Music » Symphonic » The Oratorio 'Sourp Khatch'

The Oratorio 'Sourp Khatch'

Soprano, mezzo soprano bariton, chorus and chamber orchestra

The Oratorio 'Sourp Khatch' (Holy Cross) commemorates 17 centuries of Armenian Christianity. Significant historical events of each century are represented by each of the seventeen movements beginning with the conversion of our nation to Christianity in 301 A.D. This is a sophisticated and complex 21st century work written for orchestra, choir and three soloists. It is a very intense composition that depicts the struggle, suffering, victories and failures of a nation but ends with a renewed hope in the future. I am grateful to my ancestors for my Christian faith and national image. With this composition, I wish to fill your souls with the determination to endure your faith in the Holy Cross.

Baptism, 4th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

"Then at the final completion of the fast, blessed Gregory took the mass of the army and the king himself and his wife Ashkhen and the princess Khosrovidukht and all the magnates with all the people of the camp, and in the morning at dawn he brought them to the banks of the river Euphrates, and there he baptized them all together in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. "And when all the people and the king went down to baptism in the water of the river Euphrates, a wonderful sign was revealed by God: the waters of the river stopped and then turned back again. And a bright light appeared in the likeness of a shining pillar, and it stood over the waters of the river; and above it was the likeness of the Lord's cross. And the light shone out so brightly that it obscured and weakened the rays of the sun." Agathangelos Trans. R. W. Thomson

Historical highlight: Christianity was introduced in Armenia as early as in the first century by the apostles St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew. The earlier converts were persecuted, particularly by King Sanatruk who did not even spare his own daughter, Sandukht, who met a martyr's death. It was St. Gregory the Illuminator, however, who achieved the Christianization of Armenia. His sufferings and testimony were instrumental in converting the king Trdat III, who issued, in 301 AD, an edict declaring Christianity to be the state religion of Armenia, followed by a mass baptism of the entire royal household, the nobility and the people in the Euphrates river.

Composer's note: With a scene of daybreak, the orchestra introduces a new era in Armenian history: the acceptance of Christianity. The eight-voice choir expresses the joy of the people as they march, led by their king, to the Euphrates River to receive the baptism of the new faith. The baritone personifies Gregory the Illuminator as he performs the miraculous act. The orchestral accompaniment represents the solemnity of the victorious event.

Mashtots, Vardanank, 5th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

Listen to first minute of the Track

"And God the All-Bountiful finally granted him that good fortune; for with his holy hand he became the father of new and wonderful offsprings - letters of the Armenian language, and then and there quickly designed, named,determined, their order and devised the syllabication."
Trans. B. Norhad

Historical highlight: The invention of the Armenian alphabet in 405 by Mesrop Mashtotz provided an essential tool for the promulgation of the Christian faith; it also gave identity to Armenian culture and literature. It opened up an amazing era of intellectual development and output and ushered in what is called the Golden Age of Armenian classical literature. In 451, hardly 150 years after adopting Christianity, Armenia was again the first nation to fight a national war in defense of the faith against the Mazdeist Persians. The Battle of Vardanank did not only save Armenia, it also provided a bulwark for the Christian West.

Composer's note: The invention of the alphabet was accomplished through the grace of God. The mezzo and the baritone describe the birth of the alphabet while the orchestra picks up this emotional moment and develops it into its full meaning as it accompanies the soloists. Then follows the image of the scene of the Battle of Vardanank. The choir sings the battle cry with great tension and the orchestra raises it to a climax.

Ghevond The Historian, 8th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

At that time wail and mourning increased in our land of Armenia severely, because her great leaders and honorable generals were taken away almost instantly, causing deep sorrow all over the country. [The Armenians] mourned the death of their brave champions with great sorrow and felt they were deprived of their help and left at the mercy of the ferocious and austere enemy. Nevertheless, in time of distress they recalled the protective visitation of God who poured His mercy on mankind from the beginning, especially on those who praised His name. They invoked God's loving clemency and asked His help for the helpless and the doubtful in their lives on earth."
Ghevond, the Historian
Trans. Rev. Z. Arzoumanian

Historical highlight: The Arab invasion of Armenia started in the second half of the seventh century and reached its most cruel stage in the eighth. Among the most horrendous acts perpetrated by the Arabs was the massacre of Nakhijevan, in 705, where most of the Armenian nobility was treacherously annihilated and a large crowd of people, including clergy, was burned alive in a church. In these two events more than 12,000 people perished. In 774 a rebellion was incited against the Arab tax collectors, but the Armenians were defeated at the cost of the lives of some of the ruling nakharars such as the Rshtuni, Gnuni and the Mamikonian families.

