Otar Taktakishvili: The Major Vocal Works by Andrew Hartman
The Georgian composer Otar Taktakishvili's life began in Tbilisi, Georgia on 27 July 1924. Born into a musical family and steeped in the ancient and rich culture of his homeland, he went on to become the dominant force in Georgian classical music of the 20th century. He held numerous important posts in Georgian musical life. After graduating from the Tbilisi Conservatory he became a professor there in conducting and choral music, then eventually its director. He was both conductor and artistic director of the Georgian State Choir. He also served as chairman of the Georgian Composers Union. Taktakishvili also won several Soviet musical prizes and awards including five State prizes for individual compositions, and was elected a People’s Artist of the USSR. This despite his strong Georgian nationalism, his use of Georgian nationalist poets in nearly all of his vocal works, and his fierce attachment to Georgian folk music traditions. Finally, he won international recognition as a member of the UNESCO International Music Council. He passed away on 21 February 1989.
Otar Taktakishvili grew up in Tbilisi surrounded by music. His mother Elizabeth, a noblewoman, was an artist at the Georgian Opera House. His uncle Shalva Taktakishvili was a composer and professor at the Conservatory. Another uncle, Giorgi Taktakishvili was a cellist and music school director. All were to be important influences in his development. From his mother he received his love for Georgian folk music and the human voice. From his uncles came his devotion to pedagogical pursuits, his knowledge of orchestration, and his foundation as a conductor. After studying piano with various instructors as a young man, Taktakishvili entered the Tbilisi Conservatory in 1942 as World War II raged. At the Conservatory he studied conducting under Alexander Gauk, and composition under Andria Balanchivadze (choreographer George Balanchine’s brother and a fine composer in his own right). While he was at the Conservatory, his mother spotted a contest sponsored by the authorities for a new national anthem for the Republic of Georgia. The young man entered the contest and to his surprise, won it. Soon his anthem was being sung throughout Georgia and at the age of twenty-two he found himself famous.
Taktakishvili, although he lived under the rule of the Soviet Union his entire life, was a Georgian composer through and through. He absorbed Georgian culture and poetry extensively so a word about this small country’s history is helpful in understanding his influences.
The country of Georgia stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It has struggled repeatedly against invasion after invasion from Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, Russians, and others. The “golden age” of Georgia was in the 12th and 13th centuries under Queen Tamar the Great, but it was not to last. Between the proverbial rock and hard place, Georgia frequently found itself being fought over by rival invaders, and often had to seek protection from whichever neighbor was the lesser of two evils at the time. Indeed, Georgia’s move into the Russian orbit in the early 1800s was to forestall the incursions of the Ottomans. Understandably, Georgian poets, from Rustaveli in the golden age, to Pshavela in the 19th century, to Tabidze in the 20th century, were concerned with the fight for independence and the struggle to preserve Georgian cultural identity. Throughout his life, Taktakishvili used the poetry of Georgia’s greatest nationalist poets as the words to his vocal compositions. In his choice of poets and subject matter, he subtly thumbed his nose at the Soviet authorities, while accepting their approval and awards. It must have pleased him that the words of all of his major vocal works were written by men interred in the Mtatsminda Pantheon, the shrine of Georgian heroes and artists in Tbilisi.
Otar Taktakishvili wrote music in all forms. He composed piano works, chamber music, songs, operas, oratorios, symphonies and concertos. By one of those bizarre quirks of musical history, he is best known in the West for a pleasant but relatively minor work, the Sonata for Flute and Piano from 1966. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that several prominent flutists, eager for accessible modern flute repertory, recorded the work. Anyone who judges Taktakishvili’s oeuvre by this piece however, will have a very skewed picture indeed of the composer’s output. Taktakishvili was above all a composer of vocal works, and it is his major vocal works that will concern us here. While his instrumental music includes many fine works, it is in his major vocal pieces that we find the masterpieces that place him in the front rank of composers of the mid-twentieth century.
In the first decade after his graduation from the Tbilisi Conservatory and his winning of the national anthem contest, Taktakishvili concentrated mostly on orchestral music, including his first two symphonies, his first piano concerto, several symphonic poems, and other works. These are all fine pieces in an accessible late-romantic idiom and are most enjoyable to listen to. They also contain elements of the composer’s evolving personal voice, although the full flowering of that voice had yet to occur. Then in 1956 came the Five Vocal Poems after G. Tabidze for mezzo-soprano, soprano, and orchestra. The work was revised two years later by the composer. This piece marks the beginning of Taktakishvili’s maturity as well as a decisive turn to vocal music. No doubt his experiences with the Georgian State Choir played a role in this evolution. The mezzo-soprano carries the lead vocal duties in the cycle, with the soprano adding color and atmospheric touches along the way.
