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The church choirs of Georgia are an integral part of Georgian spiritual life. It is common to encounter men’s choirs, ladies choirs, mixed choirs and youth choirs. It is very common for such choirs to also have strong capability in Georgian folk song, and many folk ensembles emanated from church choirs.  Choirs from the Greek, Slavonic, Aramaic and English-language parishes of Georgia add further diversity to the mix.

Georgia’s three-part polyphonic vocal style is quite unique, and there are some who consider the polyphony, periodically converging into unison, as being emblematic of the nature of the Trinity itself. The choir of Trinity Cathedral are a remarkable choir, with a strong mastery of traditional sacred music and folk tunes, as well as popularising contemporary sacred music, much of which is written by Patriarch Ilia. Their command of contemporary secular choir music by composers like Giya Kancheli,  Josef Kechakmadze and Zviad Bolkvadze (a talented soloist himself) makes them one of the most versatile and accomplished choirs in the Caucasus.

This concert from 2014 displays their full versatility, from Kakhetian and Gurian folk songs, Patriarch Ilia’s sacred music, contemporary secular choral works and traditional sacred pieces of great beauty.

The choir’s Youtube Channel and Soundcloud repository are well worth following, and of course Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings at Sameba Cathedral are the ideal opportunity for experiencing the choir’s art in person.

 

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Those living in Georgia with access to TV will have noted the recent media fascination with Georgia’s Assyrian minority living in Qanda village, close to Mtskheta town. This has been driven to an extent by the charisma and vocal talents of the priest of that community, Father Seraphim, who has made numerous media appearances and has multiple videos on Youtube of his choir in Qanda’s church, who sing in Aramaic and Georgian.

mama-serafime

As previously reported, the ancestors of Qanda’s population came to Georgia as refugees in the 19th century. While they were Christians, they were not of our Eastern Orthodox communion. Over time, they accepted baptism into the Georgian Church and were accepted as an Orthodox parish with the dispensation to conduct their affairs in their native language.

This ethnic minority are held in high regard in Georgia, even more so since Qanda’s rise to prominence in the media. Georgian Christians are very aware that Georgian monasticism was developed by Assyrian monks and that many regions of Georgia still practising animism or Zoroastrianism after Iberia’s adoption of Christianity were converted by the Assyrian Fathers. Also, to witness a community accepting the local religion and integrating smoothly into the greater Georgian community has been very satisfying to observe for many. To my knowledge, other Orthodox Christian minorities in Georgia, including Slavs, Ossetians and Greeks, were already Orthodox when they migrated here, other than those Caucasus Greeks and Black Sea Greeks who settled here more than 2000 years ago.

The psalm performed in Aramaic, with the tune arranged by Father Seraphim,  is Psalm 16:

16 Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.

O my soul, thou hast said unto the Lord, Thou art my Lord: my goodness extendeth not to thee;

But to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.

Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god: their drink offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips.

The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.

I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.

10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

11 Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

 

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Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, previously discussed here, when the Ghvtismshobeli was addressed by the angel Gabriel and told of her destiny as the Mother of God.

This is one of my favourite hymns for this feast, although it is not Georgian. Called “The Pre-Eternal Council” or “Sovet Prevechny”, it was written by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov.

Gabriel stood before thee, O Maiden,
Revealing the pre-eternal counsel,
Saluting thee and exclaiming:
“Rejoice, O earth unsown!
Rejoice, O bush unburnt!
Rejoice, O depth hard to fathom!
Rejoice, O bridge leading to the heavens
and lofty ladder, which Jacob beheld!
Rejoice, O divine jar of Manna!
Rejoice, annulment of the curse!
Rejoice, restoration of Adam:
the Lord is with thee!

