The Music of Josef Bardanashvili: Dialogues of Conflict and Reconciliation


The music of Georgian-born Israeli composer Josef Bardanashvili (b. 1948) draws on a breadth of sources and inspirations, both musical and extra-musical. His vocal music and stage works draw on diverse literary sources from several languages, genres and historical eras (from medieval poetry to contemporary literature) and encompassing the sacred books and liturgies of the major monotheistic religions. His music similarly contains references and allusions to Jewish and Georgian folk-music, various liturgical traditions, ‘popular’ styles (such as jazz and rock), and western art music in all its diversity. These musical and cultural allusions are not merely placed side-by-side; instead, they interact with each other, sometimes changing their own character and identity in the process. The composer described one of his works – Dialogue for cello and orchestra – as a representation of “two worlds [that] exist within me: the world of tradition in which I was raised and which still surrounds me, and my personal world as a creative artist”. Similar inner dialogues can be found in many of his works, creating complex and fascinating combinations of different cultural and musical worlds. This diversity sometimes results in powerful conflicts and contradictions, yet many of his works are also imbued with a vital sense of dramatic coherence and even spiritual conciliation.

Bardanashvili was a prominent figure in his native Georgia; he served, inter alia, as Director of the Batumi College of Music and as Deputy Culture Minister of Adjaria (an autonomous region within Georgia, of which Batumi is the capital). He was acknowledged as one of Georgia’s leading composers, and contributed to virtually all genres – ranging from his rock opera Alternative (1976) to several chamber works, as well as music for film and theatre; he also gained a substantial reputation as a painter. In 1995, he immigrated to Israel. After an initial period of absorption difficulties and relative obscurity, he established himself as one of the leading figures in Israeli art music and as a prominent composer of incidental music for film and theatre. His first decade in Israel culminated in his two-act opera Journey to the End of the Millennium, commissioned by the Israeli Opera Tel-Aviv–Yafo to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Leah Dolidze gives Bardanashvili pride of place among the composers who rejuvenated Georgian music in the 1960s and 1970s. These composers “made adventurous use of a variety of techniques – total serialism, aleatorism, collage, minimalism and electronics”. In the 1970s, these techniques merged into a wider synthesis:

Indicative of this is the use of the polystylistic method, in allusion, quotation and collage. Baroque and Classical stylistic features have been absorbed organically into the Georgian national style. This has produced many different, sometimes highly original, kinds of stylistic fusion.

These developments can be placed within a wider context – the polystylistic response of erstwhile Soviet composers to the western Avant-garde; Ofra Yitzhaki (pp. 87-91) compares Bardanashvili’s stylistic synthesis with the polystylistic music of composers like Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke. In Bardanashvili’s case, the use of allusion and quotation became even more prominent after his immigration to Israel. The term ‘collage’, however, hardly does justice to his integration of different stylistic elements. The composer favours the image of a mosaic: one could discern the shape and colour of individual stones, yet this does not distract from the integrity of the overall image. Some allusions, to be sure, are highly exposed – for instance, the use of an electric guitar in the Flute Concerto (2000), or the shouts of ‘hey’ which punctuate several passages in the string sextet Nekudot (Vowels) (2004), evoking a folk-dance scene. Other allusions, however, are absorbed into the musical argument, and might even have passed unnoticed were it not for the composer’s enthusiastic willingness to reveal and discuss them.

Modernist and ‘avant-garde’ techniques are most prominent in works written prior to the composer’s immigration (for example, aleatoric passage in the middle of Poem-Dialogue and serial writing in String Quartet No. 2). Even during this period, however, Bardanashvili’s polystylistic tendencies were already apparent. For example, the String Quartet No. 2 (1992), though mostly employing an atonal musical language, culminates in an impassioned melody derived from the Scherzo of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (albeit transformed in a way that negates the playfulness of Mendelssohn’s original). In his later music, aleatoric elements are largely absent – even improvisatory-sounding passages are usually notated quite carefully; and atonal writing is used primarily to intensify agitated passages in otherwise modal or freely-tonal compositions. The influence of historical styles, on the other hand, is increasingly apparent.

Bardanashvili’s personal style is manifested, in part, in two types of thematic materials which appear in stark isolation in his String Quartet No. 1 (1985). In the first movement (Dance Macabre: Allegro con fuoco), the second thematic group consists of a series of fast ornamental figures, which the composer describes as “Oriental-coloured melodic figurations” – though, in another interview, he compared them with Baroque vocal ornamentations. These figures are placed above (and, later, below) an insistent one-note ostinato. The second movement (Largo sostenuto) opens with a narrow-range diatonic melody, presented in parallel tenths and in a calm, measured rhythm (no syncopations or sharp accents).

Both thematic materials recur, in various guises, in the composer’s later works. The ornamental figures usually acquire a sense of stasis. This is true even in the Quartet No. 1. The figurations are quite fast – semiquavers above a propulsive tango ostinato, whose constant rhythm is derived from the movement’s opening section. By this point, however, the tango rhythm is restricted to a single repeated note, and the passage is characterised by a deliberate avoidance of harmonic directionality. The static impression thus created is intensified the predominantly narrow range of the ornamental lines: the initial statement covers a full descending twelfth in six bars, but subsequent statements are shorter and narrower, sometimes hovering around a single note.