Galaktion Tabidze was a courageous choice for the composer to use as his poet. Tabidze lived from 1892 to 1959 and thus was still alive when Taktakishvili wrote this work. The poet was a leader of the Georgian nationalist poets and his numerous poems on loneliness, isolation, and solitude influenced a generation of young Georgian artists. During the Stalinist purges of the 1930s the poet’s wife was exiled to Siberia and later died, and several of his cousins were killed. Tabidze himself was interrogated and beaten. After this experience he was plunged into depression and alcoholism, eventually taking his own life in a psychiatric hospital in 1959. He was buried as a Georgian hero in the Mtatsminda Pantheon. The composer selected five of the poet’s works for his song cycle. The first song is “An Appeal.” A yearning melody gives way to a passionate outburst, then returns to the mood of sad yearning. Obviously this fervent and dramatic appeal has been unsuccessful. The second song is “The Night and I” which opens with a wordless vocalise by the soprano over shimmering strings, evoking a crystal clear night. Then the mezzo-soprano begins a contemplative recitative which evolves to a passionate operatic section before returning to the shimmering vocalise over which the mezzo sings a sad lament. The third song has the interesting title “The City Howled Like a Beast”. It opens with a pounding, menacing theme with interjections from the mezzo. After a sudden silence, a tender melody briefly emerges but is interrupted by the howling beast again. The tender melody returns however, evolving into a passionate and lyrical vocalise. A disembodied voice floats in over a harp to end this disturbing song in a tender fashion. The fourth song is “Evening”. This contemplative song consists of a gentle melody with strings and harp, evoking a quiet night of meditation. The finale of the cycle is “The Moon of Mtatsminda”. It begins with a lyrical melody and tolling bell. The soloist enters with a hymn to the moon. The soprano floats in with heavenly vocalises over the strings and the mezzo returns to make it a duet. The music grows more passionate and the bell tolls louder. After a brief return of the gentle melody, the music grows more insistent as the tempo quickens. A solo violin soars with the mezzo in a gentle finale punctuated by the soprano.
This cycle sees the emergence of many of the trademarks of Taktakishvili’s mature vocal style including the use of wordless vocalises, and harmonies based on Georgian folk singing. The effective orchestration reveals the ability to capture varied emotional states and paint the poet’s words and moods in music. This impressive cycle was also a watershed in the composer’s oeuvre, as from this point forward his major means of expression would be music with voice and orchestra. There are two recordings of this work, one conducted by Kondrashin with mezzo-soprano Postnavicheva and soprano Preobrazhenskaya, and one conducted by the composer with mezzo-soprano Natela Tugushi and soprano Tsisana Tatishvili. I have the latter recording, which like all the Melodiya recordings of the composer conducting his own music is very fine.
After this breakthrough work, Taktakishvili spread his wings and decided to tackle the daunting art-form of opera for the first time. The result was Mindia, based on Vazha Pshavela’s epic poem "The Snake Eater". Vazha Pshavela was the pen-name of Georgian national poet Luka Razikashvili (1861-1915). It is hard to overstate the position occupied by Pshavela in the pantheon of Georgian arts. In addition to hundreds of poems, he wrote five epic poems that deal with the interaction of the individual with society, of man with the natural world, and of human love versus love of country. He had a mystical connection with, and intense love of nature, which is evident in most of his poetry. His characters often question or ignore the laws of their communities and strive for a higher humanity that transcends narrow limits. He too was buried in Mtatsminda Pantheon. It is not surprising that Taktakishvili chose Pshavela’s epic as the basis for his first opera, especially since it deals with all of the major themes the poet dealt with in his career, themes which obviously fascinated Taktakishvili as well.
The story takes place during the “Golden Age” of Georgia’s Queen Tamar and proceeds as follows. Mindia is a captive of the fierce Kajis for twelve years. One day, despairing of ever being set free, he eats of the serpent’s flesh from a cauldron, hoping to die. Instead, it gives the noble Mindia superhuman strength and magical insight into the world of nature. Mindia escapes and wanders in nature, learning the secrets of the birds, flowers, trees, and animals. He encounters some woodsmen and tries to stop them from cutting down the trees but they won’t listen. Mindia will hurt nothing in nature, and can talk to the animals. Eventually he meets the Queen and is prevailed upon to help his countrymen fight their enemies and avoid being conquered by them. One day he meets and eventually marries Mzia and has a family. He has to start cutting down trees for firewood and killing animals to feed and support his wife and family. As he does so he is tormented by the conflict between love of nature and love of family, between love of country and his belief in non-violence. As he begins to hurt nature, the natural world begins to abandon him and he loses his magic powers. The birds and animals speak no more to him. His people beg him to lead them against their enemies one last time but he has lost his powers. His people lose the battle and Mindia in despair, kills himself with a dagger.
