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The Georgian version of a Christmas carol is known as an “Alilo”. This version, performed by Ansambli Basiani, originates in West Georgia’s mountainous Racha region.

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Today is the Feast of Transfiguration; while it falls during the Dormition fast, dietary restrictions are relaxed today.

Prior to the conversion of Georgia to Christianity in the 4th century, various folk religions and Greek-influenced pagan cults were present in the country. As Georgia has the world’s oldest winemaking tradition (over 8000 years), viticulture plays a very large role in the lives of lowland Georgians, and the management practices of the vineyard were often linked with religious festivals. Archaelogical ruins in Georgia indicate that Dionysian/Bacchan cults were widespread before Georgia’s conversion, and that rites to this god involving wine and grapes were common.

Orthodox Christian practice, past and present, has been to examine local pagan customs and, provided such customs are not wicked, to adapt and Christianise them.  For example, Orthodox priests in China commonly hold a liturgy in memory of the deceased for Chinese converts on the two Grave-Sweeping Festivals, which are ancient ancestor-worship festivals. The Church Fathers in the early days of the Church in the Roman Empire likewise evaluated local folk customs and pre-existing Jewish rites, and conflated them with Church festivals. The presentation of grapes at Transfiguration is one of these customs.

Presenting fruit and grapes at the temple is an ancient Jewish custom (Gen 4:2-4; Ex 13:12-13; Num 15:19-21; Deut 8:10-14).  It was Christianised by the Apostles  (1 Cor 16:1-2). Presentation of grapes at the temple is mentioned in the Third Rule of the Apostolic Canon, which is the earliest collection of written ecclesiastic laws (canons) in our possession, dating to the second century.

In the first centuries of the Church, the faithful presented to the temple the fruit and produce of each seaon’s new harvest: bread, wine, oil, incense, wax, honey and fruit . Bread, wine, oil and wax were taken to the altar, while the other offerings were used to feed the clergy and the poor who were under the Church’s care.

In Georgia, the date of the grape harvest or Rtveli is determined by the ripeness of the grapes rather than a fixed date, but traditionally it was forbidden to consume grapes during the Dormition fast before Transfiguration and so Rtveli always occurs no earlier than Transfiguration. In practical terms, Rtveli is usually no earlier than the last week of August, and in the mountainous areas of western Georgia it can be as late as November.

There is a theological significance to the blessing of grapes at Transfiguration. Just as we celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration today, we celebrate this with objects that undergo both physical and spiritual transformation. Grapes are physically transformed, from flower to fruit, from fruit to must, and from must to wine. Grapes are also spiritually transformed, from ordinary wine into the Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy.

It should also be recalled that the Church is frequently described as a vine, with the faithful being the fruit that it bears.

In addition, King Demetre 1st of Georgia in the 12th century wrote a hymn of praise to the Ghvtismshobeli, the Virgin Mary, describing her as a beautiful vineyard. As Georgia is the land allocated to the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, the hymn functions almost as an unofficial national anthem and is very popular.  The melody by the 19th century composer Paliashvili is favoured today. The lyrics of the hymn “Shen Khar Venakhi/Thou Art a Vineyard” are:

Georgian text:
შენ ხარ ვენახი, ახლად აყვავებული,
ნორჩი კეთილი, ედემს შინა ნერგული,
(ალვა სუნელი, სამოთხეს ამოსული,)
(ღმერთმან შეგამკო ვერვინა გჯობს ქებული,)
და თავით თვისით მზე ხარ და გაბრწყინვებული.
Latin transliteration:
shen khar venakhi, akhlad aqvavebuli.
norchi k’etili, edems shina nerguli.
(alva suneli, samotkhes amosuli.)
(ghmertman shegamk’o vervina gjobs kebuli.)
da tavit tvisit mze khar da gabrts’qinvebuli.
English translation:
You are a vineyard newly blossomed.
Young, beautiful, growing in Eden,
(A fragrant poplar sapling in Paradise.)
(May God adorn you. No one is more worthy of praise.)
You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly.

A blessed Transfiguration Feast to you all.

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With only a few hours to go until the Vigil, this rendition of ‘Christ is Risen from the Dead” is a splendid example of this hymn by a well known men’s choir, Mdzlevari.

The lyrics, to refresh your memory, are:

Krist’e aghsdga mk’vdretit
Sik’vdilita sik’vdilisa
Damtrugunveli da saplavebis shinata
Tskhovrebis minbich’ebeli

In English, the translation is:

Christ is risen, and by dying conquers death.
We need no longer fear the grave. He is the giver of life.

A blessed and joyous Pasqa to all of you, and your families.

 

 

 

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Tbilisi’s two cathedral churches are both centres of excellence in the sacred musical arts. The Georgian Patriarchate’s television station, Ertsulovneba, recently commissioned this documentary on the Choir of the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Tbilisis Tsminda Samebis Sakathedro Tadzari), very ably conducted by Mr Simon Jangulashvili.

Many of the hymns sung in the programme are familiar, and some have been composed and arranged by His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II.

 

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I have today discovered that a kind person has filmed some wonderful choirs in Kutaisi and uploaded both concert-style recitals and excerpts from the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in the temple. A sample is provided below, the Trisagion (Thrice-Holy Hymn, known in Georgian as “Tsmindao Ghmerto”) prior to the readings from the Epistles and the Holy Gospel.

If Georgian chant interests you, you can subscribe to the Youtube channel here ,  via Facebook here , or via Google+ here.

