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map © 2000 by Carl Linich

Georgia and its music 

The Georgian people, inhabiting a land the size of West Virginia wedged between Russia and Turkey, speak a group of languages related to no other outside the Caucasus Mountain region. Georgia is an island musically as well, exceptional in having an ancient, deep-rooted tradition of polyphony (music in several independent voices), while all the cultures that surround it, and all the cultures that have occupied or passed through it, are firmly monophonic. Georgian polyphony appears to be truly autonomous and original, and its rules of counterpoint and tuning derive from nowhere else. Three-part singing in Georgia was probably in full flower by the ninth century, substantially preceding the modern development of polyphony in Europe. The density and complexity of the polyphony you hear in our concerts or on our albums is traditional — none of these songs is a setting of old material in a modern idiom.

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Gelati Cathedral in Kutaisi

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Ushgul village, in the high Caucasus

Within Georgia, the most significant musical differences coincide with the ancient and long-enduring division of Georgia into eastern and western kingdoms. In the east, the many centuries of control by Persia are reflected in the assimilation of a Persian melismatic vocal style to essentially Georgian musical forms, while in the west the older native forms persist largely intact. But even within the traditional east and west, local regional identity, based on geographical and historical divisions, remains very strong, and the regional musical traditions are remarkably distinct for so small a country.

Georgian folk music was an entirely oral tradition before the 1880s. Many song transcriptions now exist, but European musical notation remains inadequate to capture the unique Georgian intervals and scales (discussed below), and even now, in professional ensembles as well as village choirs, most songs are still learned by ear. In the absence of a truly accurate system of notation, recordings are a vital resource in understanding and preserving this music. The early field recordings of Georgian folk songs, starting in 1907, provide only a snapshot in time of a music that had developed along a fluid but irreproducible course over many centuries, but they are the oldest documentation we have for the folk music.

children singing on a school picnic

Georgian liturgical music, on the other hand, has been documented since the Middle Ages. Georgia formally embraced Christianity in the fourth century, before the Roman Empire did. Between the fifth and eighth centuries, scholars in several Georgian monasteries — in Greece and Palestine as well as in Georgia — began composing music for the liturgy. Certainly by the twelfth century, and possibly as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, the Georgian liturgy was being sung in three-part polyphony. Those settings were written down and preserved. Some of the manuscripts still exist, but their musical notation (marks placed above and below the syllables of text) can no longer be understood.

We cannot be sure, therefore, how closely the settings now in use correspond to the most ancient manuscripts. But the liturgical music in its current form certainly predates the seventeenth century, when the chants were transcribed using a new (though still specifically Georgian) system of notation, which can still be deciphered. Yet mapping old Georgian note symbols onto European note names does not reveal how the original intervals and chords were tuned. The issue of how the liturgical music was tuned before the age of the piano presents a broad and fertile field for speculation, producing some of the most interesting and controversial musicology, as well as musical practice, now going on in Georgia.

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a choir of three women singing for a wedding

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the State Ensemble backstage before a concert

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