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Spirit of Georgia

On a Georgian note

Publication: 3 March 2023

NO. 47 2022



For the first generation of composers, it was essential to identify not only the preference between the church or folk music, or dialects and forms/genres, but also define the methodology on how they were going to use the traditional music language.

Georgian art music took its start in the beginning of the 20th century and reflected the whole turbulence of the country’s historical upheavals from Tsarist Russia and the century before it, all the way through short independence period (1918–1921) and Soviet occupation (1921–1991) to the post-Soviet era. Notably, Georgian musicologists through the decades have discussed various issues concerning the development of the Georgian art music. However, the frame of reference depended on whether the research was done in the Soviet or post-Soviet times. Thus, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the revision of the history has become one of the most sensitive subjects for the contemporary art research in Georgia. The present article will attempt to give a historical overview of Georgian art music.

19th century – building the musical concept for art music

The foundation for the Georgian art music had already been prepared in the 19th century – one of the most dramatic times in Georgian history, when the threat of disappearing from the map had become reality and the existence of the nation was questioned due to strong Russification politics. Seemingly, Georgia as a phenomenon in music was mostly maintained only by its traditional culture. Against the background of Russification, the strong national self-determination movement was created, and the attention was drawn to the long-standing dilemma of keeping its identity, shaping the concept of nations’ right to self-determination. The history of Georgian music before the independence was the history of preserving the traditional music as well as constant dialogue with various cultures. The three divine treasures – homeland, language, and faith – inherited from forebears were identified by Ilia Chavchavadze (regarded as father of the nation) as an identity statement for the country in the Caucasus, which has been occupied by various invaders throughout its existence. Due to the endless raids and conquests, Georgians also managed to build a sort of persistent protection shield for ensuring that the intangible heritage handed down orally from generation to generation won’t be lost. For national art music, formation of the language expressing the musical “we” was essential. It was more about an awareness of belongingness and recognition of difference between “us” and “them”. Conceptually, musical “we” was built on the pillars of reviving the traditional Georgian music (chant, folk music) as well as urban music, and adopting the European classical music experience.

Reviving traditional music (Church music, folk) helped Georgians to overcome the trauma suffered from the Russification policy. What is more, Christian religion and church symbolised that Georgia’s values continued to be European, while complex polyphony of folk songs and chants emphasised its difference from monodic cultures as well as Byzantine rule. What followed was the chance of moving the traditional singing (folk music and chanting) on to a different level, which seemed of great importance and fitted the national self-determination movement of the Georgians. This process was actually similar to the newly emerged national musical schools in the 19th-century Europe. The attitude towards the traditional music tune was different. For the first generation of composers, it was essential to identify not only the preference between the church or folk music, or dialects and forms/genres, but also define the methodology on how they were going to use the traditional music language. For instance, Zaqaria Paliashvili and Dimitri Arakishvili collected, recorded, and examined traditional music and used it through either quoting (Meliton Balanchivadze, Zaqaria Paliashvili) or generalizing the language (Zaqaria Paliashvili, Niko Sulkhanishvili).

However, traditional music was not the only musical tradition of the country. Georgia has always found itself as a meeting point for the West and East, its culture forming at the crossroads of Eastern and Western cultures. Tbilisi or Tiflis has always been a multinational, multicultural city and the meeting point for numerous ethnicities – for Arabs, Georgians, Armenians, Iranians, Ottomans, Jews, Europeans, Russians. It also came under the dominance of either eastern or western cultures over the centuries. Unlike chanting and folk music, urban musical culture did not cultivate choir singing of complex polyphonic songs, but mainly explored homophonic musical architectonics. Eastern style “bore a clearly expressed Eastern colouring, characterized by melismatic ornamentation of basic pitches, harmonic major and minor descending tetra-chord with augmented seconds, alternation of meter”, mainly being accompanied by Eastern instruments such as the duduk, zurna, and others. This oriental style music formed the so-called Eastern branch of Tbilisi musical culture and influenced the musical language of the first generation of Georgian composers, especially those working in the genre of Romance and opera (Dimitri Arakishvili). By contrast with the Eastern tuning, the Western mode emphasized the dominance of major-minor system while exporting the European musical experience through opera performances and romance culture (Meliton Balanchivadze’s works).

In fact, the first generation of Georgian composers had three main musical sources to work with: church music, folk music, and city music. Thus, the main pillars for the future national compositional school had already been prepared: to use the cultural crossroad as a source for development in musical language, to strive to cherish and grow the national roots, and to combine and adapt both streams with the European musical tradition.