Sovet prevechnyi otkryvaya Tebe Otrokovice,

Gavriil predsta,

Tebe lobzaya i veshaya:

“Raduisya, zemle nenaseyannaya:

Raduisya, kupino neopalimaya:

Raduisya, glubino neudobozrimaya:

Raduisya, moste k Nebesem privodyai,

i lestvice vysokaya, yuzhe Iakov vide:

Raduisya, Bozhestvennaya stamno manny:

Raduisya, razreshenie klyatvy:

Raduisya, Adamovo vozzvanie,

s Toboyu Gospod’ “

Pavel Chesnokov’s  biography by Robert Cummings states;

Pavel Chesnokov was arguably the foremost Russian composer of sacred choral works during his time. He wrote around 500 choral works, about 400 of them sacred. Chesnokov was a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church and was inspired to write most of his works for worship in that faith. His best-known composition, one of the few works he is remembered for today, is Salvation is Created, a Communion hymn based on a Ukrainian chant melody. During the Soviet era, Chesnokov was better known as a choral conductor than composer. Indeed, he was praised, even by the Soviets, for his skills in choral conducting, though they remained hostile to his sacred music throughout his lifetime…….. 

…..Pavel Chesnokov was born into a musical family on October 12, 1877. His education was extensive: his first advanced studies were at the Moscow School of Church Music (he graduated in 1895); he next worked privately with composer Sergey Tanayev and later studied at the Moscow Conservatory (graduating in 1917), where his list of teachers included Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. In the end, Chesnokov would go down as one of the most highly trained musicians in Russia, having spent years studying solfège, composition, piano, and violin.

But Chesnokov was not just a student during these years: he taught choral conducting in Moscow, served as choirmaster or conductor at several prominent schools and choirs (most notably the Russian Choral Society Choir), and most importantly, composed a spate of sacred choral works, including his most popular, Salvation is Created (1912). After the Bolshevik Revolution, Chesnokov was forced to abandon composition of sacred music, owing to sanction against such activity by the anti-religious Soviets. He thus embarked on composition in the secular choral realm.

From 1920, Chesnokov headed a choral conducting program at the Moscow Conservatory. He also remained busy, regularly conducting the choirs of the Bolshoi Theater and Moscow Academy. In addition, Chesnokov became the choirmaster at Christ the Savior Cathedral. In 1933, however, on orders from Stalin, the cathedral was demolished to make way for construction of a skyscraper that would never be built. Chesnokov became so distraught over the cathedral’s destruction that he stopped composing altogether. He continued teaching and conducting various choirs in Moscow until his death there on March 14, 1944.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow was reconstructed in the 1990’s. The history of the demolition is heartbreaking, if not a little ridicuous;

“Under the state atheism espoused by the USSR, many “church institution[s] at [the] local, diocesan or national level were systematically destroyed” in the 1921-1928 antireligious campaign. As a result, after the Revolution and, more specifically, the death of Vladimir Lenin, the prominent site of the cathedral was chosen by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as the site for a monument to socialism known as the Palace of the Soviets. This monument was to rise in modernistic, buttressed tiers to support a gigantic statue of Lenin perched on top of a dome with his arm raised in the air.

The economic development in Russia during the 1930s required more funds than the government had at the time. On 24 February 1930, the economic department of the OGPU sent a letter to the Chairman of the Central Executive Committee asking to remove the golden domes of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The letter noted that the dome of the church contained over 20 tons of gold of “excellent quality”, and that the cathedral represented an “unnecessary luxury for the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of the gold would make a great contribution to the industrialization of the country.” The People’s Commissariat of Finance did not object to this proposal.[5]

On 5 December 1931, by order of Stalin’s minister Kaganovich, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was dynamited and reduced to rubble. It took more than a year to clear the debris from the site. Some of the marble from the walls and marble benches from the cathedral were used in nearby Moscow Metro stations. The original marble high reliefs were preserved and are now on display at the Donskoy Monastery. For a long time, these were the only reminders of the largest Orthodox church ever built.

The construction of the Palace of Soviets was interrupted owing to a lack of funds, problems with flooding from the nearby Moskva River, and the outbreak of war. The flooded foundation hole remained on the site until, under Nikita Khrushchev, it was transformed into the world’s largest open air swimming pool, named Moskva Pool.”

From Wikipedia

For those with Georgian language competence, this short documentary from the Georgian Patriarchate’s Ertsulovneba TV Station examines the Annunciation and contains many traditional Georgian hymns for this feast.

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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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