The Suni Project: Music Preservation

Grikor Mirzaian Suni (1876-1939)

1723 Wells | Ann Arbor, MI 48104-3601 USA | (734) 996-1949 |

Autobiography of Grikor Suni

Written probably in 1927 and 1932, in Philadelphia, and saved in photocopied form by Suni’s musicology student Ferdinand Kaimakamian (Corona, New York) and given ca. 1998 to Suni’s grandson Ronald Grigor Suny, and wife Armena Marderosian

Translated by Dickran Toumajan, with Anahit Toumajan (Southfield, Michigan)
For The Suni Project: Music Preservation 2002
1723 Wells, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104-3601 USA

Grikor Mirzaian Suni is one of the veteran Armenian musicologists. He is the great grandson of the Syunik region’s famous ashoogh [troubadour/minstrel singer] Teymoor (Melik Hovhannes Mirza), who was invited by Shah Fatali (Fath Ali, Shah of Persia, father of Abbas Mirza] to become the head of the musicians in his palace. He was the composer of a lot of Persian songs (tasnif), such as Mirza Seyin Sigahi.

Grikor Suni is the grandson of Mrs. Mashinka (Russian) and ashoogh Dadasi Sunetsi (Atabek), who himself was the teacher of ashoogh singers Hatami and Balayi. He is the son of Hakhunts Anna and Hovhannes Varandetsi, who was famous as an illustrator, singer, and folk poet.

Grikor Suni was born September 10, 1876 in the village of Getabek in the Gandzak region. At the age of two, Suni moved to Shushi, the capital city of Karabagh.

Suni’s father was his first music teacher. In Suni’s teenage years, he was called Ghali Bulbul (nightingale of fortress Shushi). With his enchanting voice and his beautiful singing style, he became the source of admiration for contemporary master musicians and the general public.

In 1883 Suni enrolled in a parish school. At the same time, after school, he learned the art of jewelry making. That same year his father died in an accident, and orphaned Grikor was compelled to take care of his family by, besides his schooling and the honing of his craftsmanship, also singing with other musicians.

In school for the first time he got acquainted with written music. His music teacher was Rev. Fr. Garegin Ter Hovhannisian, who himself was the pupil of Nikoghayos Tashchian, a schoolteacher. Ter Hovhannisian paid special attention to Suni, and after years of hard work and dedication, in late 1889 Suni became a contemporary Armenian master musician, in the broad meaning of this word.
At this time Suni became a member of a secret group which had Poghos Zakarian and Martiros Sarukhanian as members. In 1890, the day when the Darabulagh [a place in Karabagh] guilds were having a celebration, Suni presented his skillful works of jewelry and with the traditional slap of the headmaster Badam, he was declared a master jeweler.

That same year, Suni and jeweler Mukhan, who came from Baku, organized a “Kargah-Shakert” student-workers union which had some success during its short one-year existence. In 1891 Suni went to Echmiadzin and became a third grade scholarship student at the Gevorgian Seminary.
The music teacher at the seminary was Very Rev. Fr. Sahak Amatuni (a student of Tashchian), who didn’t really teach anything new to Grikor, but the atmosphere in Echmiadzin inspired him toward village folk songs that he was not familiar with yet. From the very first day at the seminary Grikor befriended famous musicians Karapet Amatuni and Soghomon Soghomonian (later known as Komitas Vardapet).

Grikor was excited about folk and instrumental music, such as Soghomon’s religious (sharakans [hymns] and taghs [chants] sung by village peasants) and folk songs. Amatuni was lazy but he had varied interests. He liked minstrel songs and after taking a close look at the songs he would give his valuable opinion. Grikor appreciated his older friend’s opinions, because in most cases they were in agreement, but Soghomon, who was a contributor to the “Meghoo (Bee? )” and “Nor Dar (New Century?)” newspapers [in Tiflis/Tbilisi], did not care much for them, especially when they pointed out distortions he made on folk songs and demanded that the collector of ethnographic songs give the authentic picture of folk expressions in songs.

