Georgian Church Hymns (a)

The defining wealth of every historically Christian nation is the artistry developed within the religious context. Georgian Christian culture, begun in the early centuries after Christ’s life, has created and preserved many diverse traditions and artifacts of world importance. Though these treasures have been hidden from the world and even the Georgians for many decades, certain precious jewels, such as traditional ecclesiastical chant, are regaining a place of prominence in the hearts and minds of the public and in the life of the Church. This chant collection represents transcriptions of audio recordings made in 1966 by the famous master chanter Artem Erkomaishvili.Georgian hymnography has a strong history of scholarship, especially regarding early neumatic forms of musical notation (the earliest example dates from the 10thcentury). Other scholarship has focused on chant transcriptions in western staff notation collected at the end of the 19th century. It must be mentioned that hardly anything would be known of this incredible oral tradition without the efforts of the “Commission for Chant Preservation,” who began the process of notating chant in the 1860s. By that time, there were very few sruligalobelni1 (master chanters) left, (changing social and political conditions halted the traditional means of chant study in the first half of the19th century) and these few did not understand the newly introduced five-line notational  system. Thankfully, several musicians and dedicated souls emerged to do God’s work, and spent many years transcribing Georgian chant from the last of the sruligalobelni;these men included Pilimon Koridze, the priest brothers Vasil and Polievktos Karbelashvili, deacon Razhden Khundadze, and the monk Ekvtime Kereselidze.
As a result of the thousands of transcriptions collected by these men between
1880-1920, modern scholars possess an archive whose importance for Georgian church music culture is equal to the neume system from ancient Georgian manuscripts. While the neumes are a silent testimony to the greatness of Georgian chant in the remote past (and have still not been conclusively deciphered), the transcriptions from the late 19th century are testimony to the living tradition of the sruligalobelni which had been passed down for many generation.

Nearing the end of the 19th century, the once numerous sruligalobelni were
becoming scarce. Russian imperialist strategies had deprived the Georgian Church of its autocephalic status (right to self-governance), and banned church services and chant in the Georgian language. This contributed to a wider phenomenon of social change evident in the opening up of western culture and music throughout the Caucasus region that caused a shift in musical interest among young Georgians. By the 1910s, only a handful of chant tradition carriers were alive, and today, there is not a single person alive to help in the revival of this broken tradition.
Under such dire circumstances, the chants performed by Artem Erkomaishvili2
(1887-1967), the last representative of the sruligalobelni, acquire vast importance.
Using two tape-recorders, composer-ethnomusicologist Kakhi Rosebashvili recorded the aging Erkomaishvili singing chant at the Tbilisi State Conservatory in 1966. The top voice, mtkmeli was recorded first; then using the second tape recorder, modzakhili (second voice) and bani (bass) were recorded, all three voices sung by the 79-year-old Erkomaishvili. Over a hundred hymns were recorded in this way, and are housed in the Folklore Department at the Tbilisi State Conservatory. Though of poor quality, these recordings have invaluable importance for the future study of Georgian chant.
Erkomaishvili used a small book containing hymn texts penciled with his own
neumatic notation.3 In spite of the fact that the neumes contained in this manuscript differ from the neumes preserved in 10th century manuscripts, the comparative study of these sources could be the key to unraveling the mystery of the medieval neumatic notational system.
Academic centers of learning used to be located in the monasteries and
churches that are plentiful throughout every valley and mountain region in Georgia. In these locations, the sruligalobelni taught chant to their apprentices and even during the 19th century, when most of chant schools were closed down, people continued to sing and teach within their families. Many regional chant variants (modes) carry the names of 19th century master chanters, for example: the mode of Great Geronti,Archimandrate Bidzina mode, Archimandrate Sophron mode, the mode of Archimandrate Tarasi, the Karbelashvili family mode, the Chalaganidze mode, the Kandelaki mode, the mode of ‘Simon the Cripple’, the Dumbadze family mode, and others. The chants of Artem Erkomaishvili collected in this volume represent the socalled ‘Dumbadze family mode,’ because Erkomaishvili’s teacher, master chanter Melkisedek Nakashidze, was a student of the famous chanter Anton Dumbadze.
Members of the Dumbadze family were historically connected to the clergy and
many of them lived and worked in their historical village of Shemokmedi (‘Creation’).
Anton Dumbadze4 most famous of the chanters who worked with the chant transcriber  Pilimon Koridze, is buried in the churchyard of the Shemokmedi Monastery. In Poliekvtos Karbelashvili’s account, “Georgian Secular and Sacred Modes,”5 many  outstanding historical chanters are named, among them several from the Shemokmedi  Monastery: Iakob Dumbadze (1679-1721), priest Giorgi Dumbadze (d. 1875), and  priest Mathe Gogitidze (served 1541-1560), who with his nephew Ioane Gogitidze (served 1560-1590) attempted to preserve chant through the extremely harsh period of the 16th century.6 Several books of neumatic chant notation originating from the Shemokmedi Monastery can be seen at the Institute of Manuscripts in Tbilisi,7 and together with the above mentioned presence of famous sruligalobelni, it is evident that the monastery held a prominent place in Georgian church culture.
As there are no surviving master chanters to teach in modern times, we must
glean pedagogical information from written and audio sources that have survived. As mentioned, the greatest written sources come from the collections of Koridze,
Khundadze, Kereselidze, and the Karbelashvili brothers, while the greatest audio
recordings are from the Artem Erkomaishvili archive. While collecting these materials,these men sometimes made note of how chant was learned, as we will explore in this next section.