Mindia opens with a portentous theme which leads to a heroic fanfare. After an orchestral trill a wordless chorus begins intoning the beautiful opening melody in solemn guise. Over this chorus a speaker intones the background of the story of Mindia. This is a favorite device of Taktakishvili which he uses in several other works. As the speaker falls silent the chorus swells up and sings the beautiful melody again. Suddenly we hear a trumpet call and Mindia calls a greeting, echoed by the chorus in the distance. Mindia then sings a passionate, soaring hymn to nature that is quite thrilling. The chorus answers with a cry then falls silent as a beautiful orchestral lament on the violins begins. Eventually the wordless chorus returns with a reprise of its first appearance and the speaker carries the narrative forward over the chorus.
A flute warbles out a tune which evolves into a female chorus which is quickly joined by Mzia, Mindia’s future wife. Mzia then launches into a striding aria accompanied by pizzicato strings and winds. Mindia appears and sings a love duet with Mzia. A fanfare and a brief phrase from Mzia leads to a chorus of the people begging Mindia to save them from their oppressors. Mindia responds with a soliloquy and is answered by the chorus demanding action. Mindia rejoins with a martial response answered by the chorus. Finally Mindia agrees to help them with a soaring aria as brasses roar out harsh warlike phrases. The leader of the people launches into a heroic aria backed by the cheers of the chorus and joined periodically by Mindia. The women’s chorus then sings encouragement to the men and is answered by the men’s chorus. A martial drumbeat dominates the music with warlike brasses adding militaristic touches. A battle is depicted orchestrally with drums, trumpets and swooping strings before a triumphant climax ends the act.
A gentle, tender melody opens the next act out of which a wordless chorus (another favorite device of the composer) begins. Mzia sings a wistful aria of Mindia’s dwindling love, which soars to a passionate despairing conclusion. Mindia returns to Mzia’s ecstatic greeting as Mindia’s opening theme is reprised. Mindia sings of the conflict between his love for, and duty to Mzia, and his duty to nature as one who is a keeper of its secrets and guardian of its safety. Mzia reminds him of their love and his duty to his family and they begin a passionate duet concluding on a thrillingly held climactic note.
A jealous countryman appears and accuses Mindia of betraying his people and hints that Mindia has lost his powers. Mindia responds with dignity that he has done neither, as trumpet fanfares emphasize his heroic nature. A sad melody begins in the winds as Mindia laments the growing conflict between duty to his country and his personal duty to family and to nature. Mindia believes in peace and in defending nature against man. He feels for the sorrows of every little bird, he feels the wind like every little tree which he has vowed to protect against the axe. A martial male chorus begins, joined by the women’s chorus with an exotic eastern rhythm, which eventually evolves into a fanfare pounded out by the percussion. A duet begins between the Queen and the leader of the Georgian forces as Georgia faces renewed attack. Mindia joins in as the chorus pleads with him for help as ominous melodies punctuated by brass and percussion accentuate the dire situation. Ominous brass fanfares indicate the battle is going badly for the Georgians. Mindia, unable to resolve the conflicts in his life and in despair over the loss of his powers, stabs himself with a dagger and lies dying. Mzia laments his act.
Fantastical runs in the orchestra ensue, evoking the mystery of Mindia’s life. Finally Mindia’s theme emerges heroically then falls silent. The chorus intones a chant over the dying hero then the entire episode is repeated until the chorus bursts out in grief. A drum roll transitions to a somber melody and the dying Mindia sings his farewell to life, to nature, to mankind, to country, to family, and to the mysteries of his life. It is a tour de force of beauty, passion and sadness, as he pours out his heart in a thrilling final aria. The chorus bids him a sad farewell. Transfigured, Mindia reprises his passionate opening hymn to nature as the chorus joins in, building in intensity to a climax as the hero dies. Suddenly Mzia sings out the hymn to nature with the chorus under her until the orchestra tenderly joins in. The speaker has the final word, intoning a blessing on Mindia.
I believe Mindia is one of the finest operas of the mid-twentieth century. As Taktakishvili’s first attempt at this demanding art-form it is an astounding achievement. The Melodiya recording, conducted by Odissey Dimitriady, features a jaw-dropping performance by superb tenor Zurab Andzhaparidze in the title role and a wonderful performance from Olga Koznetsova as Mzia. With this magnificent creation, Taktakishvili launched a stunning two decade period where he composed one major vocal work after another, as orchestral music took a back seat to his first loves, the human voice and Georgian folk-singing tradition.
