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Pilimon Koridze

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John A. Graham is an American musicologist (PhD. Princeton University 2015) who specializes in the history of Georgian liturgical polyphony. His publications can be found at http://www.johnagraham.com/publications/

The transcription of West Georgian chant revolves around the efforts of one vital figure, Pilimon Koridze (1835-1911). Koridze was made a saint of the Georgian Orthodox Church on December 20th, 2011.

In this article, we will touch on the musical training, critical events, and his major output, focusing on the transcriptions that he produced between 1883 and 1908.


Pilimon Koridze (c. 1900)


Born into a priest’s family in Guria, Pilimon Koridze was discovered by visiting Italian opera singers while studying at the Tbilisi Seminary, and invited to study at the La Scala opera school in Italy. He became a well known singer on the stages of Italian and Russian opera houses, but confessed to dreaming of returning home to write the first Georgian opera.

When he and his Ukrainian wife finally did return to Tbilisi in 1881, he found his musical skills courted both for performances in the opera and theater, and for the preservation of Georgian traditional chant.

An April, 1881, meeting with Bishop Alexander Okropiridze reflects this active recruiting process, as the bishop sought to find any ‘patriot’ of Georgia who would undertake the daunting task of transcribing the massive oral liturgical repertory into European notation.

A couple of weeks after the meeting, the bishop submitted a letter to the editor of the influential Droeba Georgian-language journal (No. 111, May 31, 1881) recording their meeting and making his wishes publicly clear.

“I extend my gratitude to Mr. Koridze for his kind desire to transcribe our church chant and hope that [the project] will go well.”

At the time, Tbilisi was ablaze with pro-Georgian nationalist fervor, dedicated to the liberation of the Georgian nation, monarchy, and Church from Russian imperial control. Koridze became involved in the professional musical world of Tbilisi, coaching young musicians and directing choirs. Koridze helped, for example, a young Meliton Balanchivadze (father of George Balanchine) to enter the Tbilisi Opera chorus. With the inspiration of the writer Ilia Chavchavadze, the founder of the Society for the Advancement of Reading and Writing, Koridze decided to use his musical talent and celebrity status to champion the plight of Georgian chant.

It would take Koridze several years to actually begin the process of transcription, but in 1883, he met Melkisedek Nakashidze (1858-1934) and formed an immediate bond over their common origins from the region of Guria, and their mutual occupations as professional singers.

Koridze would dedicate many of his remaining years to various high profile transcriptions projects detailed below, resulting in the preservation of the majority of West Georgian chants that exist today. He died in 1911 at the age of 76 in Ozurgeti, his hometown in the Guria region of Georgia.

Remarkably, recordings of Koridze’s fine baritone voice still exist (from circa 1900). Here are two of them:



1883 Transcription Project with Nakashidze

Melkisedek Nakashidze (c. 1909)

At their very first meeting in 1883, Koridze despairingly listened as Nakashidze and his choir began singing the troparion for the Epiphany service, Ganmanatlebeli chveni [Enlightener of us], a highly complex and technically difficult chant. After they had finished singing, Koridze said,

“Until we get used to each other, let’s not transcribe k’rimanch’uli (yodeling). Later we can transcribe that and more. But for now, I think that we should focus on slowly writing the liturgy chants, and when we have accomplished that goal and we have performed these chants well, society will realize the possibility of transcribing even Georgian chant.”

Source: Pilimon Koridze, as recounted in the memoir of Kereselidze, Kartul saek’lesio sagaloblebis not’ebze (1936), 10-11.

Chant: ganmanatlebeli chveni [Enlightener of us]
It is curious what made transcribing this particular chant, ganmanatlebeli chveni [Enlightener of us], so difficult.

In an initial observation, one notices that the underlying parallelism common to simple variants of Georgian chant is disguised here by the independent movement of all three voice parts.

Despite this countrapuntal nature, this variant is not nearly as complex as it could be: highly ornamental chants from West Georgia are often far more complex, featuring voice crossings, unusual harmonies, and pronounced ornamentation. This chant is still an ornamental variant, however, clearly defined by the drawn-out phrasing of the text over supplemental musical material. The first phrase of ganmanatlebeli chveni, which consumes the entirety of the example, has been substantially elongated due to the insertion of two additional medial cadences in measures 3 and 7 (circled in red).

These cadences are highly unusual in that they do not end in unison or an open fifth (as most chant cadences), but feature the lower two voices moving in parallel octaves. The model melody formulas that disply this type of cadence, are called the shesvladi [Introit] type, because of their frequent appearance in chants of this genre. The syllables of the text are distributed over additional formulaic musical material, such as that seen in the elongated cadence in measures 2-3, and the voice crossing in measures 8-10.