The music teacher for notation, the Very Rev. Fr. Sahak Amatuni was replaced by Kristapor Kara-Murza, who had limited training in European music (and that influence would increase in the future). Grikor immediately began taking private lessons from him on European music (basic theory and harmony), and, in return, Grikor gave him lessons on Armenian music.

Soghomon was not close to Kara-Murza and, in addition, he led the reactionary group that waged a struggle against him, lowering himself by insisting that “God was one, so there must be one voice in music too,” to which Kara-Murza wittingly replied, “You’re forgetting that God is the union of three beings.” This would lead to the dismissal of Kara-Murza and his being replaced by Soghomon himself. Kara-Murza gave Grikor all his belongings and strongly encouraged him to go to Tiflis, Moscow, or Petersburg to continue his music training and also his general education.

Grikor made his first attempt at polyphonic music, transforming some folk songs into four voices, such as “Andzrevn Yekav”, “Vay Leh, Leh”, “Sona Yar”, “Arazun Baghuh Mean Am”, “Hov Arek Sarer”, “Yeri Yarum Oy, Oy”. During two consecutive summer vacations, he went to Tiflis (to his rich paternal uncle’s) where Dr. Tarsaidze treated his eyes and where he also took private lessons with Makar Yekmalian to enrich his musical knowledge. Bowing in reverence to Yekmalian’s musical talent, Grikor nevertheless didn’t like his drabness, visionless verbosity, and extremely conservative direction, especially the circumstance that outside of religious music, he had no other interests and he looked with disgust upon any phenomenon that had no religious stamp.

In the fall of 1895, after finishing the course at the seminary Grikor returned to his hometown of Shushi. In the Khandamirian Theater he gave his first choral concert consisting of village songs he had collected and arranged for four voices. With the money generated from the concert and the promise of help from the Zhamharian brothers, he traveled to Petersburg to continue his education.
In Petersburg from 1895 until September of 1898, he attended Rabov’s, then Bollak’s school for the theatrical and dancing arts. In spite of his financial difficulties, he took lessons in voice training, piano, music, theater, and dance. Then, with Banchenko and Calafatti, he continued taking free lessons in music theory and composition.

In September of 1898, he received a scholarship to attend the state conservatory, to major in specialized music theory and composition. He passed a very successful exam for Rimsky-Korsakov, presenting in Tchaikovsky style some of his own songs, such as two romances: “Yete Mi Or” and “Indz Mi Khndrir,” a song, “Arevelk,” in the form of a waltz, “Sareri Hovin Mernim,” an Armenian folk song, also fifteen of his collected village songs that he arranged for four voices and that captured the attention of professors Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, Glazunov, Solovyov, and Bernhardt.

At this time he had his own political beliefs. He was a Socialist Revolutionary. He graduated from the conservatory, spending six years there, from 1898 to the end of May, 1904, under the cleansing hand of Rimsky-Korsakov, who had no mercy for mediocrity. Grikor not only successfully completed the composition course with talented classmates like

Mikhail Cherkov and Gnessin, but he also enjoyed fame as a talented composer of fugues, for which he was granted one year of free lessons. His fugues served as an example for future generations.
Even before entering the conservatory, in 1897 he tried to organize an oriental ensemble. During his conservatory period (1899), with the encouragement of Rimsky-Korsakov, Grikor sent some of his works to the censor’s office, having in mind to publish them later. The songs were “Indz mi Khndrir” (lyrics by H. [Hovhanness] Toumanian), “Akh al Vardi” (lyrics by A. [Avetik] Isahakian), as well as two notebooks of folk songs for four-voice choir. These songs remained in the censor’s office under lock and key for four years. Then in the Fall of 1903, Dr. A. Budaghian paid to publish these works in the Armenian “Pushkinian” Printing House. Akh al Vardi and the first volume of folk songs, “Sareri Hovin Mernim,” “Habrban,” “Oy Nazanum,” and “Saren Koo Ga” were included in 1904 publications.

In the history of publications of Russian Armenian choral folk songs, his first volume published in 1903 had no precedent. In 1904 he wrote songs about workers that also had no precedent in Armenian life. In these songs he calls upon the serfs, laborers, and villagers to unite “to support the cause of labor and open the road to socialism.” The members of the Dashnak Party distorted the words to “Dashnaks support the cause of labor.”

