Georgian polyphony


Alan Lomax

Georgian traditional polyphony is the most significant of all stylistic features of the national musical language that significantly define the originality and expression of Georgian musical thinking. Multi-voiced singing is not characteristic of Georgians only. Georgian folk music attracts the attention of experts for the diversity of forms. Each form has extraordinary and complex harmonic or contrapuntal combination created by the interrelation of voices. According to Boris Assafiev Georgian polyphony is perceived as “a wonderful phenomenon that inspires to worship the musical genius of the Georgian people”. We can say, that multi-voiced singing and choral character are the most remarkable features of Georgian musical thinking.

Georgian polyphonic songs (two-, three- and four-voiced) are characterized by the variety of texture. Here we will discuss only the basic forms of Georgian polyphony.

Homophonic multi-voiced singing is one of the most widespread forms in Georgian folk music. Here the accompaniment is performed by a long bass drone or repeated short intonation formula. As for the high, melodic voices, they are built either on the principles of interchangeability, parallelism or polyphonic (contrapuntal) combinations. The form of homophonic multi-voiced singing is mainly common to the eastern regions of Georgia, especially to Kartli-Kakhetian musical dialects.

Rachans and Svans, living in southern parts of the West Caucasus, have preserved the archaic and original form of polyphony where the movement of all three voices is characterized by the rhythmic synchronism and compact sonority. This form is distinguished by the movement of distinct vertical consonances - chordal complexes.

The above-mentioned form of polyphony is common to almost all musical dialects of Western Georgia, but for some reasons, in lowland regions (Imereti, Samegrelo, Achara and Guria) it has undergone certain transformation; each of the voices has gained more independence and has created its own melodic line. The contrasting opposition of voices has created colourful consonances, most of which, are dissonances, from the standpoint of classical music theory.

In this respect Gurian musical dialect is most interesting and has been regarded by many specialists as the crown of the folk polyphony. A surprisingly original high voice in some Gurian songs - krimanchuli should be mentioned. It is performed in falsetto and reminds of the Alpine yodel. Igor Stravinsky, amazed by krimanchuli, wrote: “Yodel, called krimanchuli in Georgian, is the best among those that I have heard”.

Very often the features of various forms of multi-voiced singing are organically blended in Georgian musical folklore. This form of polyphony is called synthesized.

The historical, geographic, social, political, economic and other conditions facilitated the process of differentiation of the general Georgian musical root-language over the centuries; different musical dialects emerged. The study of Georgian musical folklore distinguishes the following dialects:

Eastern Georgia : Khevsuretian, Pshavian, Tushetian, Mtiuletian, Gudamaqarian, Mokhevian, Kartlian, Kakhetian and Ingiloian;

Western Georgia : Rachan, Svanetian, Lechkhumian, Imeretian, Gurian, Megrelian and Acharan.

Southern Georgia : Meskhetian, Shavshetian and Laz.

Each dialect has its own intonation, stylistic features, manner of performance and any type of multi-voiced singing. Thanks to their local qualities these dialects have enriched and diversified the national musical treasure. Despite the clear difference in musical linguistics and stylistics of some dialects, a careful listener will easily notice that their mode-harmonic scale and intonation have originated from one (and the same) root.

The dialectic qualities and genre variety have conditioned the creation of mode-melodic diversity of the Georgian song. Sentimentalism and pessimism are common neither to the ideological and semantic side nor to the emotional world of the song. Masculine, chivalrous beginning dominates in Georgian songs. And so, homogeneous, mainly men’s performance is typical for Georgian vocal culture.

The harmonic language of Georgian folk music is also rich. Melodic movement of voices creates harmonic constructions, which dramatically differ from the classical major and minor systems by the principle of interval structure. Diverse and compact sonority of the interval structure of consonances, gives entirely original national colouring to the harmonic language.

Diverse and highly developed modulation systems are very important in Georgian folk music. Their perfect and refined forms speak of the high level of Georgian folk musical thinking. Modulation systems and modulating cadences make Georgian singing clearly distinguished from the general principles of folk art.

Forms of singing, found in highly developed compositions, mainly in table songs and three- and four-voiced naduri (work songs) can be regarded as another unusual phenomenon. Thanks to the intensive dynamics, alternation of variants, cyclic character and contrast of the parts these forms display wide musical construction.

Georgian folk music has been polyphonic since ancient times. It is not surprising that secular polyphonic song, born in heathen times, had great impact on the conception and development of the multi-voiced forms in Georgian Christian hymns. We agree to the supposition that Georgia is one of the first countries not only in the Orthodox world, but in the whole Christendom, that has laid a foundation for multi-voiced sacred music.

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Polyphony Of Tbilisi State Conservatory