But none of these factors should have confused Koridze, a well-trained professional singer of European opera. Several other possibilities come to mind: tempo, tuning, and improvisation.

The rhythm of Introit-style chants is supposed to be relatively free-form, with the middle-voice given free rein to elongate the cadential ornamentations (circled). Because of the numerous medial cadences, the rhythm of the chant is constantly broken with potential pauses. These can either be honored, or in some cases circumvented, with a quick jump to the beginning of the next phrase. Without a clear beat to establish time, Koridze may have been confused about how the three voice parts were to by synchronized together. Scholars agree that Nakashidze and his singers sang in a modified heptatonic scale, such that the octave was divided more or less by seven equal intervals.

For Koridze, this tuning would not have allowed him to immediately grasp anything like a European tonic-dominant relationship, or a major-minor modality. Finally, the potential for improvisation is perhaps best expressed in the loose, free-form structure of the Introit musical phrases. Expert singers would never sing these phrases the same way twice, with all three voice parts having ‘permission’ to freely ornament their individual lines within the basic cadential structures.

An improvised performance is very difficult to transcribe not only because of the variation that occurs through every repetition, but because of the lack of predictability. All of these factors may have played a role in confusing even well trained musicians such as Pilimon Koridze, one of the most internationally experienced Georgian musicians of his era.

Koridze, once a seminary student, was familiar with the fundamentals of Georgian chant, and his keen musical ear soon readjusted to the nuances of Georgian traditional singers. Singing simpler chants, the transcription process soon found success. As an experiment, Koridze presented the new transcriptions to his well-trained Tbilisi-based theater choir, some of whom were Russian and completely unfamiliar with the nuances of Georgian traditional harmony.

“I will teach my choir how to sing these chants from the notes. I have some Russians in my group who do not know how to chant Georgian chants, so if they are able to perform these hymns from notation, it will be obvious to society that this method of preservation is successful.”

Source: Pilimon Koridze, as recounted in the memoir of Kereselidze, Kartul saek’lesio sagaloblebis not’ebze (1936), 10-11.


1885 Transcription Project with Khundadze

Kutaisi Cathedral (1924)

In 1885, a serious transcription project began in the city of Kutaisi. There, Koridze worked with the chanters Razhden Khundadze, Ivliane Tsereteli, and Dimitri Chalaganidze to transcribe several hundred of the most important liturgy chants into European notation.

Bishop Gabriel Kikodze of Kutaisi was the organizer and sponsor of this first major transcription project. Pilimon Koridze was impressed with the organization, and readily agreed to relocating his family to the West Georgian capital, despite giving up a burgeoning musical career in Tbilisi, the cultural center of the South Caucasus.

One anonymous letter to the editor of a popular journal observed that,

“At the auditions, they brought chanters from different regions of Imereti, but it was discovered that they all chanted in such concordance that one would have thought that they studied with the same teacher. Dumbadze from Guria, Ch’alaganidze from Samegrelo, K’andelaki from the village of Gelati, Medzmariashvili from Lower Imereti, Ioseb Ts’ereteli from Upper Imereti, Vasil Kutateladze from the town of Khoni… they all chant in the same style. They inspected Koridze’s transcriptions together [to agree upon the correct style].”

Razhden Khundadze and family (circa 1880)

Starting in 1885, these four chanters began the painstaking process of choosing the correct versions of chant to repeat over and over until their new colleague, Pilimon Koridze, could accurate transcribe it to notation. They worked for three to four hours every day, grouped around the piano in Koridze’s Kutaisi apartment.

Two of the first chants that Pilimon Koridze transcribed in the Kutaisi project of 1885-1886 were the paschal troparia, aghdgomasa shensa [To your resurrection, Lord], and krist’e aghdga [Christ is risen]. These triumphant, jubilant hymns are sung, fittingly, at the very beginning of the Paschal service which itself marks the beginning of the liturgical year.

Aghdgomasa shensa (rough draft 1885)

By looking at one example, it is possible to make several observations about Koridze’s working process. In the rough-draft copy of aghdgomasa shensa, for example, each voice part is placed on a separate staff, while the piano score that appeared in previous transcriptions is omitted.

The top two voice parts are written with treble clefs, the bottom voice part with a bass clef. The key signature is written only in the top voice. The text is written under each voice part.

