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Armenian Suite

Radiant Summit, Jacaranda, March 12-13th, 2011 –

On the occasion of the Alan Hovhaness’ centenary, Patrick Scott, Artistic Director of Jacaranda, wanted to include another great Armenian American composer Richard Yardumian (1917-1985) in all-Armenian program. After much Googling, and efforts just short of the Library of Congress, Patrick, who had recently been introduced to me and the writings of Times Quotidian asked for an introduction to Aram Yardumian, whose musical musings, insights and historical research can be found regularly on TQ. Upon finally discovering a living link to the Yardumian family, a fruitful collaboration began with the composer’s daughter Miryam. Jacaranda needed permission to  commission a chamber ensemble arrangement of Yardumian’s most famous orchestral work The Armenian Suite from 1936. The series chose Armenia’s most acclaimed composer of the younger generation Vache Sharafyan (b. 1966)  for the arrangement that closed the impeccably programmed concert Radiant Summit.

The following selections are from Richard Yardumian, Armenian Suite, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui, conductor, released 2002, BIS Records

Introduction: “Harvest”

Dance II

Patrick Scott’s program notes are always unusually detailed, so with his permission, I have excerpted that section pertinent to Yardumian.

From the program notes for Jacaranda’s RADIANT SUMMIT concert March 12-13 2011
Philadelphia Story: Richard Yardumian

The third composer, at the tail-end of this generation, is the Philadelphia-born Richard Yardumian. The tenth and youngest child of well-educated Armenian immigrants, Richard was born April 5, 1917 — making him a member of the generation impacted by the Great Depression as a teenager. His mother Lucia was an organist and father Haig was the founding pastor of the Philadelphia Armenian Evangelical Community, which later became the Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church. They had fled religious persecution arriving in America in 1906. Family life was musical, religious, and rich in Armenian folk songs. Richard showed an interest in composition as early as age 14 and his older brother Elijah, a concert pianist who was studying at the newly-founded Curtis Institute, mentored him in lieu of any formal education.

Elijah’s mentoring proved effective as it supported a natural talent revealed by the composition of the Armenian Suite for large orchestra at age 19. Two years later, Yardumian began formal education in piano, harmony, theory and counterpoint with a private teacher, eventually receiving meaningful encouragement from José Iturbi who was conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. The Spanish pianist/conductor would become famous for his appearances as himself in Hollywood movies such as Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in 1943.

Soon after the U.S. entered WWII, Yardumian became a private in the army serving as a sniper in the Philippines. That experience and a photograph of a cathedral with a bombed-out roof inspired Yardumian to compose an orchestral work entitled Desolate City. After being assigned musical responsibilities in the Army he met the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy in 1944. Ormandy was very interested in living American composers. He gave premiere performances of works by Samuel Barber, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roger Sessions and Virgil Thompson, among others. Ormandy premiered Desolate City and Yardumian had his debut, making the beginning of a long relationship with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In the intervening years Yardumian studied conducting with Pierre Monteux and composition with Virgil Thomson in the Chelsea Hotel. Thompson was not only a powerful critic for the Herald Tribune, but also a student of the renowned French pedagog Nadia Boulanger, and the composer of the transformative opera Four Saints in Three Acts with libretto by Gertrude Stein.

Armenian Suite

Ormandy asked Yardumian to add a finale movement to the Armenian Suite before giving the entire work its premiere March 5, 1954. This quodlibet has the effect of summarizing the six preceding movements in a grand and brightly-colored ceremonial style reflecting Yardumian’s recently acquired contrapuntal command. One must assume that Yardumian touched up the orchestration on the earlier six movements, as they show no telltale signs of juvenilia. Regardless, the piece retains the simplicity of youth and its sometimes forlorn, sometimes lusty ways of getting attention.

Armenian Suite was taken on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first European tour in 1955 spawning many additional performances by European orchestras. Soon after this European tour, “Dance II,” which is the sixth movement, became the theme music of the Voice of America behind the Iron Curtain. Precisely how the opportunity was arranged remains for researchers to determine. Whether Hovhaness had a hand in connecting Yardumian to the VOA remains a piece of speculation, except for the fact that the two composers were known to have met.

Voice of America

In 1953, the ten-year-old radio service was passed from the State Department to the newly-created U.S. Information Agency. VOA broadcasts of Jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington became immensely popular behind the Iron Curtain, when the frequency was not jammed. Programming was produced in New York. It originated from the Courier, a re-purposed U.S. Coast Guard cutter anchored near the Island of Rhodes, with the permission of the Greek government.

The folk roots of each movement were identified in the program notes for the premiere. “The Harvest” activities of gathering, binding the bales and stacking are here infused with Western music’s notion of calling the faithful in a ceremonial fashion. While the melody of “Song” is original, it steps out from the company of similarly spirited Armenian folk tunes. The source song of the lullaby uses a ribbon motif to symbolize a protector linked to marriage. “Dance I” likens love to a sycamore tree; while “The Interlude” rings bells to welcome the morning.

“Dance II,” features rapidly changing moods and a more complicated oral history. On a cloudy day the impatient lover declares a heart full of fire, with no sleep in the eyes. Another strand is the coaxing manner of a herder toward his beloved oxen.

Ormandy premiered ten Yardumian works and gave some 100 performances. Among them are two symphonies, a violin concerto, the piano concerto Passacaglia, Recitative, and Fugue, a short orchestral work featuring clarinet and harp On Plainsong: Veni, Sancte Spiritus; a one movement work for flute and strings entitled Epigram: William M. Kincaid, and the mass in English for orchestra choruses and mezzo-soprano Come Creator Spirit. Apart from composing a work for string orchestra, works for solo piano, and other secular works, Yardumian devoted a considerable amount of energy to composing hymns and other music for liturgical use.

The downside of Ormandy’s support and the long-term relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra was the notion that Yardumian was a Philadelphia exclusive. It followed that, as Ormandy’s tenure at the podium receded, so did Yardumian’s music disappear from music stands. The conductor and the composer died just five months apart in 1985 with Ormandy’s departure March 12 at age 86, and Yardumian’s August 15 at age 68.


  1. Nice to see a fellow Armenian recognized and feliciated 🙂

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