Taktakishvili’s next major vocal work, completed in 1962, was the vocal symphonic poem The Rock and the Stream for chorus and orchestra. Again the composer uses the poetry of Pshavela. Unfortunately, to my knowledge this work was never commercially recorded and I have not heard it, so we will have to skip over it. After The Rock and the Stream, Taktakishvili composed two major vocal works in rapid succession in the period 1963-1964. The first was called The Living Hearth. It is an oratorio for soprano, contralto, baritone, chorus and orchestra and is a tribute to the composer’s beloved native land of Georgia. The second is called In The Footsteps of Rustaveli. It is for bass, chorus and orchestra, and follows the heroic life of Georgia’s hero from the golden age, the poet Rustaveli.
The Living Hearth is divided into eight sections entitled “Native Land”, “Mother’s Song”, “Stream”, “At the Baksanskoye Ravine”, “Tocsin”, “After the Battle”, “An Old Fresco” and “Finale”. It begins with a solemn orchestral introduction depicting the sacred soil of Georgia. The soprano sings a song over pizzicato strings and winds, reaching an impassioned climax before being interrupted by the chorus over ominous chords. The soprano returns to her song but the chorus has the last word. “Mother’s Song” consists of a mother’s lament by the contralto over a spare harp accompaniment. A gurgling orchestral introduction takes us to “The Stream”, as the women’s chorus sings a happy song. The men join in with their own melody then they coalesce. A stentorian call from the baritone introduces us to the “Baksanskoye Ravine”. The soloist then begins a sad song underpinned by a soft wordless chorus. A passionate outburst from the soloist is answered by the consoling chorus softly singing as if in prayer. A harsh brass fanfare intervenes but is also banished by the chorus. The fanfare returns and is answered defiantly by the soloist. The fanfare silences the soloist and the fearful outburst keeps grimly on. The men’s and women’s choruses sing different lines, imploring help against the onslaught of the orchestra which relentlessly drives on. Finally a brief silence is followed by a return of the prayerful chorus. The harsh percussive fanfare returns as the chorus gives a final despairing outburst. In Georgia’s battles against oppressors through the ages, despair and defeat have often trumped prayers for peace or victory.
After this tumultuous section, the baritone sings a song over a simple accompaniment of pizzicato strings and piano. The orchestra then provides a more lyrical background for the song, but it ends with a return to the opening section. A solemn wordless men's chorus softly offers a prayer over hushed basses, then the baritone and the soprano join in with a consoling song. The underpinning chorus sounds very much like the famous Georgian hymn “Thou art a vineyard”. The soprano returns with her lament, followed by a humming chorus taken up by each of the voices in its turn. The soprano launches into a hopeful, beautiful song over pizzicato strings and the chorus chimes in under the soloist. A touching orchestral interlude ensues before the soprano returns singing over gentle chimes. The humming chorus has the last word in this beautiful section. The baritone intones a solemn song and the orchestra comments on it. A brass fanfare suddenly breaks out and the men’s chorus answers it with a long held cry, then breaks into song. The orchestra responds and is answered by the women’s chorus. Finally the baritone sings out, battling the orchestral fanfares. The chorus joins the battle and finally tames the orchestra which then joins it for a triumphant chorus. Suddenly “The Mother’s Song” returns over a pizzicato accompaniment. The soprano follows the contralto with the next verse then they sing a duet. The chorus echoes the song quietly as the music fades away. In all battles it is a mother’s lament that is the universal result. The marvelous recording on Melodiya is conducted by the composer, with soprano V. Budareva, contralto, A. Kleshcheva and baritone S. Yakovenko.
The golden age Georgian poet Rustaveli lived in the 12th century and was the author of the national epic “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”. In this oratorio Taktakishvili takes us back in time to the 12th century to follow Rustaveli on his travels. The nine sections of the piece include titles like “You Are Here”, “Palestine”, “Native Tongue”, “Exile”, “Tamara”, and “Rustaveli Has Died Today”. The work starts with a magical, feather-light orchestral introduction which seems to transport us back in time where we will follow in the footsteps of the Georgian hero Rustaveli. As we arrive we are greeted by the chorus singing a gentle melody, with each of the four voices overlapping and interchanging lines. The bass sings a narrative of Rustaveli’s journey over a spare accompaniment, followed by the chorus, then the sequence repeats. A sudden orchestral outburst sets the scene for a new journey. The soloist sings out against a brass fanfare punctuated by a drum. After several interchanges between the bass and the orchestra, the women’s chorus enters with a consoling song. The men’s chorus then answers an organ note with a song of their own and is joined by the full chorus. We are in holy Palestine with Rustaveli. A flute leads into a light song for the women’s chorus over pizzicato strings, then the full chorus and orchestra briefly take up the song before the women’s chorus returns with their consoling melody.
