Easter, Day 4: Kriste aghdga

LOOK: Anastasis, Georgian Orthodox church fresco

Harrowing of Hell (Georgia)
Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell), ca. 1207. Fresco, St. Nicholas Church, Kintsvisi Monastery, Shida Kartli region, Georgia.

In this (partially damaged) icon of the Resurrection from the main church at Kintsvisi Monastery in the country of Georgia, Christ stands over the pit of hell, atop its broken gates. He has come to take back his own from this place of death. He heaves Adam up first, and Eve next. On the right stand Kings Solomon and David and John the Forerunner (aka John the Baptist). The deliverance they’ve been awaiting has come.

Fresh from the tomb, Christ holds aloft his cross as a victory staff. As is common in Orthodox icons, it has three horizontal beams: a short one on top, representing the titulus that read, “King of the Jews”; the main one, onto which Jesus’s hands were nailed; and a footrest at the bottom.

(Related post: “‘Done Is a Battle’ by William Dunbar”)

LISTEN: “Kriste aghdga” (Christ Is Risen), the Paschal troparion in a traditional Georgian setting from the Svaneti region | Performed by the Sheehan Family, 2020

Krist’e aghdga mk’vdretit
sik’vdilita sik’vdilisa
dam trgun velida saplavebis shinata
tskhovrebis mimnich’ebeli.

English translation:

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, an Eastern Orthodox author and speaker from Johnson City, Tennessee, wrote the following on her Facebook page last year:

The troparion [short hymn] for Pascha is this brief and punchy one, written by St. John of Damascus (d. 749):

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

We sing it many, many times—surely hundreds of times—before Pascha concludes on the day of Pentecost. It is always sung a capella, without accompaniment (apart from the vigorous ringing of bells, in some congregations). It is set to many, many different melodies. Each ethnicity has a half-dozen favorite melodies, so the options are very broad. . . .

But when Orthodox of other nations hear it sung in a Georgian tone, they stop and listen.

Georgian church music is unique. It is always sung in three parts, honoring the Trinity; but what’s striking is the sound of it, unlike anything we have in the West. Someone who is trained in Georgian chant might be able to explain it, but I can’t. 

Let’s hear from Dr. John A. Graham, an American musicologist specializing in the history of Georgian liturgical music and who runs the website www.georgianchant.org:

“Kriste aghdga” (Christ is Risen) is an important Easter hymn in the Georgian Orthodox tradition. It is sung when the priest knocks on the doors of the church, symbolizing entrance to the tomb of Christ, just before entering the sanctuary space to commence the all-night liturgy service [on the Saturday before Easter].

Then it is repeated in groups of three throughout the All-Night vigil service (4-7 hours). It is also sung in every service after Easter until Pentecost.

The chant survives in many musical variants, as chanters in each village and region perfected their individual style.

The most popular variant, the one you heard above, is from Svaneti, a highland region in northwest Georgia. The style is influenced by Svan folk music. This variant begins with a solo sung by the middle voice. You can purchase the vocal score here, as sung by the Sheehan family, or see the free transcription that Graham provides.

Here’s the Orthodox Virtual Quarantine Choir, directed by Steve Jacobs, singing the chant in English, interspersed with a Paschal reading taken from Psalm 68:1–3 (“Let God rise up . . .”) and Psalm 118:24 (“This is the day . . .”):

In his article, Graham lists seven characteristics of traditional Georgian chant, among which are its three-part voicing, its close harmonies (“The dissonances are integral to the desired sound. The tension-release in the music is symbolic of our prayers and supplications to God.”), and an ending in unison. He posts videos of several other regional musical variants of the troparion in Georgian.

This song, as performed by the Capitol Hill Chorale, is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.

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