Kourken Alemshah was a well-established, even if prematurely disappeared Armenian composer of the Diaspora in the first half of the past century.
He was born in Bardizag (now Bahcecik), an Armenian village near Izmit, in Western Turkey, on May 22, 1907. He studied at the Mekhitarist School in the neighborhood of Pera (now Beyoglu), in Constantinople, and graduated in 1918. Afterwards, he entered the Moorat-Raphael (Mourad-Raphaelian) School of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice, graduating in 1923. He had already shown his talent as a pianist at school, and he pursued musical studies at the Milan Conservatory. His professors saw in him an exceptional talent, unique inspiration, and the ability to mix Oriental music and popular motifs to European technique.
Alemshah graduated in 1930 and settled in Paris, where he taught at the Samuel-Moorat (Samuel Mouradian) school of the Mekhitarists in the suburb of Sevres, as well as in Italian high schools. Along his prolific labor as composer, he also organized the “Cilicia” choir, which became a well-known choir in the big Armenian community of France. In 1933, at the age of twenty-six, he was elected member of the Association of Musical Authors, Composers, and Editors of France. In the 1930s, he composed many works of European inspiration under the pseudonym of Jean Valdonne.
It was particularly impressive a concert of the “Cilicia” choir he directed in 1934 at Salle Gaveau, in Paris, with more than 1,000 people in the audience. Along works by Komitas, he premiered his “Oriental Nights,” composed in 1931 and the vocal-orchestral work “The Battle of Avarayr” (1934). In 1936, on the centennial of his alma mater, the Moorat-Raphael School, he took his choir to Venice and gave concerts both in the famed hall of the school and the St. Mark Square, presenting Komitas songs and his own songs on popular motifs. In 1937 his work “Armenian Wedding,” a combination of Alemshah’s music with popular songs, won the second prize at the international competition of People’s Music, with the participation of twenty nations.
He later conducted the choir “Alakiaz” from 1938-1939, and was appointed conductor of the Sipan Komitas choir from 1939 until his death. He conducted Armen Tigranian’s “Anoush” opera and the performances of the Divine Liturgy in a number of French cathedrals.
In the fall of 1947, Alemshah visited the United States for a series of presentations. In October he conducted a concert at Town Hall in New York City, devoted to Armenian orchestral and choral music. He passed away unexpectedly on December 14, 1947, in Detroit, from a heart attack, a day before his scheduled performance. His funeral was held in New York by the Armenian Catholic clergy, with the participation of the choir of St. Illuminator’s Cathedral. His body was sent to France and buried in Paris.
Some of his vocal scores were published in Paris in 1947. His songs, which are still part of musical programs, are characterized by rare emotional intensity.