An organ solo with gongs leads to a choral outburst as Rustaveli is exiled. A furious run on the strings and brass fanfares join the gong in an obsessive, apocalyptic spiral over which the chorus issues an anguished cry. After a brief silence the bass laments the exile accompanied by a poignant melody on the violins over a somber organ bass line. An angelic orchestral introduction to the next section leads to a sad song from the bass which grows more impassioned till it is interrupted by a bang on the drum. The chorus then bursts out over a solemn hymn-like melody in the orchestra. The bass returns for the last word. Over a low organ melody the men’s chorus, and then the bass sing a lament for Rustaveli. A funeral march ensues with the basses from the chorus accompanying the body as gongs and ominous strings lead us to the underworld. The upper voices of the chorus cry out in grief as drums and brass intone the death march. The bass soloist begins an apotheosis of Rustaveli over celestial strings. The chorus cries out over brass fanfares as Rustaveli is transfigured into the glorious hero of his country, to be remembered for all time. The orchestra gives a final outburst and the chorus answers with a calm rejoinder. The bass intones a final prayer over the great man. The marvelous Melodiya recording is conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky with A. Vedernikov as bass soloist.
In 1967, Taktakishvili returned to opera with his “Three Novellas – an operatic triptych”. In this work the composer strings together three one-act operas, “Two Sentences”, “The Soldier” and “Raise the Banners High”. This is the one major vocal work of Taktakishvili that does not deal exclusively with Georgian national themes and poetry and the reason is not far to seek as it was an entry in a contest celebrating the 50th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution. It won second prize. Despite the subject matter of the contest, the composer manages to infuse the piece with subtle protests against the authorities, right under their very noses so to speak. The first story tells of two brothers, Bachila and Mate, who go to Tbilisi to sell coal. They meet and both fall in love with a girl named Masho. One day they accidentally meet at her house and in a jealous rage Bachila kills Mate. The court acquits him on the grounds that it was impulsive and not premeditated, but his parents condemn him. As Bachila wanders near his home after being driven from it by his parents he hears his mother mourning his brother and in a fit of remorse he kills himself. The opera features a series of vignettes moving the plot along including the Tbilisi bazaar with its bustling activity, the meeting with Masho and Bachila’s wooing of her, the murder of Mate, the courtroom scene, the mother’s condemnation and lament, and Bachila’s remorse and suicide. The court’s sentence was acquittal, but the parents’ sentence was guilty and it is the latter that holds sway here as humanity trumps the State.
In The Soldier, a soldier named Georgi (from Georgia) accidentally kills an innocent civilian while suppressing the anti-czarist demonstration of 1905. He is rewarded by his superiors but is tormented by guilt. He visits the dead man’s mother and begs her forgiveness but she refuses. He dreams of his village and hears the melodies of his childhood. He dreams of going home to Georgia and leading a peaceful life. He deserts the army, is captured and executed. Again, Taktakishvili captures the key moments of the drama, with the dream sequence and childhood memories and melodies the emotional centre-piece of the work.
In Raise the Banners High, the composer once again uses the poetry of Tabidze choosing poems highlighting the fight for freedom from oppression. The work opens with a depiction of the sun rising as the banners flutter high. The heart flies toward freedom like a wounded deer runs to a stream. Glory to those who fight and lead the battle for freedom from tyranny. At this point Taktakishvili quotes snatches of revolutionary songs including La Marseillaise as he depicts a triumphant victory for freedom. A narrator periodically introduces the various poems as this concluding opera in the triptych proceeds. While Three Novellas ostensibly deals with the tyranny that the October Revolution supposedly overthrew, the use of Georgian characters, Tabidze’s poetry, and the primacy of human conscience over that of the State makes clear Taktakishvili’s real intent. The composer conducts the fine Melodiya recording of the work.
After a couple of smaller scale vocal works in 1968-1969, Taktakishvili returned to the oratorio for the major work “Nikolas Baratashvili” in 1970. The poet Nikolas Baratashvili (1817-1844) was a descendant of Georgian King Erekle II. A liberal Georgian nationalist, he wrote a historical poem about Georgia, “Fate of Georgia”, about the Persian rulers’ attack on Georgia and King Erekle II’s decision to seek Russian protection, which eventually turned to domination. The poem takes the form of a debate between Erekle II and his advisors on what was the best course for Georgia, caught between competing dominating powers. Nikolas Baratashvili’s great love rejected him for another man, and he wound up a civil servant in the Azerbaijani town of Ganja where he died of malaria at age twenty-seven, unpublished and unknown. His poems were later rediscovered by the younger generation and became a rallying point for Georgian nationalists. His body was eventually re-interred in Mtatsminda Pantheon.