In 1899 he was given the position of church choir director which somewhat relieved his serious financial situation. During this period, using his position, he cleverly changed for the first time (before that nobody had used the method) some religious music pieces. By contrasting polyphonic voices to the homophonic, he opened a new epoch in Armenian religious music. Later on he burned these pieces along with songs that didn’t, at the time, coincide with his political thinking and tendencies. If something did indeed survive there is a need to collect them, because those works may shed new light in the history of our sacred culture. His “Soorb Soorb” can be found with musicologist Gourgen Mirzoian, “Miashabat” was found in his brother’s papers while “Kristos I Mej” and “I Verin” were published in different issues of G. (Garegin) Levonian’s “Gegharvest” magazine.

In 1901 he finally organized the first Oriental Cultural Ensemble, which gave a performance in the Blogorodni Sabrani Hall during the annual program of the Armenian student union. In 1902 he wrote two romances, “Miayn Kez Hamar” by Ada Negro and “Mayisn Yekav” by H. [Hamazasp] Hambardzoumian. In 1903 he received a work permit from the Imperial Music Society to go to the Caucasus and organize concerts. After the first big concert in Shushi the next day, Golitsin’s officers searched Grikor and placed him under their watchful eye, and canceled all his concerts under the pretext that with the proceeds from the concerts, Suni was arming the people against the government to solve the agrarian reform problems. [Prince Golitsin was Governor General of the Caucasus].

In 1904 he participated in a music competition based on Isabella Grinevskaya’s “Bab” dramatic poem depicting Persian life, and from more than thirty musicologists in competition, Suni won first prize. In ten days that piece had twelve performances after which the government forbade any other performances and confiscated the text along with 18 pieces of music. That same year he organized his first quartet of refined neyer [ney is a duduk, like a wooden oboe] that became an object of admiration for Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov. Rimsky-Korsakov even tried to include that instrument in his symphonic orchestra but the lack of a specific instrument and experienced players prevented this from happening. Toward the end of the summer of 1905, Suni, along with Armenak Ter Mkrtchian and Zatikian (with the nickname Smerch), was actively involved in organizing the soldiers and sailors. Because of these activities he was pursued and searched, but that fall he accepted an invitation from the Nersissian School [in Tiflis] to replace Yekmalian.

While teaching at the Nersissian School, from September 1905 to October 1908, because of his position as a leader of agrarian reform movements in Lori, he was pursued by General Zolotaryov’s group of Gendarme Cossacks and by the police. Because of this he fled to Turkey. Nevertheless he was the hero of the day in all realms of Armenian musical life, who singularly carried on his shoulders this serious responsibility.

During this period he disregarded the mentality that in school only those students who had a natural-born talent for music or had hereditary qualities could succeed in music classes. Because of this false conception 80% of the students had been freed from music classes. But Grikor Suni struggled vigorously to make music classes at the Nersissian and Hovnanian schools not only mandatory for everyone, but also a priority. Suni raised the quality of the choral groups so high that, under his direction, they were able to successfully perform choral pieces of translated operas (by Aristakesian) as well as enhance the performances of the Armenian Theatrical Company, and school and public gatherings.

He tried hard and finally succeeded in separating the church from the school. At the funeral of Archbishop Aristakes Sedrakian, the choir of the Nersissian school didn’t participate. This incident created an uproar in the pages of “Mshak” which was the result of this struggle. Unfortunately, his followers were not able to carry on his achievements.

In 1906 he wrote the operetta “Aregnazan,” by G. [Ghazaros] Aghayan, [opera having had?] that had no precedent in the life of Russian Armenians. Later this operetta was staged in the Artistic Theater by the Armenian Theatrical Company to benefit actor Araxian. Continuing to be in his political thinking a left Socialist Revolutionary, during this period Suni worked with a group of Dashnaks on a new revolutionary program (he belonged to an opposition “separatist” group) and played a big role in organizing workers and peasants, as well as terrorist activities.

