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Early Recordings of Ives, Komitas & Cowell, ca. 1957​-​70

by Maro Ajemian & Anahid Ajemian with Elden Bailey



Maro and Anahid Ajemian’s father Leon Minas Ajemian (b. Nov. 3, 1886) was from Bilecik, Turkey, 120 miles (200 kilometers) south of Constantinople / Istanbul. He was a physician. His wife Siroun (b. 1890) was a pianist who had studied at the Paris Conservatory. Their first daughter Maro was born in Lausanne, Switzerland on July 9, 1921. A year later, they emigrated to New York City where their second daughter Anahid was born on Jan. 26, 1924.

Both daughters were child prodigies. At age 6 Maro was awarded four medals as a distinguished talent by the Institute of the Musical Arts (the forerunner of Julliard). She had, by that time twenty-five pieces in her repertoire including works by Handel, Mozart, and P.E. Bach, and she had composed a piece titled “The Fairy Dance,” dedicated to her grandmother. She was given a scholarship by Dr. Frank Damrosch (b. June 1859; d. Oct. 1937) to attend the Institute and graduated at the age of 11. She received a post-graduate diploma at the age of 18, having trained with Carl Friedberg (b. Sept. 1872; d Sept 1955), a disciple of Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.

Anahid began playing piano at age 4 but switched to violin at age 7. The two performed publicly as a duo by 1933. By the age of 15, Anahid was a soloist with the Plainfield Symphony Society and had performed Mendelssohn’s Concerto by the age of 17 at which time she was studying at the Graduate School of the Julliard Institute under Edouard Dethier (b. Aug. 1885; d. Feb. 1962).

At her debut recital at the age of 21 on March 14, 1942, Maro Ajemian gave the U.S. premiere of Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, signaling her initial interest in performing Armenian concert music. Several years later, around late 1945, she met the Boston-born composer Alan Hovhaness (b. March 1911; d. June 2000). Meeting Hovhaness began a fruitful decades-long collaboration. Her work took on a strong intellectual inclination toward both the avant-garde and the music of composers interested in "non-Western" source material. At a 1946 Carnegie Hall concert of Hovhaness's works, Maro met the composer John Cage (b. Sept. 1912; d. Aug. 1992). Impressed with her, he composed his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano for her to play. After adding to and revising it over several years, he ultimately dedicated it to her. She, meanwhile, gave it its first performances in New York and Philadelphia. She made the first recordings of Cage's work, his “Three Dance for Two Pianos,” on a set of 12” 78rpm discs for Moses Asch’s pre-Folkways Disc label along with works of Hovhaness, in 1947. She ultimately performed the entire 70-minute “Sonatas and Interludes” at Carnegie Hall in 1949 and released a recording of it as a two 12” 33rpm set in 1951, which has subsequently been reissued several times.

When Maro and Anahid Ajemian made their first European tour in 1949, both were already married - Anahid (then about 25 years old) to Avakian and Maro (then about 28) to a chemical engineer named Lionel Galstaun. As virtuosi, their careers were already predicated both on their command of 18th and 19th-century European repertoire - Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart in particular - as well as contemporary American music, particularly that of Hovhaness, Cage, Henry Cowell, and their circle. At the height of their development artistically and professionally, tragedy struck on June 23, 1949, when both of their parents died along with 56 others in the crash of a Northwest Airlines flight from New York to Minneapolis.

From about 1954-57, Maro and Anahid Ajemian recorded a series of LPs for MGM Records. Their Julliard classmate Williams Masselos also recorded prolifically for that short-lived series, including an LP of the piano work of Hovhaness. At least one of Maro Ajemian's recordings for MGM, a set of recordings of the early 20th century French “Les Six” composers, was never released. Others of them, including definitive recordings by the 20th-century composers Ernest Bloch, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Alan Hovhaness, etc. have never been reissued.

By 1954, Maro Ajemian and her husband had moved to Berkley, California. She had a very productive career and was a champion of many composers, including many women. A friend of mine, Steve Smolian, related a story that when he ran a rehearsal room in New York City in the 1950s, he was charmed by the fact that Maro often kept comic books of the Archie and Jughead variety in her scores, and she would read them to pass downtime. She remained a champion of Alan Hovhaness's music throughout her life and developed a significant interest in the Armenian composer and, like Bartok, musical ethnographer Komitas Vardapet (b. Sept. 1869; d. Oct. 1935). She died at the age of 57 on September 18, 1978.