Some manners of Georgian chant are quite difficult. However, Ekvtime
Kereselidze8 notes that students began gradually, working up to more difficult ‘modes’ and styles of chant. “The rule of Georgian chant requires that pupils must first learn to sing in namdvili kilo (Simple-True mode),9 and later, if necessary, to embellish it in gamshvenebuli kilo (Colorful Mode).”10 By this observation, it can be seen that students would learn the basic modes of chant, thereby ensuring the preservation of a common chant through the generations.


David Shugliashvili

Shemokmedi School(from the Artem Erkomaishvili Archive, Tbilisi Conservatory)2nd Edition, Tbilisi, 2006


1 The sruligalobelni were an elite group of chant teachers who memorized up to three or four thousand chants. Apprenticeship to learn the complicated Eight Tone system and the many varied chant melodies and harmonies for the entire service calendar took up to seven years.

2 Artem Erkomaishvili was 

3 Kutateladze Press (M. Sharadze, E. Kereselidze), “Zepiri Sagalobelni,” (Oral Chant) – Tiflis, 1905,Institute of Manuscripts – Q 840 Artem Erkomaishvili used the troparion and other liturgical texts printed in this book as his guide, adding his own notational system to help remember melodies.
4 Anton Dumbadze (1824-1907) was one of the most well-known master chanters in late 19th century Georgia, having an incredible knowledge of both the Gelati and Shemokmedi schools of chant. He lived near the Shemokmedi Monastery in the regional capital of the Gurian region, Ozurgeti, where he studied with his great uncle, the priest Giorgi Dumbadze. He was a commander of local forces in the Russo-Turkish war, and the father of eight boys, all of whom also became military commanders except for  Davit, a priest and master chanter. Pilimon Koridze worked primarily with Anton Dumbadze and his son Davit to transcribe chant between 1884 and 1907. Dumbadze knew so many chants that Koridze chose to
transcribe just the first-voice melody in order to record as many as possible. Later Ekvtime Kereselidze,Razhden Khundadze, Iordane Tsereteli and others worked to harmonize these melody lines.
5 See Polievktos Karbelashvili – “Georgian Secular and Sacred Modes” – Tiflis, 1898. p 75-79.Polievktos Karbelashvili (1855-1936) was the eldest son of famous master chanter Grigol Karbelashvili from the village Chala in Kakheti. Together with his brother Vasil Karbelashvili, he worked to save the Eastern Georgian chant mode and wrote a book on the history of chanters and singers from the region.
6 The Shemokmedi Monastery is located close to the Georgian – Turkish border and was under near constant attack between the 16th and 19th centuries.
7 Institute of Manuscripts– Q 634, Q 651
8 Ekvtime Kereselidze (1865-1944), now a saint of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Between 1912 and 1936 Kereselidze organized and recopied the approximately 5500 rough-draft transcriptions inherited from Pilimon Koridze, and the Tbilisi press operated by Maxime Sharadze. During this time his life was
threatened repeatedly, but he was able to continue safeguarding himself and the chant manuscripts by moving between the Gelati, Tsvetitskhoveli, and Zedazani Monasteries. In 1936 the chants were safely delivered to friends in the Georgian State Manuscript Archive, where they were kept safe but largely unseen until 1988.
9 Scholars have noted three stages in the development of Georgian chant, sada (simple), namdvili (true),and gamshvenebuli (colorful). Sada kilo (Plain Mode) chant is also referred to as ‘Children’s Mode’ (bavshvebis kilo) and consists of the basic structure of the chant in three-part harmony without ornamentation or elaboration. Namdvili kilo (Simple-True mode) is a further development of Sada kilo in which the original melody and harmonies are elaborated. Gamshvenebuli kilo (Colorful Mode) is the furthest development of chant elaboration, and is characterized by strong ornamentations that vary in harmonic structure according to region (Malkhaz Erkvanidze, Gelati Chant, 2002, Vol II).
10 E. Kereselidze – “Shtasakhedi” – Q 674 p. 189



About sooteris kyritsis

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