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Songs for the Easter Season: Polyphonic Singing from the Republic of Georgia

Four men singing in traditional Georgian choir dress, one man holds a bagpipe.

The Anchiskhati Choir of Tbilisi, Georgia performing at the Library of Congress in 2016. From left to right: David Shugliashvili, Zaal Tsereteli, David Zatiashvili, and Levan Veshapidze.

Georgian polyphonic singing has a rich and ancient past. It predates Christianity and its pre-Christian roots are alive today in secular songs such as lullabies, harvest, hunting, and wedding songs. The Christian songs survived a dark time while Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, as the tradition was banned from 1921 to 1990. Monks tried to keep the songs alive by singing them secretly, but the tradition diminished. The revitalization in the modern era is a triumph of archives, and of Georgian singers who went to the written sources from the 19th century to bring the tradition back to life. Tunes could also be found in the existing secular songs, as these were not banned.

In 2005 and again in 2016, Dr. John Graham arranged to bring the singers who had revived the tradition on tours of the United States, with presentations at the Library of Congress. In 2016 he was at that time PhD. in historical musicology from Princeton University, while in 2005 he was still a graduate student and a Fulbright scholar to Georgia. This blog presents both of these concerts and includes information from handouts to the audience and other materials not visible on the videos. Both groups are called the Anchiskhati Choir, named for the Anchiskhati Basilica of St. Mary, the oldest surviving church in Tbilisi, Georgia. The groups in each of the videos include some of the same members, but you will notice that the group that performed in 2005 was much larger than the group that performed in 2016. That is because the larger group split and reformed into two singing groups in the intervening years.

In the first video below John Graham presented the group of four singers pictured above. In the lecture he makes reference to a slide with a map of Georgia, but the slide does not appear on the video. Here is the map from that slide, which shows the locations of key monasteries in Georgia where specific songs are sung. The singers and the songs come from different regions of Georgia, and the performances in both concerts provide examples of singing styles from eastern, central, and western Georgia. The map provided here will assist in locating the areas referred to in the videos.

A map of the republic of Georgia showing monastic centers. These are marked from west to east as 1. Shemokmedi 2. Martvili 3. Gelati 4. Svetitskhoveli (near Tbilisi) 5. Davit Gareji 6. Bodbe

Significant Monastic Centers for Georgian Chant. Courtesy of John Graham.

As often happens in the revitalization of a tradition, some people with knowledge of these Georgian traditions also either had scholarly backgrounds or were able to acquire scholarly skills in order to bring the tradition back to life from archival sources and then teach it to others. This is true of the singers performing in these concerts. They have produced recordings and scholarship on the tradition. Through this work they have become the teachers of the next generation of Georgian singers. For example, musicologist David Shugliashvili has compiled a collection of Georgian songs, Georgian Traditional Folk Songs From the Repertoire of the Anchiskhati Choir (2005); Levan Veshapidze is a folklorist; David Zatiashvili is a specialist in eastern Georgian chant and in the yodeling style from western Georgia; and Malkhaz Erkvanidze, who leads the group in the 2005 performance, is a world authority on Georgian polyphonic choral music. I particularly like the story of Zaal Tsereteli, a computer programmer and mathematician who used his skills to work at breaking the code of the 10th century notation system used for Georgian chant.

We are in the period leading up to Easter, and the 2016 concert included songs from the Orthodox Paschal Cycle, that is, songs for the Lent and Easter season. Since it is appropriate for the time of year, this presentation is a good place to begin even though it is the second of the two presentations chronologically. This concert also includes some examples of songs accompanied by traditional instruments — the goatskin bagpipe (chiboni) and a four-string lute (chonguri). Since this group is dedicated to the tradition of vocal polyphony, instruments are used in support of the voices, rather than on their own. The performers in this concert are David Shugliashvili, Zaal Tsereteli, Levan Veshapidze and David Zatiashvili. John Graham introduces them 51 minutes into the video and explains how they came to the choir.

The first songs you will hear in the 2016 concert are examples of Christian songs from eastern Georgia that might be used in any service. This set of songs begins at 13:30 minutes into the video. Here are John Graham’s notes on these:

  • Ghvtismshobelo kaltsulo [Theotokos Virgin], troparion of the Virgin, Svetitskhoveli monastery school. Text: “Theotokos Virgin, rejoice, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with You. Blessed are You among women, and blessed is the fruit of Your womb, for You have borne the Savior of our souls.”
  • Mgalobelni shenni [Your praise, Oh Theotokos], 3rd heirmos for the kanon of the Theotokos, Svetitskhoveli monastery school. Text: “In your divine glory, O Theotokos, living and inexhaustible fountain, spiritually establish your choir, assembled in chorus, in your mercy make them worthy of the crowns of glory!”
  • Mravalzhamier [Many years], Kakhetian folk tradition. The text, Many years (Gk. eis pollá etē) originated as a special hymn that commemorated a king or emperor, and is now sung as the polychronion at the end of the Eastern Orthodox mass to honor parish and clergy.

