By Charles and Lucine Kasbarian
Armen Babamian was a leading guardian of our nation’s musical heritage in the Armenian Diaspora. He bridged Armenian musical customs from the past into the present to instruct countless Armenian-American community choirs. In Ridgefield, N.J., he was instrumental in establishing one of the most harmonious Armenian choirs in the United States—a group comprised of generations of Armenian-Americans, young and old—whom he trained to perform the traditional interpretation of our beloved Armenian Divine Liturgy.
Armen sang his first solo at the age of 12 in the Holy Cross Armenian Church of Union City, N.J. He was featured as tenor soloist in his junior and senior years in high school and subsequently studied voice with Manley Price Boone at the Metropolitan Opera Studios. Following an audition by director, Robert Shaw, Armen was accepted in the Collegiate Chorale, and qualified for the Varsity Choir and Shaw’s CBS Radio Choir.
As an active member of the Armenian community, Armen sang tenor leads in operas and operettas such as “Anoush,”“Arshin Mal Alan,”and “Gharabaghi Melikner.” In addition, he joined the New Jersey Chorale and, as a featured tenor soloist for many years, performed lead roles in “Oklahoma,” “Showboat,” “Annie,” “Get Your Gun,” and the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas,“Mikado,” “Pirates of Penzance,” “Ruddigore,” and “Trial by Jury.” He performed under the batons of orchestral conductors such as Leopold Stokowski, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Arturo Toscanini. He appeared with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians and assisted Paul Robeson in the presentation of Ballad for Americans at Lewisohn Stadium in New York.
As a tribute to his Armenian heritage, Armen specialized in performing the classical songs of the godfather of Armenian folk music, Gomidas Vartabed. He credits his “varbed,” Mihran Toumajan—one of the famous “five” pupils of Gomidas—for helping him to better appreciate the Master’s musical genius. Toumajan declared Armen to be the foremost American-born interpreter of Gomidas. Armen is the first American-born Armenian tenor to have attempted the challenging study and execution of the work of the famed 18th-century Armenian troubadour, Sayat Nova. As poetess Sosy Krikorian-Kadian eloquently stated, “Armen Babamian is the gifted child of a new world, from which the mountains of Armenia might have never been seen; yet he never ceased to ascend them in song, and brought the genius of Gomidas, Ganatchian, and the passions of the minstrel Sayat Nova to generations of American-Armenians who might otherwise have been denied the joy and knowledge of that treasured music which is their rightful inheritance.”
Armen was the choirmaster of St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in New York for 25 years, and from 1965 to 2001 was choirmaster of Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Church of Ridgefield. After singing as principal soloist for the Armenian National Chorus of New York under successive conductors—Haroutiun Mehrab, Florence Mardirosian, and Mihran Toumajan—Armen took over the conducting duties of the chorus from 1949-55.
In the absence of maestro Krikor Pidedjian, Armen directed the Kousan Chorus of New York in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. At a time when some communities did not have choirmasters of their own, Armen would travel to St. Gregory Armenian Church in Philadelphia, Pa., and St. Gregory Armenian Church in Indian Orchard, Mass., on a weekly basis in the 1950’s and 1960’s to teach the “Soorp Badarak” to their choirs.
In 1966, he founded and, for many years, directed the Armenian Chorale of New Jersey. A highlight occurred in Armen’s musical career when, on April 13, 1970, he conducted a 75-voice choir at Riverside Church in New York City. Two thousand people were on hand to hear Catholicos Khoren of the Holy See of Cilicia celebrate High Pontifical Mass.
Armen’s musical abilities were also put to use for other church communities. In the 1980’s, he was invited to assist the Assyrian community in recording their own liturgy in which melodies, centuries old, had never been documented in written form. Armen audiotaped the liturgy performed at St. Mary’s Assyrian Church of Paramus, N.J., annotated the music, and subsequently taught the choir their own liturgy in three-part harmony.
On Sept. 29, 1973, Armen’s many friends and admirers gathered at a testimonial banquet honoring him for his many years of dedicated service to the Armenian community. Karekin I, Catholicos of All Armenians, who was then the newly elected Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, as an honored guest at the banquet, praised the entire community for acknowledging their profound gratitude and paying tribute to a true son of the Armenian nation. In 1999, the Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church sponsored the presentation of the treasured St. Mesrob Mashdots Medal and Holy Encyclical by Catholicos Aram I of Antelias in acknowledgment of and appreciation for Armen’s years of devoted service. In 2000, the the board of trustees, church choir, and congregation of Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church of Ridgefield also honored Armen for his years of devoted service as their choirmaster.
Everyone, from his pupils to the institutional leaders under whom he was employed, recognized the invaluable service Armen performed toward the preservation of our precious cultural heritage. And he always encouraged the youth to “carry on.” For an article in the Armenian Weekly about dynamic 90-year-old Armenian-Americans, Lucine called to mind the impact Armen had on her and her brother, Antranig. “Those who know Armen can vouch for how he measured up to his birth date of Dec. 25, 1915. Armen has embodied the spirit of Christ and the resurrection of our people throughout his lifetime as a guardian and disseminator of our great Armenian musical legacy. He is that rare talent and patriot who knows the context of the music so that his resulting interpretation contains all the emotion and authenticity the musical subject matter requires. Our experiences singing in Armen’s choir, starting at ages six and five, directly contributed to our active involvement in Armenian community affairs. Many of his young singers were touched by his example and followed in his footsteps by performing and teaching our Armenian musical heritage.”