Anahid Ajemian and her husband co-founded a New Music concert series in New York. She co-founded the Composers String Quartet at the suggestion of Gunther Schuller (b. Nov. 1925; d. June 2015) at the New England Conservatory. She served on the faculty of Columbia University for many years and died at the age of 92 in 2016.

CHARLES IVES (b. Danbury, Connecticut Oct. 20, 1874; d. New York City May 19, 1954) was the son of a politically progressive marching band leader in whose band he played drums. He played church organ as a teenager and composed hymns before studying music at Yale. After graduating, he entered the insurance business in which he was successful and composed during his off hours, producing some of the most radical and important American music of the early 20th century. Little of it was performed except at concerts funded by Ives himself until his "discovery" in the 1930s, by which time he had quit composing, by the composers Aaron Copland and Henry Cowell first and then Lou Harrison and Arnold Schoenberg, all of whom championed his work. The first recordings of his music were released in the late '40s and early '50s, notably by Leonard Bernstein. His fourth sonata for violin and piano was composed during his most productive period, ca. 1911-16. Maro and Anahid Ajemian were the first to record it, just a few years after his death, under the influence of Ives's students Cowell and Harrison whose works they recorded around the same time.

KOMITAS VARDAPET (b. Kütahya, Turkey 1869; d. Paris, France Oct. 22, 1935) was the ordination name taken by the celibate priest, composer, and ethnographer whose birth name was Soghomon Soghomonian. Orphaned as a child, he was taken to the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin, where on the basis of his singing voice, he was accepted as a disciple, and his vocal talents and religious devotion were developed. He was ordained as a monk in 1890 and furthered his musical education in Germany and Georgia between 1895 and 1899. In addition to singing, composing, and conducting, he dedicated himself to collecting the music of Armenian peasants, publishing them in parallel with his own compositions during the years 1907-12. His Six Dances for solo piano date to about 1907. On April 24, 1915 when he was living in Constantinople, he was arrested along with 250 other prominent Armenian men and transported to an internment camp 300 miles east. That date is now generally thought of as the start of the Armenian genocide, and it is then that Komitas began to suffer panic attacks and hallucinations that we would generally describe today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When he was released from prison in 1916, he stayed first in a psychiatric hospital in Constantinople and then in two mental hospitals in Paris where he spent the remainder of his life. He is widely regarded as the patriarch of Armenian music of the 20th century and was called a genius by his contemporary Claude Debussy.

HENRY COWELL (b. Menlo Park, California March 11, 1897; d. Woodstock, New York December 10, 1965) is the single most influential individual of the 20th-century American avant-garde and arguably the most important individual of American music of the past century. The son of an Irish immigrant father and radical leftist mother, he began playing music by the age of five and composing by the age of eight. Raised in poverty by his mother in San Francisco's Chinatown, he was a keen listener of Asian and folk musics and a highly experimental composer as a teenager. In his 20s, he performed his work widely, wrote the book New Musical Resources in which he speculated a a range of rhythmic and harmonic possibilities that influenced generations of composers including John Cage, and founded New Music Quarterly, a periodical that laid the groundwork for America's mid-20th century advances in musical technique and thought. A champion of elevated and undersung performers, he was the first to publish many of Charles Ives's scores in the '30s. When in 1936 he was arrested for engaging in homosexual sex and spent four years in prison, Ives cut off contact with him. (Ives meanwhile continued to work with Lou Harrison, who was also homosexual, although not "out" at the time.) Cowell was pardoned in 1942, but he was more careful in every part of his life including his music. His compositions, including the Set of Five (ca. 1952) were more sedate. He compiled albums for the Folkways label including the Music of the World's Peoples, an underappreciated masterpiece derived largely from commercial recordings and which laid the groundwork for "world music" and was an influence on Harry Smith's An Anthology of American Folk Music. He died of cancer at the age of 68.


released November 30, 2023

Maro Ajemisn, piano: tracks 1-14
Anahid Ajemian, violin: tracks 1-3 & 10-14
Elden Bailey, percussion: tracks 10-14

Tracks 1-3 & 10-14 recorded ca. 1957, presumably produced by Edward Cole
Tracks 4-9 recorded ca. 1970 by David B. Hancock

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski

Cover photo of Maro (left) and Anahid (right) Ajemian ca. 1948 via the New York Public LIbrary

More performances by Maro & Anahid Ajemian:


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