweaving of all these elements.  Then, not only did I meet God while listening to and singing the Badarak on Sunday mornings, but also while trying to write the music for it.  It is a journey with God that cannot be explained through mere words. . . .

            Writing music for the Badarak is very different from writing for other intentions.  Regardless of how beautiful any setting is, it must be written in a manner that even non-professionals can learn and sing.  An analogy is what you, Dér Stépanos, often say about the Gospels: “They are inspirational, and yet written in a manner that is very easy to read, follow and understand by the faithful of all backgrounds.”  Likewise, the Badarak music has to be written so that people of all backgrounds can sing it.  This has to be so for two reasons: first, the Church choirs generally are not made up of professional singers.  Second, and more important, the melodies should stay in our minds long after the Church service ends; we should hear them even when we are at home, at work, or in the car.  The music must combine spirituality, beauty, and simplicity.

            By the grace of God, I completed the first Dér Voghormya in 1991.  I dedicated it to my parish, specifically to the Choir of St. John Garabéd Church in San Diego, California.  It was a very humbling experience. . . .  On a different level, it gave me great satisfaction to see and hear not only the Choir, but many other parishioners, come together to sing Dér Voghormya.  After all, this was, and still is, one of my objectives: to encourage people who usually sit in the back of the Church to come forward and sing with the Choir.  I believe that new generations need this sort of encouragement and reaching-out in spiritual participation. . . .

            I have completed nearly half of the Badarak beginning at Orhnya Dér.  I am keeping some of the more moving sharagans, like Hayr Mér, Khorhoort Khorheen and Parékhosootyamp . . . for a later time, when I hope to grow deeper spiritually and musically.  For me, this is a beautiful journey with God – my own Odyssey, guided by the Lord with a destination only known by God Himself!

            The response to my work has been in general very encouraging.  Many who truly love our Church music have often told me that “the Sharagans are very beautiful.”  The Amén Hayr Yérgnavor was recently sung at our daughter’s (Lisa and Steve’s) wedding, and my wife and I were moved by the guests’ appreciation of the sharagan.  Other parishioners have been rather cool towards it.  This doesn’t bother me.  It’s understandable; no one setting or music will please everyone.  But the crucial point here is that I am not composing it to please others or myself.  I am writing it to the greater glory of God.  Still, I am encouraged and pleased because I have not had anyone telling me: “Who do you think you are, writing this music?!”

            I thank my dear wife, Dikranouhi, who first revealed to me the beauty of the Badarak, and our daughters Yvette, Andrea, and Lisa, who have all been so supportive and encouraging.  In fact, they are the ones who initially sang these Sharagans – in our living room!  And of course, I thank also my beloved parents, Rose and George Kirazian, and my Uncle, Lee Shachian, who introduced me, on my tenth birthday, to my first classical piece, Scheherazade.  Without them all, my efforts would have come to nothing. . . .

            I have a few suggestions for those new and upcoming musicians who are interested in composing hymns or other religious works.  First, if you have a calling, remember: it can be tough to follow that unique, inner voice.  It is, at times, difficult to resist the lure of fame, the current craze and fads.  One’s gift can easily become diluted, cheapened, by pursuing those temptations.  And if the writing becomes merely imitative or mechanical, it will be third rate . . . .

            Second, don’t let creativity separate you from who you are and what you truly believe.  This dichotomy will destroy the purity, the truthfulness, of your work.  Overlay your gift with whatever you hold highest in your heart . . . .

            Third, for those who think they do not have a gift of God, I challenge them to seek and find it.  You owe that inner exploration to God . . . We are called to put the lamp on the mountain!  Even if you succeed modestly, at least you will have made the effort to express and reveal the blessings that have been bestowed upon you.  You will know a new sense of fulfillment.  As old Polonious says in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”  A short, simple sentence, yet for many, a difficult one to follow . . . . But to seek and discover this true, inner self is a pilgrimage and a gift, a lifetime journey with God!

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