The oratorio consists of five poems, “Memories”, “The Mysterious Voice”, “At Alexander Chavchavadze’s Home”, “Twilight Over Mtatsminda” and “Meroni”. The first four poems are intertwined lyrically and musically while Meroni is a separate piece. The work is written for tenor, chorus, and orchestra. It opens with a solemnly intoned chorus by the basses, infused with the polyphony of Georgian folk music, interspersed with orchestral interludes. A recitative by the tenor begins, reaching a passionate climax. The chorus erupts in a fortissimo cry, still in the lower registers. The initial low chanting returns with its solemn, religious overtones. A bell starts tolling and a solo violin sings a lament. These “memories” are obviously poignant ones. The chorus enters again, first with the low voices then brightened by the female chorus. The soloist returns, singing over the wordless chorus, a favorite device of the composer’s. The chorus and tenor trade phrases until a brass fanfare brings us back to the solo violin lament and the tolling bells. The tenor and chorus have the final word. A fluttering flute begins and disembodied voices hover above the orchestra. The tenor begins an aria with the accompaniment of concertante winds and strings as the poet visits a friend’s house. The winds take the lead as the music returns to the opening melody and reaches an emphatic climax. All that remains are the disembodied voices of the chorus and a ghostly voice intoning over it. The tenor comments on it as the ghostly duet continues. The mysterious voice has spoken. The tenor and chorus trade phrases till an orchestral interlude leads to a solemn chant in the chorus that is otherworldly in its effect as twilight arrives. The orchestra returns until interrupted by tolling bells and by the soloist, punctuated by cries from the chorus. The mysterious voice returns once more, alternating with the tenor until they combine for a final phrase.
A lively chorus erupts for the final section, Meroni, with the chorus interjecting stabbing phrases against the orchestra and the soloist. The galloping rhythm continues with a more subdued section for the chorus but the frantic orchestral accompaniment quickly returns with brass fanfares. A sudden silence ensues then a lone voice is heard crying in the distance. The tenor enters singing over choral phrases, becoming more insistent until a climax returns us to the galloping opening chorus. Climactic fanfares are stabbed with cries from the chorus until a final climax leads to silence. A gentle melody is introduced by the horns and picked up by the women’s chorus. The men’s chorus joins in and finally the tenor. The chorus briefly brings us back to the opening melody before a final crescendo ends the piece. The superb Melodiya recording is conducted by the composer and features Zurab Anzhaparidze as the tenor soloist.
In the early 1970s, Taktakishvili wrote three remarkable song-cycles. They were the Gurian songs, the Megrellian songs, and the Love songs. They were written for men’s vocal octet, chorus and orchestra. In the Megrellian songs a tenor soloist was added and in the Love songs a soprano and tenor soloist were deployed. Over the past fifteen years the composer had used the poetry of great Georgian nationalist poets and fused them with elements of Georgian folk singing with its distinctive harmony and polyphony. Now he intended to go further, by using traditional Georgian texts, actual Georgian folk melodies from various regions of the country, and traditional Georgian folk song styles, all fused with the classical music idiom. The result was magical.
For those readers interested in the sound of Georgian folk singing, and who want to get an impression of the sound-world these song cycles inhabit, I would direct them to search on-line for the performances of “Shen Khar Venakhi” by the Ensemble Rustavi and the Georgian Harmony Choir. It will be well worth your time. This must be what heaven sounds like.
The Gurian songs consist of five texts. The cycle opens with “Labor”. An a cappella call and response from the chorus begins the piece, then the orchestra chimes in and the men sing a lively verse. An orchestral interlude leads into a cheerful section for full chorus. This is no lament for weary toil, but a celebration of the joy and dignity of work with friends. The next song is “Weep for a Lost Hero”. A sorrowful introduction from the chorus leads to a descending melody in the strings, before the chorus returns a cappella with a soloist from the chorus intoning a vocalise over a choral bass support. Soon the entire chorus joins in punctuated by drum rolls. The orchestral interlude returns before the lament begins again with just the voices. “Khorumi” follows and is a warlike male dance with the male chorus being the lead instrument with wordless rhythmic chanting. Eventually the women’s chorus joins in and then the orchestra sounds out the dance alone. The six-note rhythm that pervades the entire song returns for a quiet close. After this martial song, the next song “Lullaby” is an excellent contrast. A soprano soloist from the chorus leads a tender song for a child with the support of the chorus, using a traditional Gurian melody. The atmosphere is reverential, almost as if the lullaby is for the baby in the manger. The final piece, “Comic Song” is another vivid contrast. A laughing, bouncy rhythm underpins the chorus’ main line in this comic finale to the cycle. The orchestra joins in with a joyful interlude before a tongue-twister solo from one chorus member and solo interludes from other chorus members bring the music back