ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Renaissance in Georgia

Youth discover Georgia’s ancient sacred sounds

On an overcast weekday afternoon, six young men gather in a modest, drafty apartment in the historical district of the Georgian city of Tbilisi to practice the music scheduled for Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. The men, whose professions range from students to bankers, belong to the Agsavali Choir and sing the medieval haunting melodies of the Orthodox Church of Georgia at churches and other venues around the capital of the Caucasus republic — a nation that is neither Asian nor European, eastern nor western.

“Chanting serves the Lord,” says Guja Narimanishvili, a local business manager. “I first came to church like any average person, but later I became interested in chanting.” Drawn to the melodies, he says, he and his friends decided they had to learn more.

Mr. Narimanishvili began learning the ancient liturgical psalmody of the Georgian Orthodox tradition in 2003. He did not know the first thing about the church’s musical heritage — especially its medieval past.

“It is not a normal type of music … the chants were hard for everyone to listen to,” he recalls.

Nor are the chants easy to learn. Medieval Georgian chant utilizes a system of three–voice polyphony and differs in organizational structure from the more familiar Byzantine– or Russian–influenced chants of the contemporary Georgian church.

The Agsavali Choir meets a few times each week — and sometimes every day — to rehearse the difficult chants, to learn new ones or to make recordings. Learning the intricate harmonies, explains Mr. Narimanishvili, is a labor of love and faith.

“Our motivation is our love for this music,” he says. “It is a great treasure and when we touch it, it means a lot to us and we are proud we have this chance.” In recent years, medieval Georgian chant has experienced nothing short of a renaissance. The Agsavali Choir is in fact one of many such choirs that have spouted up across the country in the decades following Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The first, Anchiskhati, is based in a sixth–century basilica of the same name and tours the international concert circuit. The Tbilisi Conservatory of Music has added a graduate program in chant and a new school for chanting and folk music, sponsored by Georgian Orthodox Catholicos–Patriarch Ilia II, has opened its doors to eager students in Tbilisi.

Today’s youth especially have taken interest in the ancient art form. Unlike their parents and grandparents, the Millennial Generation is coming of age in a post–Soviet, independent Georgia — a nation still grappling with its national identity after more than a century of sustained cultural, economic and political oppression. In this context, traditional cultural expressions, such as ancient Georgian chants, have gained unprecedented popularity among the youth, who are embracing such discoveries with fierce enthusiasm.

Steeped in the early Christian traditions of the Byzantine and Syro–Palestinian churches, Georgian sacred music took a path of its own in the ancient monasteries in the southwest corner of the Georgian kingdom, now a part of Turkey. By the 10th century, a distinct form of polyphonic chant was well established in the region’s Georgian Orthodox monasteries — such as the famous Gelati Monastery in western Georgia — the cultural and intellectual centers of the Georgian people.

Over the centuries, master chanters composed thousands of chants for each part of the liturgy, including feast days. They also took on apprentices who studied under them for as long as seven years to perfect the complex structure of the music.

According to John Graham, a doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton University and a scholar of Georgian chant, up to half of the Divine Liturgy of the Georgian Orthodox Church is chanted.

“The chants are prayers that are meant to elevate the soul closer to heaven,” he explains. “And they serve a particular function in the church for that purpose.”

But the ancient chants of the Georgian church so beloved today were all but lost in the 19th and 20th centuries. When Russia formally annexed Georgia in 1802, the tsar instituted a policy of Russification. He exiled the Georgian royal family and forced intellectuals and nobles to take oaths of loyalty to him. Though the Georgian and Russian Orthodox churches were in full communion with one another, the tsar dissolved the previously independent Georgian church. He dethroned its catholicos–patriarch and replaced its ancient Georgian traditions with Russian rites. The tsar cut off Georgian royal patronage of Georgian Orthodox monasteries, forcing them to end their cultural and intellectual endeavors such as chanting instruction programs.

Then, in 1921, when the Soviets took control of Georgia, the Communist government brutally repressed the church. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the authorities systematically murdered countless men and women religious, including many of the remaining master chanters, pillaged and shuttered monasteries and churches and destroyed manuscripts and other sacred texts.

If not for one man — St. Ekvtime Kereselidze — posterity may never have heard the beautiful sound of ancient Georgian chant. Between 1912 and 1936, he managed to salvage the scores of more than 5,000 chants, coordinating the efforts of a small group of like–minded individuals to transcribe them by hand. The group secretly moved them multiple times among three monasteries before finding them a safe location.

According to Professor Graham, Mr. Kereselidze witnessed and assisted in the process of transcribing the chants. Three years before his death in 1944, he detailed the process of transcribing the oral tradition and of his fight to preserve his nation’s liturgical traditions during Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1920’s and 30’s. In his memoir, he even mentions a theft of some of his handwritten transcripts, later finding them wrapping cheese and meats in a nearby market.

And for the next 50 years, the handwritten scores, stored in boxes, collected dust and remained forgotten.

It was not until the 1980’s that another man — Malkhaz Erkvanidze — picked up where St. Ekvtime Kereselidze left off. While a student at the Tbilisi Conservatory of Music, Mr. Erkvanidze happened upon the lost archive of manuscripts.

He and a fellow music student, David Shugliashvili — both of whom are now accomplished scholars and leading experts on Georgian chant — marveled at their discovery. The scores did not resemble in the slightest the chants performed by the choirs of the day.

“It was anti–church music,” says Mr. Erkvanidze about the simplistic, newly composed chants he remembers hearing at church services in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Overwhelmed by the manuscripts’ complex scores, unlike anything either one had ever encountered, the two friends quickly and rightfully concluded they had stumbled upon a long lost national treasure.

However, as they studied the scores closely, it dawned on them that they were but a skeletal representation of the actual music — the product of Mr. Kereselidze’s attempt to preserve the unique Georgian polyphony using the standard, European five–tone scale. The transcriptions also lacked notations of sharps and flats and keys to tempo and mood.

Despite the dangers inherent to the twilight years of the Soviet era, the men embarked on an ambitious project to restore medieval Georgian chant. The men painstakingly recomposed and performed the chants to decipher the original, intended sound.

Today, medieval Georgian chant enthusiasts refer to Mr. Erkvanidze and Mr. Shugliashvili as the patriarchs of Georgian chant. Indeed, the manuscripts the men discovered have not only saved but reawakened Georgia’s legacy of sacred music.

“Ancient Georgian chant is … reawakening the soul of the church,” says Mr. Erkvanidze, a modest, unassuming man sporting a salt–and–pepper beard. “I feel happiness. Thank God the young people are singing these hymns.”

Meanwhile, the Agsavali Choir continues its rehearsal. For these young men, bringing to life these sacred melodies that express their nation’s spirit is a humbling experience.

“We want to restore the ancient traditions of our ancestors, which sadly were lost,” says choir member Giorgi Molodini, adding that his ancestors were among those who sought to preserve medieval Georgian chant 200 years ago.

“That is our responsibility, and we want to chant as they did.”

Photojournalist Molly Corso lives and works in Tbilisi.

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