In those days he wrote workers’ songs “Hogh yev Azatootyoon (Land and Freedom),” “Anoghok Grvi Sheporu (The Trumpet of Inexorable Struggle).” At the end of these songs he calls the workers, landless peasants and freedom-loving intellectuals (“to rise up and destroy tsarism, feudalism, and capitalism and to establish socialism”). He also restored some Dashnak chauvinist songs, changing their words and giving the songs a proletarian quality.

In October of 1908, a disguised Suni escaped from Batumi to Turkey in a Laz raft. In Trabizon, Samson, and Kirason he organized very enthusiastic concerts of Armenian choral and orchestral music, as well as some Armenian-Turkish-Greek concerts. Then he traveled to Lesser Armenia and on his way from Samson to Sebastia he collected and studied folk songs and dances from the surrounding villages.

In Samson he tried to organize a break-in at the armory that belonged to the military authorities. He wanted to distribute 2000 new model rifles with millions of bullets to arm the peasants and workers. But the Dashnaks who were friendly with the Ittihad, “the authorities in Constantinople,” not only interfered with Suni’s already designed plan but also in the most vile manner (including the threat of betrayal) tried to eliminate this “dangerous” person by isolating [ostracizing] him.

It was after this that Suni wrote a song: “Rise up laborers with muscular forearms. Strike the anvil with your hammer. Crumble the old and build the new. Death to this dark system of capitalism and long live Socialism; adopt this slogan.”

Making Trabizon the center of his operations, he had an opportunity to do some research on the remnants of folk songs sung half in Armenian, half in Turkish and the life of Haynak (Armenian Muslims) who lived in the river valleys of Surmene Karatere and Yambol. In 1910 Suni moved to Erzurum where he continued the same work on a wider scale, spreading his activities into Hamshen, Jermel, Deresi, Tortum, and other nearby regions. The results of this research were enclosed in two big notebooks which he presented to the Mayilian expedition in Tiflis (to poet H. [Hovhannes] Hovhannesian) but one doesn’t know what was the fate of these notebooks.

In Erzurum while working at the Sanasarian School where Professor A. Khachatrian was principal, Suni established a new epoch. He founded a little symphonic orchestra, a choir for four voices, upgraded music lessons to the highest standards and became the favorite teacher among his students. He acted in similar fashion in the Armenian national school.

Outside of school, he established free voice and instrumental music lessons for young laborers, and with these students he formed the first Armenian workers music band, comprised of 40 individuals, which became the envy of military orchestras. He also formed an 85 member coed choir that played a great educational role in far-ranging Armenian and non-Armenian circles in towns and villages.
At this time his relationship with the Dashnaks intensified, but their insults and dirty politics were useless in trying to win over the laboring masses. The unions that Suni formed with the working peasantry continued to multiply and grow strong.

Suni was not content with only this type of activity. Every year he would devote four months to collecting Armenian folk songs and music. Traveling to the provinces of Erzerum, Bitlis, and Van he would collect and study a huge number of folkloric materials (seven thick notebooks with almost 500 songs, including poems “Vren Uzin” and “Heyran-Seyran”).

While in Turkey for those six years he rearranged “Aregnazan,” giving it a popular operatic form. He also composed “Revival,” a symphonically arranged piece in five movements. In the Fall of 1914 when the First World War broke out, his [tyooznakya] rare works, which had been entrusted to the care of the missionary, Mr. [Robert] Stapleton, were subjected to the same fate as the treasure that had been handed over to this Christian pastor in Erzurum.

In Tiflis, Suni had his first encounter with musicologists of the new generation – Ovsanna Ter Grigorian, Anoushavan Ter Ghevondian, Romanos and Spiridon Melikian, [Sargis] Barkhudarian, and [Kristapor] Kushnarian – and he engaged actively in musical life. The hustle-bustle began.
Under Suni’s direction a big benefit symphonic concert was held in the Royal Theatre with more than 100 orchestra and chorus members and soloists participating. The concert featured orchestral works by Yekmalian, Suni, Spendiarian, Ter Ghevondian, and Barkhudarian and songs for four voices by Yekmalian, Suni, and S. Melikian. This was followed by the Music Society’s symphonic concert, where, along with the works of senior musicians, the works of our younger musicians – A. [Armen] Tigranian, Mikael Mirzaian, D. Ghazarian – were also performed.