Music of the independence times

Georgia declared its independence on 26 May 1918, which left an important trace on the country’s history in many ways: mainstream Georgian culture of the independence times was linked with the modernism and mainly revealed itself through literature, art, theatre, dance, poetry (Titsian Tabidze, Grigol Robakidze, Lado Gudiashvili, David Kakabadze, Iakob Nikoladze, Paolo Iashvili, Ilia Zdanevich – the last one had a Polish parent – and others). However, Georgian art music was on a different plane compared to the local art as well as European musical developments. Independence gave Georgian art music the first generation of composers with two contradicting streams: musical romanticism (Zaqaria Paliashvili, Meliton Balanchivadze, Dimitri Arakishvili, Niko Sulkhanishvili, Viktor Dolidze) and modernism (Tamar Vakhvakhishvili).

Romanticism fit the goal of creating model pieces with the embodiment of the national spirit, which in its turn showed “where the nation was coming from” (to use Ilia Chavchavadze’s expression), and what it was striving for. Thus, the opera and choir turned out to be the most relevant for embodying the national spirit. Furthermore, the popularity of the European operas staged in Tbilisi during the 19th century seems natural due to the nation’s traditional fondness for theatre. Three operas staged in 1919 (“Abesalom and Eteri” by Paliashvili, “Keto and Kote” by Dolidze and “The Tale about Shota Rustaveli” by Arakishvili). Among them Paliashvili’s and Dolidze’s operas (“Abesalom and Eteri”, “Twilight”, “Keto and Kote”) rank high in the Georgian art music history. Paliashvili was “able to create national opera in the European traditional form, with Georgian musical language and on Georgian plots”.[1] Paliashvili based his “Abesalom and Eteri” on a medieval Georgian folk poem “Eteriani” and retold the story from an old legend that valued love as an eternal force for all mankind. After the legends kept in folk poetry, Dolidze introduced the inhabitants of the 19th-century city to his opera buffa. The musical language reflected the Tbilisi city music, where Eastern and Western styles exist alongside with the Italian opera music, dances, and kintos.

Among other genres, choir music should not be overlooked. Niko Sulkhanishvili wrote the earliest a cappella choirs: “The Homeland of Khevsuri”, “Plough”, “Glory to Iveri”, Chorale. Having expertise in the folk music singing, he never used quotes from it. In order to generalize traditional music features, he used all modes that might be heard in Kartl-Kakhetian folk songs and thus made east Georgian musical language the only aesthetical base without a hint on ethnic archaism.

Unlike for other composers of the first generation with the modernist leanings, a more all-encompassing approach, where every style was good for expressing artistic vision, seemed close to Tamar Vakhvakhishvili’s aspirations. Born in Warsaw, she was the first Georgian woman modernist composer to focus her attention on the ballet and pantomime and authored the first Georgian ballets: “Bacchus’ Holiday” (1918-19), “Herb of Love” (1920).


The way from independence to mortification

As the country came to be occupied in 1921, Georgian art music found itself in new, socialist realist circumstances. The disadvantages of being a republic of the Red Empire were breaking the paradigm, confinement within the musical borders of the Soviet Union, and the need to fit into the new Soviet identity. Ideological folklore, mass songs glorifying the communist party, musical language without “formalistic, abstract elements”, national in form and socialist in content were the main features of the new musical rule.

Politically driven art advanced through two main phases: 1921–1936 – imposition of the Soviet regime and adaptation; 1937–1953 – Red Terror before, during, and after World War II. The generation of “fathers” (the first generation of composers) and “sons” (O. Megvinetukhutsesi, I. Tuskia, J. Gokieli, O. Taktakishvili, G. Kiladze, L. Gudiashvili, N. Tsagareishvili, S. Azmaiparashvili, S. Mshvelidze, E. Kereselidze, A. Bukia) shared the musical scene. Both “fathers” and “sons” adapted to the new rules “successfully”. None of the pieces written from the 1920s to the 1950s has gained its place in the artistic life of the country so far. Due to the strong censorship, the “sons” avoided working in the word-oriented genres and opera. It took nearly 10 years after the occupation started for the young generation to write the first Georgian Soviet opera. Their work activity was mainly in the instrumental and symphonic music. Mshvelidze is worth singling out from this generation, since he was the first who drove Georgian mountain folk music to the instrumental music and introduced generalised highlander musical mode (Pshav-Khevsuretian). His most valuable symphonic poems are “Mindia” and “Zviadauri” (both inspired by Vazha-Pshavela’s poetry).