The note-heads are spaced broadly to allow for later additions and editing. Places where the spacing is awkwardly tight, such as the offset barlines at the end of measure 4, reveal that Koridze wrote the top voice first and only later tried to squeeze the passing-tones in the middle voice into the limited vertical space beneath (boxed). Another indicator that the top voice was written first is revealed in the crossed-out notes at the ends of the first and second staves.

Aghdgomasa shensa (good copy, 1886)

As Koridze wrote quickly, it appears that he did not realize that he was running out of space, perhaps because the palm of his writing hand obscured the end of the line (circled). His choice of key signature with two sharps is understandable, considering the concentration of the melody around the tonal center of D, but the chant sounds awkward in a D-major sonority because the C# causes some unusual chords. These types of discrepancies in ficta show that from the beginning of the project, Koridze was forced to make compromises in order to ‘fit’ Georgian chant onto the medium of the European five-line staff.

Koridze did not indicate octave. The treble clefs should indicate a tenor octave, as all voices sing within the same octave in close harmony.

Differences in pressure, line and letter formation, and even variance in the sharpness of the pencil suggest that the text was not written out all at the same time, but rather consecutively, at the same time as the transcription of each voice-part.

There are several emendations to the rough draft of the chant aghdgomasa shensa that could indicate the presence of another editor besides Koridze himself (Kereselidze edited many of these manuscripts in preparation for publication in the 1890s). For example, the tempo marking andante in Latin script is crossed out, then replaced with the word adagio. In the good copy of aghdgomasa shensa, this ‘suggestion’ has been reversed.

An editor of the good copy manuscript also crosses out the separated consonants at the end of words: in this case the word for Christ, kri-s-t’e was reduced to kris-t’e, thus forming two syllables instead of three. It was a well known practice among master chanters to separate consonants into discrete syllables (sung with the schwa: an indeterminate /ə/ vowel). But this practice was frowned upon by editors and publishers (such as Kereselidze), who routinely crossed out these extra consonants in favor of complete syllables.

The project was widely hailed as a success after the money ran out in 1886. Koridze gave the good copy transcriptions to bishop Kikodze who passed them on to the Russian censors. Unfortunately, they languished for years before publication began in 1895. Later Koridze would write of this project,

“The success and fortune of an eminent singer is fleeting, but my current labors are for the good of society…. The works I transcribe and print will never be erased, but will elevate our Georgian music to a high level, such that it will exceed the music of other countries.”



1893 Transcription Project with Dumbadze

Choir of Pilimon Koridze, Kutaisi 1890

By 1893, seven years had passed since the end of the much-heralded transcription project in Kutaisi. Pilimon Koridze, now famous for his unique ability to notate the sung intangibles of West Georgian polyphonic chant, had convincingly written five hundred West Georgian chants into European notation.

But in his personal life, Koridze had to deal with tragedy when his Ukrainian wife died in 1889. With his two children in boarding school in Italy, Koridze fell into depression and considered returning to his opera career in Italy.

Maksime Sharadze (circa 1900)

On a final visit to Tbilisi, he was brought to the Kabineti to meet Maksime Sharadze, Kereselidze, and the others, as Kereselidze would recount in his memoir:

“Pilimon came to us and said, ‘I’ve just arrived in Tbilisi, and I do not even have a place to stay.’ Maksime said to him, ‘Pilimon, please, stay and teach us how to read western notation. We will find you a house; we’ll pay you a salary, anything you need. We are ready to dedicate ourselves to the study of chant and we want to be able to read the new transcriptions!”

This meeting with the charismatic Sharadze convinced Koridze to stay in Tbilisi, and eventually (in 1893) to resume his work transcribing traditional chant. Sharadze announced the beginning of the project with an imaginative visualization of the meeting between two ‘great’ men:

Anton Dumbadze (circa 1900)

“Today, on the sixteenth of this month, Mr. Pilimon Koridze is going to the city of Ozurgeti. As one will see, two strong patriots, Koridze, who can transcribe our chants into notation as clearly as a photograph, and Mr. Anton Dumbadze, a master chanter unique in all the land, these two men will meet…. When useful and charitable activity is begun, one may clearly see and understand the nature of a human being; one may see introspectively the motivation of one’s work, in honesty, clearness of heart, and whether these qualities are matching between word and deed. Each one of us must help and support the efforts of these great men in this manner, to show our true selves and to demonstrate whether we believe in goodness or not.”

Source: Maksime Sharadze, “Galobnis not’ebze gadaghebis shesakheb” [About transcribing chant into notation], Iveria, No. 125 (Tbilisi: Georgian National Library), 1893.

Koridze worked for two years with Anton Dumbadze, transcribing many chants whose transcriptions are still in the National Centre of Manuscripts. These are different chants than those transcribed in the earlier projects, or in some cases they were different musical variants of the same liturgy chants.