This was followed by the daily concerts of the Tiflis Protestant Church Symphonic Orchestra, which lasted exactly two years and had as its official leader the only Armenian conductor in Tiflis – Suni. The great demand for Armenian orchestral works spurred Suni to create original pieces and compelledhim to prod others to compose, as well.

During this period he became a member of the Armenian drama group at the Zubalov public house, and for the Turkish group, he wrote a musical drama entitled “Asli and Karam,” which was presented there, under Suni’s direction, on several occasions.

Suni formed the Society of Armenian Musicologists along with Ov. Ter Grigorian, A. Ter Ghevondian, Barkhudarian, and Kushnarian ( [Aleksandr] Spendiarian was permitted membership if he came to Tiflis and wished to join). Suni began to research Armenian music and he taught at the Kamoyan Music School, led by the threesome of Yerznkian, Khanoyan, and Vardanian.

During the Republic of Armenia under Dashnak rule, he refused on numerous occasions to accept an invitation to establish a state conservatory of music within the Department for the Arts.
In 1919, during the Menshevik anarchy […], Suni moved on to Tehran, Persia[…]. There he established, in typical fashion, musical excitement, by holding concerts and other musical programs, and researching 8 of the 12 dasgahs that had not yet disappeared from the memory of master instrumentalists.

In the fall of 1920 he left Tehran and returned to Tiflis via Mesopotamia, India, Egypt, Constantinople, and Batum, not being able to travel through the English chain at Ghazuin [where?]nor by the shortcut from Enzeli to Baku. [where?] This travel was both long and exhaustive.

In August of 1921, in a sick, decimated condition, Suni barely reached Tiflis, where he met with representatives from Soviet Armenia, and in particular with Levon Tumanian, the Tiflis representative of the Peoples’ Education Commissariat. He donated his entire library to the Soviet homeland and moved to Constantinople with the clear intention of returning to Yerevan in a couple of years, after regaining his health, in order to participate in the building of a proletarian Armenia.

In Constantinople, Suni taught music and choral singing at the Berberian, Yessayan, Gentronagan [Getronagan], Hintlian, Bezazian, and Karageozian schools, as well as conducting the Scutari coed choir, at the same time giving encouragement to the newly created “Hayastan (Armenia)” of which he was one of the founding members and president of the music sector. In the shortest period of time Suni created great enthusiasm in Constantinople.

After concerts by the Scutari chorus and separate performances by various schools, which had already commanded the attention of the entire public, Suni formed a united coed chorus, comprised of 350 singers, trained them for six months, and while he was about to announce their concert, the Kemalist crisis began, turning everything topsy-turvy and compelling him to move with his large family (9 members) to the United States of America.

Setting foot in New York on Sept. 10, 1923, Suni immediately went to work, organizing musical performances and choral concerts in all Armenian populated cities on the East coast. After a big concert in Boston, Suni became ill with inflammation of the lungs, forcing him to withdraw from his previously mobile lifestyle.

Remaining in Boston in the fall of 1923 he established the “Armenian Arts” society, holding several theatrical and musical concerts in Boston, Providence, Worcester, and Haverhill, and he participated in an “international song competition,” winning a first prize for Armenian folk songs. Then he gave several public lectures on the arts, the significance of which was how the red line of class struggle was shining, like a diamond. He was consistent, and theory and practice were united and in harmony. The coed youth had gathered around the master, championing the arts and Soviet Armenia…preparing a progressive battalion of new art…but Suni was bedridden at Deaconess Hospital with complications from diabetes. How happy would the militant prostitutes of the Armenian bourgeoisie have been if the Master had permanently left the scene. But the lion Karabaghi squeezed sour lemon on all their hopes and desires, and being out of grave danger, was now recuperating in Philadelphia, in the care of his dear friend, Dr. [Lucy] Guzelian, who saved his life.

At the end of summer in 1925 in Philadelphia, still fresh in the memory of the community were the public lectures on the arts that Suni gave to the Armenian Student Society. This was followed by the impression of the amazingly wonderful concert with a chorus of more than 100 singers at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 3, 1925. It was autumn. Suni had recovered somewhat and was already back to work.