Composer's note: The mezzo relates the sad story of the years of Arab occupation, while at the same time the male voices of the choir try to depict the gloomy mood of the people. The percussion instruments reveal the madness of corruption and bribery, whereas the base strings represent the oppression with their extended tunes.

King Ashot, 9th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

Historical highlight: The year 884 marks the establishment of the Bagratuni Kingdom with the crowning of King Ashot I by both the Arab Caliphate and the Byzantine Emperor. Ani, the splendid city of a thousand and one churches, became the new capital. A period of peace and prosperity was ushered in which lasted two centuries.

Composer's note: This section is a description of the establishment of the Bagratuni dynasty. The choir glorifies with great pomp the positive character of King Ashot and the entire orchestra reflects the anticipatory mood of the happy days to come.

Peace, 10th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

"After King Abbas, his son Ashot, called also Shahanshah, occupied thethrone and ruled for 25 years. His brother Mushegh ruled along with him asthe king of Kars.
"King Ashot ruled the land of Armenia in a peace-loving manner, treated all with weekness and compassion. He gathered the sick, the crippled and the blind, cared for them and kept company with them in feasts. He even made some of them princes and court commanders. He would entertain them and look at their wounds and red sores as if they were shining ornaments. He would even offer them his royal cup to drink from, and when the pus of their sores was mixed with the wine, he wouldn't hesitate to taste the remainder. He was so generous in his acts of charity that there was no money left in the treasury even before he died. He would take the ornaments of his invited guests and the decorations from the walls and give them all to the poor. Thus he absolved himself of his sins by his mercifulness and compassion to the homeless."
Stepanos of Taron (Asoghik)

Historical highlight: This period corresponds to the rule of Ashot III (953-977), known as The Merciful, which was a period of prosperity and peace. The king himself set the example of a compassionate monarch by establishing institutions of charity and engaging personally in works of benevolence.

Composer's note: The land of Armenia is in peace. The tranquility enjoyed by the people during the reign of the Bagratuni rule is expressed by the soft and melodious performance of two soloists, as the orchestra joins them with the strings to enhance hope and happiness.

Cilicia, 13th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

"God, King of glory, renew the life of our king, ... adorn our patriarch with grace and make his scepter glorious, ... and with their prayers fill the needs of the Armenian Church."

Historical highlight: From the Cilician Period, an excerpt from the hymn "Lord of the heavens" (yerknits) by Vardan Areveltsi is chosen in which he asks the Lord to remember the king and the patriarch. The hymn is dedicated to St. Joachim and St. Anna, the parents of Virgin Mary.

Composer's note: In this section we are transferred, in prayers, to Cilicia: a new land, a new country, having preserved the same faith and the same spirit. The church bells, performed by the percussions, provide the background for the prayers sung by the choir.

Woe to me a Father, 15th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

"Who can tell about the sad news of uncertainty and the anguish of grief of which the Armenian nation is suffering? Only God the Creator who made them can know how a father was crying for his son saying "Woe to me," and how a mother was shedding tears abundantly at the sight of her daughter.
"The entire country and the world was filled with weeping and bewailing, mourning and lamenting, particularly our central native provinces, because all the people had fled there; but disasters and snares befell them. Many went as far as Egypt, Khorasan, Bagdad and the land of Tajiks; they spread over all countries and vanished."