1903 Transcription Project with Kutateladze

In 1901, the Sharadze Press in Tbilisi suffered a major setback. Russian censors revoked the printing permit, claiming that the press printed anti-Tsarist proclamations and effectively ending the legal right to print and distribute any texts. For an entire year, the press lay dormant. Sharadze became very ill, struggling with the fact that he couldn’t convince the Russian bureaucracy to grant his printing permit. In 1902, however, they were able to reopen the Press under a new name.

Aristovle Kutateladze (circa 1902)

Aristovle Kutateladze (1839-1912), a teacher at the prestigious Gymnasium secondary school in Tbilisi and a trained chanter, was able to convince Russian authorities to allow him to open the Press using his name. As Kereselidze described events,

“Our big-hearted comrade, the Gymnasium-teacher Aristovle Kutateladze, took responsibility for reopening our press in his name.”

With the press operational again, Sharadze returned to work, immediately injecting the chant preservation movement with renewed enthusiasm and project management.

Aristovle Kutateladze was born near the Khoni Monastery in the Samegrelo, the son of Priest Vasil Kutateladze. According to Pilimon Koridze, many members of the Kutateladze family were conveyors of the Khoni monastery chant style.

“I heard that in Khoni, the entire Kutateladze family were professional chanters, having studied with the chanter, Simon the Cripple. He was said to have had an incredible bass voice. His students reverently carried him around in a specially constructed cart, and also led him by hand. He was a teacher, a very strict teacher… he carried paramount respect from the community.”

Source: Pilimon Koridze, Doc. No. 20 (Tbilisi: Museum of Theater, Cinema, and Music, Mikheil Koreli Fund).

Kutateladze was a consistent contributor to the chant transcription and publication projects of the Sharadze Press. During the years 1903-1905, Sharadze financed Pilimon Koridze to transcribe heirmoi melodies from Kutateladze. The project aimed to fill repertory gaps from the previous transcriptions projects, specifically, to transcribe the hundreds of rare heirmoi texts sung throughout the Orthodox calendar year such as at Easter, Nativity, and other feastdays

Pilimon Koridze himself was much impressed with the knowledge of Kutateladze, remarking:

“Our protector, Mr. Aristovle Kutateladze, is thoroughly knowledgeable of the old memorized chant [tradition]. He studied with the famous chanter in Khoni, Simon the Cripple. By now, I have transcribed the melody and texts of 551 chants from him.”

Source: Pilimon Koridze, Mogzauri, No. 39, 1905, 587.

The transcription of Khoni monastery chant began in 1903 and lasted at least through 1905. As usual, Sharadze used his considerable influence as a publisher to generate public goodwill for those working on the transcription of chant. In the middle of the Koridze-Kutateladze transcription project, for example, praise-filled public letters appeared on a regular basis:

“Apparently, there is a man doing many good deeds, asking neither praise nor thanks because he finds both in his own work. But we are still obligated to offer support for such a man and his good work, either in word or in writing. For this reason, it is impossible to hide and not say aloud that Mr. Aristo Kutateladze has been working and studying very hard for the recent project to transcribe chant notation.”

Source: Maksime Sharadze, Iveria, No. 276, 1894: 2-3.

Koridze transcribed quickly, as Sharadze had requested, notating only the first-voice melodies, and ignoring for the time being the lower two voices of the three-part structure. Four volumes containing nearly one thousand melodies attest to the breadth of the project, but the transcriptions presented a major problem: in their incomplete state, without the middle and bass parts, they were virtually non performable.

Unfortunately, not even one chant sung by Aristovle Kutateladze was transcribed completely (in three voice parts), leaving scholars to speculate on the harmonic qualities of the Khoni monastery style. With what was transcribed, however, it is possible to observe unique melodic characteristics, suggesting that a separate school of chant existed in the Khoni diocese.

It would take Ekvtime Kereselidze many years to harmonize the Kutateladze transcriptions, a project he undertook several years later (between 1912-1924).



1906 Transcription Project with Dumbadze

In 1906, the final transcription project began in Ozurgeti, Guria. Because Anton Dumbadze was already 82 years old, there was genuine fear that he would die at any time, taking his knowledge of the oral chant system of the Shemokmedi monastery with him. Kereselidze recalled that,

“Anton was so old, we were really afraid that he would die. Our thinking was confirmed because in 1907, Anton died. His replacement was his son, archpriest Davit, working with Molarishvili.”

