Musical Variants in East Georgia:
In the chant tradition of East Georgia, only a few versions of the chant shen khar venakhi have survived.
In principle, there is only one variant from the oral tradition: that inherited and transcribed by the Karbelashvili brothers in the 1880s (here referred to as the Karbelashvili variant). They published this variant in 1898. In the manuscripts however, there are other copies of the chant with variations in the middle voice, showing that specific notes varied from one performance to another.
In 1909, a Catholic composer named Zakaria Paliashvili arranged the chant for six-voice large chorus (SATTBB). Hardly anyone sings this large-chorus variant, but in 2014, the Capitol Hill Chorale (Washington DC) made what is very possibly the first recording.
In the 1950s, the Palishvili variant was reduced back to a 3-voiced format, and popularized by the Rustavi State Ensemble. This variant is today called the "Paliashvili" variant, and is the most popular globally.
The Paliashvili variant also appears in other arrangements. Perhaps the most common is the "Georgian Cherubic Hymn:" - a setting of the Orthodox Christian text "Let us the Cherubim" to the music of the Paliashvili variant of shen khar venakhi. This setting was originally arranged in the 1990s into Russian, but has since been translated into English and others languages.
A playlist with all 101+ Youtube recordings that I could find:
Original variants (oral tradition)
- Karbelashvili family originals (Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Kartli region, East Georgia), two variants
- Paliashvili arrangement for SATTBB voices (1909)
- Rustavi Ensemble arrangement based on the Paliashvili for TTBB voices (1960s)
- Russian arrangement with text from the Cherubic hymn (1990s)
- English translation of the Cherubic hymn arrangement (1990s), sung widely in the Orthodox Church of America
The Paliashvili variant
The Paliashvili arrangement (1909) is notable because it was the first time a composer published a creative interpretation of an original chant. Other Russian-trained composers such as Ippolitov-Ivanov, Klenovsky, and Sulkhanishvili had all dabbled in arranging chants. But Paliashvili published his arrangements under the title "Liturgia."
For more on the Paliashvili arrangements, see this article: "The Rediscovery of Zakaria Paliashvili's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostomos" (2014).
Paliashvili, a Catholic organist trained in the Moscow Conservatory, was criticized by the Karbelashvilis - a group of five brothers who were Orthodox priests and inheritors of the East Georgian chant tradition. Originally, the Karbelashvili brothers had helped Paliashvili learn traditional Georgian chant (after he returned from studying with Sergei Taneyev in the Moscow Conservatory in 1903), but later, they publicly denounced his works, citing his intention to "break the form" of traditional chant.
Paliashvili defended his work, saying he modernized the traditional three-voiced form for large chorus, but maintained the melody.
The tension in this debate is curious. What exactly is the "form" of traditional chant that Paliashvili broke? Perhaps this is worth exploring through a direct video comparison, with notation:
The 1909 Paliashvili arrangement for SATTBB (Soprano, Alto, 2 Tenor parts, 2 Bass parts):
Compare: the Karbelashvili variant (oral tradition), with notation:
Characteristics of Traditional Georgian chant:
1) Traditional chant is almost always 3-voiced, not more not less.
2) Traditional chant is sung in "close harmony": the dissonances are integral to the desired sound. The tension-release in the music is symbolic of our prayers and supplications to God.
3) Traditional chants end in unison. Many Georgian chanters will confide that like the Trinity, the three voices of Georgian chant come together as One, and that is the reason that most chants end in unison.
4) Traditional chant is organized around fixed model melody fragments that are sung in the top voice. To lose the model melody is to lose the chant, as the harmony is based on the melody.
5) Traditional chant follows strict conventions of harmonization. The lower voices harmonize the model melodies according to local aesthetic taste, developed and vetted through centuries of oral tradition.
6) Traditional chant likewise follows strict conventions of ornamentation. By expanding the ornamentation with "foreign" flourishes, it loses the local character developed and vetted through centuries of oral tradition.
7) Traditional chant performance was a privilege, a guild. Master chanters trained for 5-6 years to attain proficiency in hundreds of model melodies, harmonization and ornamentation techniques, and the complex rubrics of the Orthodox rite. Thus, it is possible to imagine that upstart composers with a couple of years of Conservatory training, no matter how talented, were not immediately accepted members of the chanter's "guild."
15+ performances of the East Georgian "Karbelashvili variant" (oral tradition):
General Performance Tips:
There are a number of ways to perform this chant.
The Rustavi Ensemble popularized a "bel canto" or "academic" style during the decades of the 1960s-1980s. Other choirs have made different choices.