An energetic period began in 1926. The “Hai Arvest (Armenian Arts)” Society with its musical-theatrical and dance sections became a force here once again, and the chorus was also ready and won a prize for song and performance in a competition of nations. The Society also supported and enlightened the events of all community organizations that were sympathetic to Soviet Armenia, to the proletarian homeland; isn’t it true that it is now Communist?

The tempo intensified in 1927. The Children’s Opera Group already had presented an opera in three acts, earning the admiration and astonishment of the community. They were surpassed by not one, but two, adult groups, that presented very complex pieces. All the Dashnak intrigues, conspiracies, and entrapments failed in this purpose. The children, the youth, families and the public, full of enthusiasm, were wholeheartedly supportive of “Hai Arvest (Armenian Arts)” and its director. It was too bad only that the Master broke his leg in three places at the “HOK” (Armenian Assistance Committee) Fall picnic and it has been six months that he has been bedridden…but he doesn’t know what it means to be idle in bed.

During this period he produced a large volume of original works, solo songs, duets, choral works, a series of songs trumpeting the struggle and demands of the working class, and then arranging for four voices and multi-voice peasant songs, especially those that highlight the exploitation of the working peasantry. He also arranged many, many pieces for orchestra. Perhaps that accident was necessary (“there is always good in evil”), to bring to life all that had been stored.

But work continued, as in Philadelphia, also in Boston. Some of his students, full of energy, became conductors themselves. It was 1928-1929. Suni was back on his feet. With great enthusiasm he continued to develop his previous projects and began to create new ones. He had already formed a 50-member Russian workers choir at the Russian House, given benefit concerts for them, and participated in a glorious all-workers celebration as a memorial to Lenin.

He enhanced “Hai Arvest (Armenian Arts)” with a neatly composed string quartet, at the same time giving radio concerts with his chorus and soloists, producing great interest in Armenian songs among Armenian and non-Armenian circles.

In the summer of 1930 Suni was invited to Boston, on the occasion of the city’s three hundredth anniversary, to form and conduct a big chorus and symphonic orchestra. Time was short. There were only 12 days to prepare. He reserved the right to choose the choral and orchestral works that would be played. He threw out of the program all the nationalistic (religious and secular) pieces.

In that short period of time he produced an artistically exquisite chorus of more than 100 singers and a rich, comprehensive, and challenging program which earned the unwavering enthusiasm, admiration, and thunderous applause of the entire Boston community. Let’s not forget that we tore down hundreds of tricolor flags, cleansing Symphony Hall of those dirty pieces of rags that the Ramkavars had allowed in order to appease the Dashnaks. The bitterness of the Dashnak defeat could be seen those days in the polemic struggle that “Hairenik (Fatherland)” [Dashnak newspaper] was waging against “Baikar” [Ramkavar newspaper]

The Maestro’s students continued his choral work and in the next two years they won two new awards for Armenian folk songs (Suni’s) at international song festivals.
In the fall of 1931, the Armenian National Musical Society in New York, after dismissing their Dashnak conductor K. Mehrabian, invited Suni as their director, agreeing as a precondition to adhere to his red, class struggle policy.

In the shortest period of time, Suni turned a chorus of 30 singers into one with 119 and held several musical performances, concerts, and radio programs featuring laborer and peasant songs. In the winter of 1932, that chorus with soloists and symphonic orchestra gave a fantastic concert in the Metropolitan Auditorium on the occasion of “Armenian Song Day.”

The insincere silence of “Baikar” and the overt curses of “Hairenik” were proof of the great victory of the proletariat in the field of arts. That fall, Suni was bedridden and confined to complete rest by doctors, due to dual complications from diabetes and heart disease. His students in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia are now continuing the great work that their master began, benefiting from his written suggestions, advice, and assistance, while the master himself continues unceasingly to create and to carry out the responsibilities of director of the “Banvor” (Worker) musical section, that has already published Suni’s two laborers’ songs – “Workers of the World-Unite” and “Soviet Armenia.”