Armenian days

Some time ago I came to consciousness in the middle of the night to intriguing music from WQXR (classical music from NYC): a collage of melodies, many hauntingly semi-familiar. Hmm, Charles Ives? Not any Ives I recognized, and quieter and less assertive than you expect from Ives. Unfamiliar and charming.

Symphony No. 50 Mount St Helens by Alan Hovhaness. And that took me to Armenians in the U.S., especially to the west of Boston (near where I lived when I was in grad school); to the Armenian diaspora; and to the genocide, a hundred years ago, that triggered the dispersal of Armenians.

The composer. From Wikipedia:

Alan Hovhaness (… March 8, 1911 – June 21, 2000) was an Armenian-American composer. He was one of the most prolific 20th-century composers, with his official catalog comprising 67 numbered symphonies (surviving manuscripts indicate over 70) and 434 opus numbers. However, the true tally is well over 500 surviving works since many opus numbers comprise two or more distinct works. [Things are more impressive than that, since Hovhaness destroyed a gigantic number of his early compositions in the face of criticisms of them.]

The Boston Globe music critic Richard Buell wrote: “Although he has been stereotyped as a self-consciously Armenian composer (rather as Ernest Bloch is seen as a Jewish composer), his output assimilates the music of many cultures. What may be most American about all of it is the way it turns its materials into a kind of exoticism. The atmosphere is hushed, reverential, mystical, nostalgic.”

He was born as Alan Vaness Chakmakjian in Somerville, Massachusetts, to Haroutioun Hovanes Chakmakjian (an Armenian chemistry professor at Tufts College who had been born in Adana, Turkey) and Madeleine Scott (an American of Scottish descent who had graduated from Wellesley College). When he was five, his family moved from Somerville to Arlington, Massachusetts. A Hovhaness family neighbor said his mother had insisted on moving from Somerville because of discrimination against Armenians there. After her death (on October 3, 1930), he began to use the surname “Hovaness” in honor of his paternal grandfather, and changed it to “Hovhaness” around 1944.

And on his 50th symphony, from the Hovhaness website:

Symphony No. 50 Mount St Helens is one of Hovhaness’s more authentically programmatic symphonies, its third movement portraying the 1980 eruption of the Washington State volcano, whose ashes settled over the Hovhaness house as they completed an entire circuit of the northern hemisphere. Both the musical discourse and sound world of the work are fairly representative of the late Hovhaness symphony: modal and strongly lyrical, alternating sections of hymnal grandeur and fugal or canonic writing, themes rarely metamorphosed in any traditional symphonic sense. Generous splashes of tintinnabulating percussion and strictly-patterned timpani writing add to the mix. The work’s dimensions are less expansive than in several other late Hovhaness symphonies, which serves to enhance its accessibility.

The opening movement is a majestic prelude and fugue suggesting the “grandeur of the mountain before [its] destruction”, while the second “Spirit Lake” movement alternates a breezy waltz with one of the best evocations of orchestral Gamelan one is likely to hear. Finally comes “Volcano”, with its music of “violence and destruction” (watch out for the bass drum thump at 1’45”) that eventually gives way to a triumphant fugue and hymn, a trademark late-period Hovhaness summing-up.

Armenian Americans. From Wikipedia:

Armenian Americans … are citizens or residents of the United States who have total or partial Armenian ancestry. They form the second largest community in the Armenian diaspora after Armenians in Russia. The first major wave of Armenian immigration to the US took place in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thousands of Armenians settled in the US following the Hamidian massacres of the mid-1890s and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. Between the 1960s and 1980s Armenians from the Middle Eastern nations of Turkey, Iran and Lebanon migrated to America as a result of political instability in those countries. At around the same time immigration from Soviet Armenia began. It accelerated in the late 1980s and has continued after Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 due to socio-economic reasons.

… Today, estimates say that Armenians number from 50,000 to 70,000 in the Greater Boston area. The Armenian Heritage Park, dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, was opened in downtown Boston on May 22, 2012. Watertown, Massachusetts is the center of Boston Armenians, where according to estimates about 7,000 to 8,000 people of Armenian origin reside, though the 2000 Census put the number only at 2,708. The Armenian Library and Museum of America is located in Watertown. Other towns in the area with significant Armenian populations are Worcester (1,306), Belmont (1,165), Waltham (1,091) and the city of Boston (1,080).

It’s pretty clear that these Armenian communities are being diluted as people spread over the suburbs, as long-standing ethnic communities tend to do.

When I lived in Cambridge (1962-65), the Armenian communities were substantial. tightly knit, and visible. Our landlord was Armenian American, and as ethnic Americans are inclined to do, he used his compatriots for goods and services as much as possible; repair and improvement work on the apartment was done entirely by Armenian Americans (often at very odd hours, since these men had other jobs with regular hours).

For supermarket shopping, we used the Star Market in Watertown (we had marvelous, small, fancy markets close by, but for some things you want a supermarket), a nearby town which was then clearly Armenian Central for the Boston area.

The genocide. From Wikipedia:

The Armenian Genocide … also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the Armenian Massacres and, traditionally by Armenians, as Medz Yeghern … “Great Crime”), was the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of its minority Armenian subjects inside their historic homeland, which lies within the territory constituting the present-day Republic of Turkey. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at between 800,000 to 1.5 million. The starting date is conventionally held to be 24 April 1915, the day Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested, subsequently executing, some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople.

The Turkish government is inclined to refer to the events beginning in 1915 as “violence”, maintaining that they were simply clashes between communities during wartime. I’m surprised they haven’t hit on “the late unpleasantness” as a euphemism.

2 Responses to “Armenian days”

  1. Victor Says:

    The entire Star Market chain used to be Armenian owned before it got sold to Jewel, then spun off, then sold to Shaw’s (Sainsbury) and then the SuperValu conglomerate that, ironically, also handled Jewell/Osco (I skipped a few details). The Mugar family (big Boston Area philantropists later on) continued to run the chain for Jewel. The Mt. Auburn store is the original one.

    An added twist. John O’Connor, who married into the family (Caroline Mugar), ran for Congress in the 8th District after Joe Kennedy retired. He got most of the Watertown and some Boston vote, but lost badly to Sommervile mayor Mike Capuano who got nearly his entire town to vote for him. Armenians largely supported O’Connor. He died shortly thereafter (2001).

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Armeno-Franco-Canadian Luc Vartan Baronian (a long-ago grad student of mine) writes:

    Many Armenian institutions are still in Watertown, but people have indeed moved further. Same thing in Montreal’s Cartierville, which was once very Armenian, also very Greek; the Armenians and Greeks have since moved to the burbs in great numbers, and the neighborhood is now a Little Pakistan / Little India.

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