The examples from Central Georgia include two for the Easter season. The last song includes the chonguri. This set of songs begins 22 minutes into the video:

  • Aghdgomisa dghe ars [The Day of Resurrection], first heirmos of the Paschal mass, Gelati monastery school. Text: “The Day of Resurrection! Let us be illumined, O ye people! The Passover, the Passover of the Lord! From death unto life, and from earth unto heaven hath Christ our God brought us over, singing a song of victory.”
  • Nu mtir me dedao [Do not lament me, O Mother], 9th heirmos of Great Saturday, Gelati monastery school. Text: “Do not lament me, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb,the Son conceived in the womb without seed,for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God.I shall exalt all who magnify thee in faith and in love.”
  • Bedneri Do Ubedursu [Happy and Unhappy People], Megrelian philosophical song. Text: “All, happy and unhappy people, have the same way to go. No one will live for too long, so let’s live conscious life…”

The choir continues with examples from Western Georgia, including two for Easter and a couple of feast songs that make use of the Georgian bagpipe. This set of songs begins 32 minutes into the video:

  • Kriste aghdga [Christ is risen], troparion for Easter, Shemokmedi monastery school. Text: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”
  • Upalo mogvivline nateli [O lord, send forth thy light], Introit of the Transfiguration, Shemokmedi monastery school. Text: “O lord, send forth thy light and thy truth, and they shall instruct me and shall lead me unto thy holy hill.”
  • Chven Mshvidoba [Peace To Us], Gurian table song.
  • Evrida Maspindzelsa[Hail the host], Acharian feast song. Text: “Our host is happy, as there are lots of lovely guests around his table. Let there always be such glorious feasts in his house…”

The performance also includes three examples of songs for St. Nino. St. Nino was a woman who was called to go into the Caucus region to bring Christianity to what is now Georgia in the fourth century AD. She is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox church. The singers provide versions of the same song in styles from three different monasteries to show the different harmonies used in the three different regions of Georgia. The lyrics translate as: “O fellow servant with the minister of the Word of God, who didst continue the preaching of the Apostle Andrew, enlightener of the Georgians and reed-pipe of the Holy Spirit, Nino, pray to Christ God to have mercy on our souls.” This set of songs begins 45 minutes into the video:

  • Svetitskhoveli monastery school. This variant was notated by master chanter Vasil Karbelashvili and published in 1898.
  • Gelati monastery school. This variant was notated by Pilimon Koridze from the master chanters Razhden Khundadze, Ivliane Tsereteli, and Dimitri Chalaganidze in 1885.
  • Shemokmedi monastery school. This variant was recorded in 1966 at the Tbilisi Conservatory by Artem Erkomaishvili (1887-1967).

The larger choir led by Malkhaz Erkvanidze in 2005 was able to give still more variations on the ancient polyphonic singing styles of Georgia with some more secular examples as well as religious songs. They demonstrated styles of call and response songs and a type of yodeling that is unique to Georgia. The choir members are David Zatiashvili, Koba Beriashvili, Gocha Balavadze, Grigor Bulia, Vasil Tsetskhladze, Zaal Tsereteli, David Shugliashvili, Levan Veshapidze, Mamuka Kiknadze, David Megrelidze, and Gocha Giogadze. A short essay from the handout for this event with more information about the music is available at this link.   (This was produced when the Library of Congress was new to making webcasts, so the format is smaller than more recent videos, but it has been remastered and has good picture and sound. Luckily, the acoustics in Madison Hall, which are challenging for most kinds of music, are excellent for choral singing.)

Both of these videos are available with full bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website.  The 2005 concert is hereThe 2016 Concert is here.

2 Comments

  1. Dr. John Graham
    April 10, 2020 at 6:25 am

    Thank you for highlighting the LOC performances of the Anchiskhati Church Choir in 2005 and 2016. We have fond memories of the visits! If anyone would like to learn more, please be in touch with me. And if you are considering coming to Georgia (after pandemic times) to see/hear this music embedded in its proper cultural contexts, also be in touch.

  2. თერალი
    April 27, 2020 at 7:49 pm

    გაიხარეთ, გამრავლდით, მრავლჟამიერ

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