Pen and ink drawing by Minas Minasian.
Soghomon Soghomonian was born in Kütahya (Gudina), in western Turkey, on October 8, 1869. His family was Turkish-speaking. He lost his mother when he was one year old and his father when he was ten. In 1881 he was taken to Holy Etchmiadzin, where he entered the Kevorkian Seminary.
His exceptional voice and musical abilities attracted special attention. He studied Armenian musical notes and religious music, collected popular songs, and made his first attempts at composing. In 1893 he graduated and was designated music teacher and choirmaster of the cathedral. One year later he was ordained a celibate priest, and named Gomidas in honor of Catholicos Gomidas, a musician and poet of the 7th century. In 1895, he was elevated to the rank of archimandrite (vartabed).
He pursued musical studies in Berlin from 1896-1899. He returned to Etchmiadzin from 1899-1910. He collected close to 3,000 popular songs and dances, which he mostly arranged for choir versions. He presented his arrangements of Armenian popular and religious music in Paris (1906) with great success.
His musical programs included folk and sacred music, but his actions and ideas upset a conservative faction in Etchmiadzin. After Catholicos Mgrdich I (Khrimian Hairig) passed away in 1907, Gomidas’ situation became more problematic. He wrote that he could not breathe and was suffocating in Etchmiadzin. His formal request to become a hermit and continue his work was denied, and finally he decided to move to Constantinople.
He created the 300-member “Kusan” Choir and gave concerts in various places in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. Five of its members (Parsegh Ganachian, Mihran Toumajan, Vartan Sarxian, Vagharshag Srvantzdian, and Haig Semerjian) took classes of musical theory with him and came to be known as the “five Gomidas students.”
In April 1915, Gomidas was arrested with more than 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders and exiled to Chankiri. His behavior changed along the exile route. A few weeks later, while officiating at a church service, word came that he would be sent back to Constantinople with a few other notables.
The return was very difficult for him. His friends could not understand his odd behavior and considered him mad, committing him to the Turkish Military Psychiatric Hospital. Many of his compositions and notes were dispersed and lost.
In 1919 he was sent to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life, first in a private psychiatric hospital and then in the Villejuif asylum, where he passed away. In 1936 his body was sent to Armenia and buried in the pantheon named after him, where famous personalities found their final rest. The Music Conservatory of Yerevan is named after him, as is the state chamber quartet.
Gomidas was justly termed the Father of Armenian Music, as he rescued from oblivion more than 4,000 village songs and melodies, and set the foundation for the scientific study of Armenian music. He also wrote pieces for piano and songs, fragments for comedies and operas. His version of the Holy Mass is a classic work, used to this day by the Armenian Church.