The Anchiskhati Ensemble sings with a raw but refined thin timbre, similar to some traditional singers recorded in the early 20th century. The Ialoni women's ensemble, a group of former Conservatory students, has a unique timbral approach to chant, which is much brighter than the dulcet tones of the Samtavro nun's choir, for example.
As a choir director, one has to make choices between trying to preserve some "authentic" performance practice, and being realistic about the capabilities of one's choir members. Calling something "authentic" is of course problematic because there was so much variation even within the known traditional-singing community in the early 20th century. That disclaimer aside, here are some suggestions.
- - One singer on the top voice
- - One singer on the middle voice
- - Optional number of singers on the lowest voice (good vocal balance typically demands 3-5 singers)
- - develop individual voices to have an narrow, cutting, bright timbre
- - develop a bass choral sound that supports the laser focus of the upper voices
- - the "sacred" feel of the sound is in the mental and physical approach to the texts, not in any acquired vocal affect
- - men, women, or children can sing, but it must be "close" harmony. Doubling at the octave is an imported musical feature.
- - timbre should be natural (tenors and sopranos in their mid-range, altos and basses in their mid-range). This is why most Georgian choirs, given the choice, elect to sing TTB, or SSA, rather than mixed gender choirs.
75+ performances of the popular East Georgian "Paliashvili variant"
Basic Structure of the East Georgian variants:
- - The (famous) East Georgian variant of shen khar venakhi has a very simple musical structure.
- - Of its five textual phrases, the first four (and a half) are sung to the same melodic fragment. The melody can be heard in the top voice. This melody fragment appears elsewhere in the canon of thousands of Georgian chants, specifically in the melodies assigned to the genre of troparion in Tone 6.
- - The final musical phrase of shen khar venakhi describes a simple cadential formula common to many East Georgian chants.
- - The bass voice harmonizes the melody at the interval of an octave or a fifth. Its own linear movement is mostly through step-wise motion to neighboring pitches.
- - In the beginnings of the phrases, the bass voice tends to move in counter motion to the melody, much like an accordion stretching and pressing back together again.
- - At the medial and phrasal cadences, the bass voice tends to move in parallel fifth motion with the melody.
- - The middle voice is at liberty to fill the space between the outer voices with moving notes. In many East Georgian chants, the middle voice sings the same number of notes as the outer voices. But in shen khar venakhi, the middle voice sings twice as many notes. Thus, to sound good, the tempo of the chant must be slowed down so that every middle-voice note can be heard (see performance tips below).
Performing the East Georgian (Karbelashvili-Paliashvili) variants:
- while the middle voice has many of the moving notes, it is in fact a harmonizing voice! The model melody is sung by the top voice. The middle voice must be playful, spontaneous, and make use of potential variations in its harmonizations of the melody. This can be accomplished by teaching multiple cadential formula harmonizations to the middle voice, and letting them experiment with which one they will use for any given cadence. These kinds of "small freedoms" excites and drives the chant, as the singers feel free to be creative in real time performance.
- Georgian choirs tend to perform the Karbelashvili variant with Georgian timbre and vocal technique, while singing the Paliashvili arranged variant (1909) with European choral technique, which is a curious conflation of repertory and performance style that I explored in this article.
- Recently, the Paliashvili variant (as reduced by the Rustavi Ensemble in the 1960s) was published in the United States. It is available for SATB four-voiced choirs (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) with the tenor-bass doubled at the octave, and/or three voiced variants for SSA choir, or TTB choir.
- Typically, performers sing this variant at about 30 beats per minute per syllable (in this notation, quarter note = 60). In my opinion, however, the chant was most likely sung at twice that speed. If one compares this chant to others from the East Georgian repertory that are more syllabic in terms of the number of notes per syllable (dideba maghalta shina), each syllable is sung at about 60 beats per minute.
- But in shen khar venakhi, because the middle voice has so many notes, choirs tend to sing the chant slower and slower (the Rustavi Ensemble popularized a very slow tempo for this chant). Note, such highly ornamented middle voice parts only occur in the transcriptions of Vasil Karbelashvili, and not, for example, in the majority of East Georgian transcriptions from other figures such as Vasil's brother Polievktos or nephew Pilimon.
- Some international choirs have experimented with singing the Paliashvili variant faster, but the result has not been well received. It sounds rushed when multiple singers are racing through the middle voice. The middle voice should be practiced in parallel thirds to the top voice, and then the ornamental passing tones added in later. If it can sound like a playful after-thought, so much the better.
- In my opinion, the best tempo for use in a liturgical service is achieved by the Anchiskhati Choir singing the Karbelashvili variant (see video above, or click this link).
We welcome your questions and comments!