Historical highlight: The above excerpt is from the Armenian chronicler Tovma Metzopetsi's (1378-1446) work entitled "A Concise History of the Wicked Tamerlane" which relates the barbaric acts perpetrated by Tamerlane and his savage hordes during his invasions of Armenia. The first invasion was in 1386 when he ravaged Nahkijevan and the district of Yerevan; in 1387 he devastated southern Armenia; in 1394 he penetrated Western Armenia and destroyed Yerznka and the environs; in 1399 depopulated northeastern Georgia and Armenia; and in 1402 he defeated the Ottoman Sultan Bayazit in Ancyre (Ankara), leaving on the battlefield a tower of skulls.

Composer's note: This time it is the soprano alone that tries to transmit the tragic situation by relating the terror that befell Armenia, and the entire orchestra depicts the scene of the global massacre.

Sayat-Nova the Monk, 18th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

"He was of such a pious and religious nature that he considered it a sin to be a minstrel. He said, 'they tell me that the world is a dream; that's why I am afraid of tales and the saz [his musical instrument] Sayat-Nova will not deny his faith; he is Armenian."
"While he was engaged in prayer in the church [the Persian soldiers] attacked him and ordered him to come out of the church and deny his faith. He said: 'I will not leave the church and I will not deny Jesus' and he fell under the swords of the soldiers."
Gevorg Akhverdian

Historical highlight: The eighteenth century is a transitional period in Armenian history in anticipation of the cultural, social and political renaissance that was to happen in the nineteenth century.

Composer's note: Here is a depiction of the last stage of Sayat-Nova's life. The soprano and the mezzo are acting as narrators who transmit the thoughts of this famous bard who became a monk in his latter days. The choir utters Sayat-Nova's declarations given in the Azeri tongue. (My purpose was to highlight the contrast between the devotion Sayat-Nova had to the Georgian and Azeri peoples and the barbaric treatment he received from the latter.) The baritone sings Sayat-Nova's declaration in Armenian.

April 1915, 20th Century
Listen to first minute of the Track

"And so enormous was our loss! The calamities suffered by the Armenian people are far too heavier than what the human mind and imagination can define. Many people, in particular those who planned and perpetrated these tragedies, thought that the end of the Armenian people had arrived. But the Armenian spirit, forged through centuries of difficulties and adversity, remained indomitable and the will to live, and to live free, never faded.
"What was the mystery of the martyrdom of Vardanank if not the freedom of conscience and the Fatherland, the protection of just and sacred rights. The mystery of today's martyrdom is exactly the same, with the only difference that today the number of victims were far too greater and the means of destruction were a lot more cruel and barbaric compared to what the Sassanids did. Ours is a just cause, one among the ignored causes that deserves justice the most. We must knock at the doors of justice until they are opened."
His Holiness Karekin I Sarkissian,
Catholicos of All Armenians

Historical highlight: The greatest tragedy of all times that has ever struck the Armenian nation: the Armenian Genocide of 1915, perpetrated by Turkey. And what have been our losses? More than a million and a half people killed by the sword, fire, famine, death marches, shooting and many other barbaric means; a three-thousand-year-old ancestral homeland; millions over millions of dollars worth of personal property and real estate destroyed or confiscated by the Government; all the cultural and traditional values, both material and spiritual, attached to that homeland; more than two thousand churches and convents desecrated and demolished with all their sacred treasures and illuminated manuscripts; close to forty dialects of the Armenian language; and the moral and psychological damage of which many generations of Armenians have been inflicted. Today, Armenians are still alive and vibrant. They have risen up from the ashes like the mythical phoenix. The mystery of this unique survival lies in our Christian faith, which for 1700 years has guided us through our difficult historical past. This alone is worth celebrating by singing praises to the Lord.

Composer's note: Along with the orchestral prelude five narrators enter the stage and render the last speech of the late Catholicos Karekin I dedicated to April 24. Then three soloists sing successively from the Divine Liturgy the hymns "Holy Father" (soprano), "Holy Son" (mezzo), "Holy Spirit" (baritone). Then the choir continues with the "Blessing." I could not have ended this work without the sequel of "Lord, Have Mercy" (Der voghormia). It is my ardent desire that as this supplication pours out from the depth of our hearts, may it be pleasing to God to remember and glorify all our ancestors in His Kingdom and may He keep us strong and steadfast in this just and holy faith.