From the beginning, Pilimon Koridze understood the urgency of this particular project, and sought to notate as many chants as possible. In a letter back to Tbilisi, he wrote:

“Often, I ask Anton if he will let me write some unusual, highly ornamental chant that no one else knows, that will be preserved in his name.”

Anton Dumbadze (circa 1900)

Together, the pair worked through hundreds of hymnographic texts, recording the melody of each in European staff notation.

The priority for Maksime Sharadze and Ekvtime Kereselidze, the project sponsors, was the notation of all chant melodies. The three-voiced complete transcription of chant took far longer than a melody transcription, because of the number of times that the choir needed to repeat a three-voiced realization and the amount of time needed to discuss and agree upon the appropriate variant and ornamentation level. In short, notating melodies was far more efficient. Sharadze and Kereselidze planned to complete the three-voiced realizations of the chant transcriptions in preparation for publication, a project that was stymied by Sharadze’s death and the loss of income after the dissolution of the press.

Because Anton Dumbadze was already so advanced in years, he couldn’t sing every chant. Instead, his three most advanced students—Davit Dumbadze, Svimon Molarishvili, and Melkisedek Nakashidze—took turns singing the required melodies for Koridze while Anton Dumbadze listened and corrected.

All together, almost one thousand chant melodies were notated in six volumes and sent back to Sharadze and Kereselidze for printing in Tbilisi during the years 1906-1908.

This would be Pilimon Koridze’s final transcription project. Less than four years after Dumbadze, Pilimon Koridze died in Ozurgeti in 1911.

Between 1883-1908, he transcribed nearly three thousand chants, and saw at least five hundred published during his lifetime. Throughout his lifetime, Koridze remained exuberant about his work. He conceived of the project to transcribe chant as a major contribution to society and homeland, often sharing his ideals in public editorials and private letters with friends.

“Isn’t it true that I have traveled in many different kingdoms and studied many things, but in all of these places not one of them has such colorful, such difficult, such exquisite, such delightfully-tuned music as the chants and songs that we have in our small country of Georgia! Because of that, I am working so hard, day and night, so that no chant is left un-notated, written in the various voice parts.”




Pilimon Koridze (circa 1910)

The old debate on whether or not European notation could or should be used to represent the musical variation of the oral tradition of liturgical chant were put to rest once and for all in a letter by An’ton Dumbadze, who wrote:

“For a long time, there has been talk all around Georgia on whether it was possible to transcribe Georgian chant into notation or not. I had my doubts. But now, thank God, in such a short period of time, this kind of doubting and talking is over. Now, for the fifth month, the respected Pilimon Koridze has been working hard here in the city of Ozurgeti to transcribe chant with me, my son Fr. Davit, and one of my students, Molarishvili. As an experienced and knowledgeable chanter, let me say that it is a pleasure that each church chant is being transcribed correctly, unchanged, with no defects, and in the mode that existed and still exists in Guria-Imereti.”

Source: Ant’on Dumbadze, “Letter,” Iveria Daily, No. 60 (Tbilisi: Georgian National Library), March 19, 1894.

With this strong endorsement of the methodology of transcription, from the most famous West Georgian chanter, few if any further letters appeared which doubted the efficacy or accuracy of European notation.

Pilimon Koridze’s true legacy lies in the fact that today, in the first decades of the twentieth century, thousands of young Georgians have found a bridge to learning the liturgical music of their ancestors by studying the written transcriptions by Koridze. Without these, the music would have been lost. Koridze understood the gravity of the moment, the precarious nature of the oral tradition as its last presenters faltered in old age.

He also understood the importance of this music for the soul of Georgian identity. His dedication, care, and attention to accurately notating the chants is a testament to his true character, and we are all the beneficiaries.




This article is redacted from the dissertation: John A. Graham, “The Transmission and Transcription of Georgian Liturgical Chant (Princeton, 2015). A copy may be downloaded here.

For a general biography on Pilimon Koridze (in Georgian), see Magda Sukhiashvili and Ekaterine Sanikidze, Pilimon Koridze: kartuli galobis moamageni [Pilimon Koridze: Care-taker of Georgian chant], ed. Tinatin Zhvania (Tbilisi: Sakartvelos Matsne Press, 2004).





4 Responses

  1. Jan Koczak
    | Reply

    What an incredible treasure and legacy we have from Pilimon Koridze!
    It was wonderful to hear his lovely, rich baritone.
    Just “thanks” is not enough.

    Thanks for this article, John.

  2. Andria
    | Reply

    Dear John, I am wondering whether there is an English subtitled version of the famous film about
    the rescuing history of Georgian chants (Heroes of chanting – გალობის რაინდები) available somewhere on the net?

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