Church Music in Georgia
When you come to Georgia you can visit a number of attractions. All of them cost money. One of the finest experiences you can have in any country however comes at the price of a candle. No visit to Georgia is complete without a visit to a Georgian Orthodox church. The churches themselves are the most distinctive buildings in Georgia and you cannot go very far without spotting one. They are open all day long and conduct a full range of services to congregations that seem to gather at any hour of the day or night. The vigil every Saturday evening and liturgy on Sundays and Feast Days are cultural experiences of the highest quality and among the finest things Georgia has ever produced.
You do not have to speak Georgian to understand what is going on. You open your ears and look at people’s faces. The Georgian Orthodox Church is renowned for its fidelity to Orthodox tradition and the supreme quality of its music. Georgian Church music has developed a distinct national style which happens to combine the best elements of other Orthodox traditions, due to the instinctive taste of the Georgian people. The relevance of that taste and the music which it produced are there for all to see.
Georgian Church music is distinguished by its triphonic structure, which creates an effect similar to the Western Barber Shop Quartet. Most typically three separate melodies are intertwined in one shifting close harmony, which floats along both with and in apparent opposition to the words. You never know exactly what is coming next. You may not be able to understand the words, but the music they are set to is fascinating and very satisfying to listen to. If you did not know beforehand what the music was supposed to be you would quickly understand that it was religious in character. Some musicologists claim that polyphonic singing actually originated in Georgia. Certainly it was well established in the country hundreds of years before Western Europe adopted it. Georgian folk music which is more widely known shares the same structure. This gives it a similarly inspiring character, which is probably the reason it is more serious in intent than comparable folk music from other majority Orthodox nations.
Church music is usually assumed to be as ancient as the Orthodox Church itself. In fact in most cases a ‘standard Church music’ has developed much more recently. Georgian Church music of today is a product of the Georgian national revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This has affected not only its content but its style. In 1811 the Georgian Church was incorporated into the Russian Church and Georgian language and music were suppressed. The Georgian Church declared itself independent in 1917, only to be harassed by invading Soviet forces. Not till 1943 did the Moscow Patriarchate acknowledge the independence of the Georgian Church which had been established nationally fifteen centuries before, more than five centuries before Russia itself became Orthodox. It has been stated that the Byzantine chant reflects the profound sadness found in icons. Georgian melodies similarly reflect this sadness but their harmonies are almost defiant. There is always the sense that ultimate triumph is there under the surface. This is of course a fundamental Christian message.
Each Orthodox musical tradition has its own adherents. Russian music is the easiest on the Western ear due to our exposure to Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov, each of whom was also a significant Church composer. Its mournful melodies and preponderance of minor keys are very familiar. Greek music is both richly melodic and tonally compressed at the same time, creating a drone effect underpinning the melody whether or not a drone (ison) is actually used. The standard Serbian music of Stevan Mokranjac (1856-1914) has clearer melodies and harmonies than are common in the Orthodox Church, whilst the Romanian style reflects the semi-Latinate nature of the Romanian people and Bulgarian music sounds exactly what it is – a nineteenth century addition of a Slavic mood to previously dominant Greek forms. Each of these and other Orthodox musical traditions has their own adherents. Georgian chant has something for everybody. You would be hard pressed to find an Orthodox Christian from anywhere who did not like it when they hear it or acknowledge it as one of the finest examples of the genre.
Attending Georgian churches is a treat but is not for the faint hearted. Even insignificant suburban churches are so packed with people you can hardly move and the attitude of prayer is not one of quiet reflection but fervency. These people love God and almost compete against each other to show it. The choirs are what you would therefore expect. In every parish they have found choristers of a higher standard than is usual even in the rest of the Orthodox Church, which is rightly celebrated for the general quality of its singers. Their proficiency is even more remarkable when we consider that Church music was banned for thirty years during Soviet rule. Georgian Church music and the splendour of its performance are truly a hymn of praise to Our Saviour.
Most people have heard of the Georgian Church and its music but few have had first hand experience. Greater exposure to them will demonstrate to anyone why every bus and car here is festooned with icons and no one questions the fundamental importance of the Church in Georgian national life.
I.G. Chopan for The Georgian Times