to its opening rhythm as the underpinning for a final choral and orchestral peroration. This ends the song and the cycle in a satisfying way. The Melodiya recording is conducted by the composer and features the famed Ensemble Rustavi. Megrellian Songs opens with “The Rose”, an innocent striding melody featuring the tenor singing of the beauty of the flower. The following “Varudo, an Abkhazium Melody” is a dirge-like melody sung about a rock that forever stands in silence. It is quite poignant. The tenor is joined by the chorus at the end. Next up is “Chaguna, Humorous Song of a Loafer”. This song is a tongue-twister with an accelerating tempo mocking a lazy fellow. It is mostly played pizzicato with the chorus joining in as background or emphasis. The cycle continues with “Song of Toil”, an a cappella lament alternating between tenor and chorus as the protagonist bewails his endless physical toil. “Cradle Song” follows with a tender melody sung by the tenor to a child. It is full of sweetness and touching devotion and is not at all sad. The next piece is “Chihatura, Humorous Song”. It tells the story of a jackal that takes bad children away. Any sinister elements are banished by the last lines which relate how brave dogs will defend the house from the jackal even if he comes. The music is light and the tenor’s recitation is punctuated by comic shrieks of alarm from the chorus. “Song of a Bullock-Cart Driver” follows. It speaks with dignity and pride of the hard life of the peasant. The chorus opens with a somber, tired lament. The tenor begins a melody redolent of exhaustion coupled with the simple dignity of hard work. The chorus joins in to amplify the lament. The next piece is “Song of Lament”. It deals with the disappearance of a child. The music is tragic and somber with the tolling of bells and unrelenting grief from chorus and soloist. As with the prior song-cycle, Taktakishvili ends Megrellian songs with an up-beat piece, “Consecration of the House, A Wedding Song”. This speaks of the blessing of a new house occupied by newlyweds, glorifying home, family and a happy life. The tenor starts with a clarion call of joy, accentuated by the chorus. Then a lively melody begins full of high spirits as the young couple are ushered into their new home by the chorus. The sequence is repeated as the cycle ends on a note of joy. Love Songs opens with “In the Mountains”. The soprano, then tenor sing a beautiful lyrical melody led by the flute and violins with the choir joining in. The sequence repeats as the happy peasants sing of their love for their mountain home. “A Tushinian Love Song” follows. A drone melody begins with the tenor launching a passionate love-song. A delightful flute melody breaks in and the soprano vocalises on the flute melody. The material repeats as the tenor makes his case a second time and the soprano answers it again. The next song is “The Parting”. A sad lament begins with the tenor. The soprano answers then the chorus intones a sad refrain. Finally all three sing together. “Amorous Ditties” is the title of the next piece. It begins with a jaunty theme with pizzicato and winds. The soprano and tenor then trade amorous ditties, commented on by the chorus. A delightful piece of charming, innocent love. The mood changes with “When We Are Separated”. The chorus sets the solemn underpinning for the tenor to lament over. The chorus both sings under the tenor and comments on the sad state of affairs. “The Quarrel” follows as the lower voices insistently chant a phrase, then are joined by the higher voices. The tenor joins in and sings a passionate melody. He then joins the chorus in their chant as all three groups sing together. The lyrical “By the Stream” follows. A choral soloist starts a cappella then is joined by the rest of the chorus in a quintessential Georgian display of magical harmonies. The cycle concludes with “The Meeting”. A bright stuttering melody on the strings starts us off then the soloists exuberantly join in. The chorus enters to comment on the joy of this obviously pleasant meeting. Then all three sing together bringing the cycle to a happy conclusion. The Melodiya recording features the composer as conductor and the Ensemble Rustavi as the chorus.
With these three song-cycles, Taktakishvili achieved his goal of fusing the folk music of his country with classical forms, creating a truly unique sound-world.
Taktakishvili followed up these song cycles with the cantata Summer Lightning’s Aflame, for mezzo-soprano, bass, chorus and orchestra. This very exciting piece begins with a marching theme with chorus, joined by pounding timpani and percussion. After a climax, the theme begins again softly then is replaced by a hymn-like chorus a cappella, which alternates with the march. The mezzo-soprano then enters with a sad lament which the chorus picks up and brings to a thrilling climax. The bass then enters, intoning a solemn recitative which reaches a passionate climax. A harsh orchestral climax is reached, then the bass returns for the final word as the orchestra fades away. A martial brass fanfare ensues with a powerful choral contribution to thrilling effect. Finally the strings enter and the mezzo returns to a striding melody which is joined first by the chorus, then by the bass. The soloists and chorus trade jabbing phrases then combine back into the opening marching theme. The orchestra blares out the theme with stabbing trumpet fanfares in a tremendous conclusion. The marvelous Melodiya recording features the composer conducting, bass Alexander Vedernikov, and Russian diva Irina Arkhipova as the mezzo-soprano.
