riday, June 30, 2006, #121 (1141)
Gelati: the home of the chant
By John Graham
The Gelati Monastery (pronounced with a hard G) is best glimpsed from the
castle above Bagrat Cathedral in downtown Kutaisi. Drive up to the ruins of
this fortress (dating from 1003 AD), take a walk to the left behind the
cathedral, until you are standing in the ruins the fort. Looking straight
ahead, one can see in the distance the massive cupola of the Gelati
Cathedral, perched on a hill eight kilometers distant.
In 1912, a man named Estate Kereselidze (1865-1944), originally from Racha
but living in Tbilisi since 1880 (working for Ilia Chavchavadze's Iveria
newspaper press), took thirty-six boxes of music manuscripts and moved to
the Gelati Cathedral. His mission: to learn the Orthodox liturgy by heart,
and then organize and recopy the five thousand music manuscripts according
to their proper order in the calendar services of the church.
His choice to move to the Gelati Cathedral was no accident. Founded by King
Davit Aghmashenebeli (the Builder) in the 12th century, Gelati was
considered at that time to be on par with the greatest centres of learning
in the world, where scholars translated from many of the worlds Christian
languages, debated Plato and Aristotle, and created illuminated manuscripts
such as those in western Europe. The academy was also for many centuries
the centre for sacred music development in Georgia, an appropriate place to
work on chant in the 20th century.
Kereselidze worked day and night to organize and recopy the piles of
hand-scribbled notes collected by musicologists during the turn of the
century decades. When other monks at the Gelati Monastery asked him what he
was staying up all night doing, he recalls trying to explain his incredible
"Can't you see that this is a treasure worth more than gold and precious
gems? These are the Georgian chants, saved for generations, collected from
the last masters, here in musical notation. And who am I, unworthy, to be
responsible for this wealth? I am ill equipped to be a goldsmith or a fine
jeweller, but feel as clumsy as a bear stirring a paw in the honey-pot of
Visiting the Gelati Monastery, it is perhaps difficult to imagine a history
of destruction and rebuilding, to imagine the presence of famous kings,
philosophers, and foreign ambassadors, especially when groups of school
children are running noisily across the monastery yard. But with a little
investigation, hints of the 12th century remain. In the foyer of the
cathedral, just inside the door to the left, several original frescoes from
the 12th century can be seen. Elsewhere in the church there are 13th and
14th century frescoes (in the side chapels if one can gain access), but in
the main cathedral space, the frescoes date from the 14th-17th centuries.
12th century church chant has survived through a strong verbal tradition,
and the famous words of a 12th century theologian and Gelati Academy
professor, Ioane Petritsi, who wrote, "Our church singing can be likened to
the Trinity. Many voiced, but carrying one soul."
As a chant student myself, I'll tell you a secret. Gelati is a pilgrimage
site not only for historians, fresco experts, and to see the grave of King
David the Builder, but for those who appreciate acoustics. Sound soars
here! Singing in three-voice harmony, the passage of sound from lips to
ears is completely unusual; instead of hearing oneself singing, one hears
only the sound of voices returning from the vaulted ceilings, far sweeter
and purer than any humanly produced sound. Voices normally out of tune are
tuned by the walls, voices naturally louder are tempered and blended to fit
the others, and as human breath runs out, Gelati continues to sing; a
two-second delay carries the chant high into the alcoves of the cupola dome
Kereselidze organized five thousand chants into five enormous leather bound
volumes, organized according to the Saint's feast days, eight-mode system,
liturgy services, and special holidays such as weddings and funerals. The
master chanters who once knew these chants, and the musicologists who
collected and notated them, were all dead. Only the manuscripts survived.
In 1936, two Georgian patriots, D. Davitashvili and D. Shevernadze helped
Kereselidze secure the manuscripts into the State Archive (both were killed
in 1937). As for Kereselidze, having been threatened with death in the
Gelati Monastery in 1923, he moved to a remote monastery above Mtskheta,
where he continued to work on the chant manuscripts, serve the liturgy
alone, and live off of berries and his cultivations in the forest. He died
To find the exact location where Kereselidze lived and worked for twelve
years at the Gelati Monastery, walk to the far left corner of the monastery
yard that overlooks Kutaisi. Bagrat Cathedral is visible in the distance,
the ancient academy building in the monastery yard is just to your right.
Wooden houses stood here a century ago, and this was exact location was
still known by monks in the 1980s, as "Kereselidze's cell."
Entering the church, take a look at the 12th century frescoes in the foyer,
then imagine yourself in a procession of 12th century bishops and kings,
and enter the main sanctuary to the sound of royal singing. If you have
come with chanters, or come during a service, the great acoustical beauty
of Gelati will be yours to experience. Otherwise, one's imagination is the
key to unlock the hidden majesty of the great dome in Gelati, first and
last home of the master chanters.
John A. Graham, Princeton University, is studying the history and revival
of Georgian Orthodox sacred music. Contact: jagraham@...