Musical “Thaw”

The time after Stalin’s death was a turning point for Georgian art music: firstly, composers of various generations active from the 1960s to the 1980s (S. Nasidze, S. Tsintsadze, A. Matchavariani, G. Kancheli, O. Taktakishvili, N. Gabunia, B. Kvernadze, J. Bardanashvili, Z. Nadareishvili) contributed to the fast and diverse development of art music in Soviet Georgia. Secondly, political thaw in the sixties was characterised by the information boom which whipped up a lot of interest towards modernism and the avant-garde. Generally, Georgian composers saw the chance for further developments in a close tie with modernism. They started to catch up on the achievements from the West that had not been accessible before (Bartók, Penderecki, Stravinsky, New Vienna school, post-WW2 avant-garde etc.) and strived to find their own ways beyond the musical borders of the Soviet Union. In that regard, innovative approaches to and radical changes in the musical language, genre, and style turned out to be topical for the composers such as Sulkhan Tsintsadze (string quartets), Sulkhan Nasidze (symphonies), Giya Kancheli’s symphonic and stage works. Taktakishvili’s “Mindia”, the landmark for the opera genre, bridged the gap with the first generation of composers after the series of unsuccessful attempts of the 1921–1953 period; “Tale” by Nodar Gabunia brought the concept of new folklorism to attention; polystylistics in Bardanashvili’s works and his experiments with the first rock opera “light” were also notable.

The information boom was followed by the birth of unofficial music in the 1970s, which turned out to be a deviance from the norms of politically driven art (Mikheil Shugliashvili, Natela Svanidze, Teimuraz Bakuradze). However, new ideas were not in line with the official concepts of the ruling party, and consequently the unofficial art music was banned – Svanidze’s and Shugliashvili’s voices were not heard strong enough or not heard at all. Which is unfortunate, as Shugliashvili’s adoption of different compositional techniques – structuralism, rationalism, algorithmic organisation of mathematical models – is an evident example of his experimental spirit (pieces written for three grand pianos: “Da capo”, “Pastorale”, “Grand Chromatic Fantasy”); he was regarded as “Georgian analogue of Xenakis”. Experiments with the new compositional techniques such as dodecaphony, serial, sonorist, aleatory techniques characterise works by Natela Svanidze (one of the neglected Georgian woman composers of Soviet times). It’s known that she drastically changed style in 1963 after she first visited the Warsaw Autumn Festival. Soviet Union was the country without exit and the musical “contact zone” which would have fostered the exchange of views and ideas, built bridges between communities, promoted various musical styles and trends, and therefore played a role of the information icebreaker was of outmost importance. Warsaw Autumn Festival occurred to be such a meeting point not only between the contradicting political blocs but also within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. Georgian Soviet composers were allowed not only to attend the Festival but also to be performed there. In various editions of the WAF, the following Georgian composers were represented: Otar Taktakishvili (1958), Sulkhan Tsintsadze (1959), Giya Kancheli (1991, 1995, 1997, 2007).

The Post-Soviet 1990s

Eka Chabashvili and Maka Virsaladze belong to the 1990s generation and represent the women composers of Georgian art music at the end of the 19th century. Chabshvili is engaged with the compositional techniques such as random structures, sonorism, polystylistics (in her “panorama”, opera exhibition “ramble souls”, plays for orchestra “Proverbs”, musical novellas “Seven Wonders of World”, multimedia “Idea of God – Spheres”, hologram theatre “The Sound and the Fury“). Virsaladze’s “compositional style is characterised by exquisite sophistication, interplay between real and surreal characters, […] sometimes with the use of aleatory technique”.[2]

Instead of conclusion, the Georgian art music history is already over 100 years old and has never ceased to be a strong representation of the country’s musical identity throughout the historical turmoil.


[1] M. Sigua, Journal for Youth, 2014, No. 4, p. 23

[2] Marika Nadareishvili, “Modern Composition Techniques in the Works of Georgian Women Composers”, p. 211–225, in: Music – the cultural bridge: Essence, contexts, references, ed. Aleksandra Pijarowska et al., Wroclaw 2021, pp. 219, 221

About authors

Nana Sharikadze

Associate Professor and the Rector of the Vano Sarajishvili Tbilisi State Conservatoire. Her research and teaching focus on 20th century music, and totalitarian regimes versus music. She is a member of Georgian Composers and Musicologists National Union. She was awarded the Silver Medal “For Merit to Culture Gloria Artis” for her outstanding contribution to the growth of culture and of Polish-Georgian relations (2022).


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