In the years 1976-1980, Taktakishvili turned once again to opera, writing three in quick succession. First was “The Abduction of the Moon”. This is a major work that interestingly reuses some of the material from his three great song-cycles. Unfortunately, it was never commercially recorded. I possess a private live recording of the work but as it has never been widely disseminated, I will not discuss the piece in depth here. Likewise, the composer’s opera “First Love” was never commercially recorded, and I have not heard it. That leaves us with “Musoussi” (The Lady-Killer), a comic one-act opera lasting about one hour that has been recorded. It is a charming, sweet opera full of good humor, high spirits and delightful music. The composer must have had fun writing this “jeu d’esprit”. No serious Georgian folk influences, patriotic hymns, or nationalist heroes here. The opera opens with a bubbly overture that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rossini comedy. Taktakishvili again uses his favorite device of a narrator periodically to set the scene for us. The music begins with a lively crowd scene of young people. A “lady-killer”, Mikha tries to work his wiles on Fefo with the help of his friend Petre. Predictable complications arise and the lady-killer gets his comeuppance from Fefo before the happy ending. A recurring motif anchors the opera, a childlike melody in the winds over pizzicato accompaniment. The opera is filled with orchestral interludes of a simple, innocent quality.
Taktakishvili wrote one more major vocal work, the oratorio “With Tsareteli’s Lyre” based on the poems of Akaki Tsareteli, the Georgian nationalist liberation poet, also buried in the Mtatsminda Pantheon. Regrettably it has not been recorded and I have not heard it.
Otar Taktakishvili wrote in all the major forms a classical composer might use. Solo piano music, songs with piano accompaniment, chamber music, concertos, symphonies, symphonic poems all have their place in his oeuvre. Yet throughout his career, time and again he turned to large-scale vocal works with orchestra and chorus, including cantatas, oratorios, operas and song-cycles, for his most heartfelt means of expression. His passionate love for his native Georgia, his knowledge of Georgian poetry and his deep understanding of Georgian folk-songs and folk singing styles all contributed to this emphasis. There is little doubt that Taktakishvili’s music represents the pinnacle of Georgian classical music. It is also certain that no other Georgian composer so perfectly and so frequently fused folk music and classical music. Indeed I would say that few composers of any era and in any country succeeded as well as Taktakishvili in fusing folk and classical music. As a lover of both, it is little wonder he is one of my favorite 20th century composers.
Why is Otar Taktakishvili’s magnificent music still so little known in the West? Part of it can be explained by the general situation faced by composers working behind the Iron Curtain, as discussed in my previous articles on Sulek and Rakov. Some of it however, is specific to his particular country and time. Taktakishvili’s entire life, 1924-1989 covers virtually the identical period of the existence of the Soviet Union. He died just as the USSR was unravelling, and the chaotic conditions accompanying the breakup militated against many of Melodiya’s finest recordings ever making it to CD. With used LPs as the only source of much of his large-scale works, and with none of his music played live in the West save the flute sonata, Westerners have had little opportunity to hear these works. Additionally, we know that the most expensive and difficult works to produce live and to record are operas and large-scale vocal works with chorus. The number of people involved, the planning involved, and the cost militate against wide dissemination. Lastly, Taktakishvili’s large-scale vocal works require choruses and singers familiar with Georgian folk singing to really do them justice, and since the breakup of the USSR, the independent Republic of Georgia simply doesn’t have the resources to mount and record these works.
On the bright side, while at least four of Taktakishvili’s major vocal works were never commercially recorded, a majority of them were. Not only that, they were recorded by some of the greatest performers in Georgia and the Soviet Union, and most were conducted in definitive performances by the composer himself. When we listen to Taktakishvili’s works sung by singers like Anzhaparidze, Arkhipova and the Ensemble Rustavi, we realize how fortunate we are to have what we do. With all the factors militating against frequent performance of these pieces in the West, it is unlikely that a Taktakishvili renaissance worthy of the quality of this composer is imminent. However, music this wonderful will always find a welcome wherever it is heard, and Taktakishvili’s time will come again. If you have not heard the works discussed here, seek them out. They can occasionally be found on the major used LP sites, and others can be listened to on-line. Surely a masterwork like Mindia would be a wonderful piece for any adventurous opera company to produce. Otar Taktakishvili is the definition of the quintessential unsung master. His music is glorious, thrilling, beautiful, humorous, and touching. It is also unique. No other composer sounds like him. Yet it is immediately and appealingly accessible. Give it a listen and see for yourself.
Andrew Hartman Editor's Note
The Megrellian Songs were also recorded by Vakhtang Jordania on Angelok1 CD-7770.
The Megrellian Songs and the Gurian Songs share a CD with Taktakishvili's Second Symphony on Russian Disc RDCD 00768.