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Today the Church commemorates one of the heroes of the resistance to the Bolsheviks’ attempts to extinguish the Georgian Church and its musical traditions, Saint Ekvtime Kereselidze. His story is a moving testament to the persecution that the clergy and laity suffered during the Communist era. Without his labours, the 1600 year-old tradition of Georgian liturgical music would likely have been lost forever.

Abbot Ekvtime Kereselidze was born in1865 in the village of Sadmeli (Racha region) to the pious Solomon and Marta Kereselidze. At birth he was given the name Evstate.

After completing his studies at the local parish school, fifteen-year-old Evstate traveled first to Kutaisi, then Tbilisi, in search of work. With the help of other pious young men Evstate founded a kind of theological “book club” in Tbilisi. The objectives of the organization were to strengthen the Orthodox Faith among the Georgian people, to better understand the ancient school of Georgian chant, and to spread knowledge of this venerable musical tradition among the general public. In the 1890s the organization purchased a print shop with the help of St. Ilia the Righteous. In the twenty-five years that followed, these young men zealously published theological texts and distributed them to the public free of charge.

After some time Evstate resolved to take upon himself the heavy yoke of monasticism, for which he had been preparing from an early age. His spiritual father, the venerable St. Alexi (Shushania), supported his decision. In 1912, with the blessing of Bishop Giorgi (Aladashvili) of Imereti, Evstate began to labor as a novice at Gelati Monastery. On December 23, 1912, he was tonsured a monk by a certain Antimos, the abbot of the monastery. He was given the name Ekvtime in honor of St. Ekvtime of Mt. Athos. In May of 1913 he was ordained a hierodeacon.

In 1917 Fr. Ekvtime was ordained to the priesthood by the same Bishop Giorgi. In the terrible year of 1921, immediately after the Communists seized power in Kutaisi, the authorities deemed Fr. Ekvtime untrustworthy and arrested him. But, according to God’s will, he was released due to the lack of evidence against him. In this ungodly era, the clergy and monks of Gelati Monastery came to expect abuses and persecutions each day. But the faithful hieromonk Ekvtime persevered in his work, gathering hundreds of ancient Georgian hymns for eventual publication according to Western notation.

In 1924 the Communists destroyed the Cathedral of King Davit the Restorer in Kutaisi. Later that year they shot and killed Metropolitan Nazar of Kutaisi-Gaenati and the clergy who served under him. The hysteria had reached its peak. Fr. Ekvtime planned to leave Gelati Monastery and to move the ancient manuscripts with which he had been working to a more secure location. At that time thousands of travelers were killed on the road between Kutaisi and Tbilisi, but Fr. Ekvtime safely transported himself and his cartload of manuscripts from Kutaisito Mtskheta, a short distance from Tbilisi.

Fr. Ekvtime brought the manuscripts to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral for safekeeping, and he was soon appointed dean of this parish. Even in 1925, when Catholicos-Patriarch Ambrosi was imprisoned at Metekhi and threats to the Georgian clergy increased significantly, Fr. Ekvtime continued to guard the ancient manuscripts faithfully. He transcribed the music from the medieval neume system of notation to the European-style staff system. At the same time, Fr. Ekvtime served as spiritual father to the nuns of Samtavro Convent, located a short distance from Svetitskhoveli.

In 1929 Fr. Ekvtime was relocated to Zedazeni Monastery outside of Mtskheta. He brought the ancient music manuscripts with him to his new home, concealed them in metal vessels, and buried them beneath the earth. Six years later, in November of 1935, he turned over thirty-four volumes of music containing 5,532 chants and several theological manuscripts to the State Museum of Georgia.

During World War II conditions in the Georgian monasteries grew ever more bleak. The abbot of Zedazeni Monastery, Archimandrite Mikael (Mandaria), was taking food to the monks of Saguramo when the Communists shot and killed him for violating the curfew they had imposed. The young monk Parten (Aptsiauri) was falsely accused and arrested. After the repose of the elder Saba (Pulariani), Fr. Ekvtime was the only monk remaining at Zedazeni.

Fr. Ekvtime’s spiritual children, the nuns of Samtavro Convent, cared for him as he grew older. In the winter of 1944 the nun Zoile (Dvalishvili) and several others went to visit him at Zedazeni and found him lying enfeebled in bed.

After a short time Fr. Ekvtime peacefully gave up his soul to the Lord. Fr. Ekvtime was buried in the yard of Zedazeni Monastery, near the church sanctuary.

Part of his rich library was moved to Samtavro. To this day several of the original manuscripts of hymns he transcribed to European-style notation are preserved there.

The ancient school of Georgian chant is preserved up to this day primarily as a result of Abbot Ekvtime’s fearless labors. St. Ekvtime (Kereselidze), like St. Ekvtime of Mt. Athos for whom he was named, dedicated his life to the enrichment of his mother Church. Like St. Ekvtime Taqaishvili, the “Man of God”, he gave his talents and energies to the preservation of Georgia’s unique spiritual heritage. He was a monk-ascetic and a scholar who prayed fervently. (Several of his theological treatises are preserved at Samtavro.) From his youth St. Ekvtime was for others an example of virginity, humility and patience. On September 18, 2003, the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church declared Ekvtime (Kereselidze) worthy of being numbered among the saints. The Synod called him “Ekvtime the Confessor,” thereby recognizing his confession of the Faith and his vital role in the preservation of the rich tradition of national liturgical song.

From “Lives of the Georgian Saints” by Archpriest Zakaraia Machitadze

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