In Bardanashvili’s later works, similar lines are usually presented in slower tempi and halting, hesitant rhythms. While these lines are ubiquitous in his oeuvre, they are especially prominent in Steps (1998) and in the Flute Concerto. In both works, they are embedded in a variety of textures – from soloistic statements to near-heterophonic canons. They are also presented with varying accompaniments: from a single sustained note or sustained chords to a rich plethora of contrasting thematic materials (in this latter context, the ornamental figures function as just one motivic fragment among many). In Steps, these figurations serve as the most melodic, lyrical material within an otherwise harsh, modernist sound-world.

Ornamental figurations are also a key feature in the Fantasia for piano solo (2004; IMI 7556), commissioned as a set piece for the 11th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Masters Competition (2004). Ofra Yitzhaki, in her analysis of the Fantasia, cites two types of figurations in this work – psalmodic, stepwise figurations reminiscent of Russian-Jewish liturgical cantillations, and yodel-like figurations, featuring wider leaps, reminiscent of Georgian folk music. A third thematic element is a tango-like rhythmic figure, which often accompanies the psalmodic figurations. Yitzhaki (p. 82) also notes the work’s multi-faceted tonal-harmonic language, combining “jazz harmonies, folklorist expressions, free chromaticism, and twelve tone passages”. This stylistic fluidity helps create a dramatically coherent yet spontaneous-sounding work, allowing ample scope for pianists to display their technical prowess, improvisatory abilities and interpretative originality.

The opening theme from the String Quartet No. 1’s second movement is, if anything, even more typical of Bardanashvili’s style: similar melodies – reminiscent of contemplative moments in the music of composers like Arvo Pärt – appear in virtually all of his works, always in parallel thirds or tenths. The composer associates them with calm, reflective spirituality. In the Quartet’s second movement – and even more prominently in the Elegy (1996) for string orchestra – it is the dominant thematic material. More frequently, it appears at key moments in more diverse works – as a point of release and relief after tense, dramatic passages.

The Quartet thus introduces many typical features of Bardanashvili’s music. However, the work’s overall structure is less typical of the composer’s style. The Quartet consists of two highly contrasting movements, each largely dominated by a single affect. Such stark contrasts between internally uniform blocks are rare in Bardanashvili’s later oeuvre. Instead, he alternates between single-mood, single-style, one-movement works on the one hand – and works featuring a constant, dialogic exchange of styles and moods on the other hand.

Stylistic and affective unity can be felt, for example, in the Farewell Song (2000) for an ensemble of violins. This work is based on a single memorable melody and a series of single-note drones; its thematic unity is enhanced by uniformity of timbre. Some harsher moments notwithstanding, this work is dominated by an elegiac calm, as are the Elegy and the Adagio for strings (1995); Psalm 121 (1996) for male choir is similarly characterised by transparent, almost homophonic textures and a consistently sombre, contemplative atmosphere. Yellow Blues (2001), on the other hand, is dominated by a dissonant, pointillistic sound world.

Similar tendencies towards unity of affect can also be sensed in Bardanashvili’s Children of God. This large-scale trilogy consists of three works, conceived separately: Time for Love, for monks’ choir and orchestra (1999); Yearning, for soprano and orchestra (1999); and Children of God, for countertenor and orchestra (1997). These works are based primarily on religious texts: Yearning sets Jewish Hebrew texts (from the Bible and the prayer book), while the others combine excerpts from the Bible (both Old and New Testament), the Qur’an (Children of God) and Armenian and Jewish-Sephardic poetry (Time for Love), in various languages. Together, they string a wealth of expressive and philosophical ideas, the primary aim being to present and uphold the humane, tolerant aspects of all religions. The musical language is relatively simple by the composer’s own standards, with complex textures appearing primarily in purely instrumental passages.

Bardanashvili’s opera Journey to the End of the Millennium (2005), on the other hand, explores the issues of cultural differences and tolerance in a more complex, multi-faceted manner, addressing the potential for conflict and tragedy in the clash between cultures. Musically, too, the work is more complex. A. B. Yehoshua’s novel, on which the opera is based, focuses on a conflict between European and North African Jews in the late 10th century, presented against the backdrop of the surrounding Muslim and Christian cultures. In his libretto, the novelist omits all the Christian characters and most of the Muslim ones, thus narrowing his focus on the contrast between the Jewish communities. Bardanashvili’s music, however, hints at wider geographical, historical and denominational contexts. In particular, it re-introduces the Christian world through a wealth of musical allusions, such as the oblique quotation from Dies Irae chant in the second scene and the prominent use of the organ in the ninth scene. Beyond this, the opera features a remarkable profusion of thematic materials and musical styles (with references ranging from the French Baroque to 20th-century a-tonality), including a wealth of thematic allusions – some blatantly exposed, others artfully concealed. Yet these coalesce into a continuous, dramatically convincing sequence, especially in the second act (see also Hirshberg’s article).

The opera’s fusion of diverse influences into a compelling dramatic mosaic is a typical feature of Bardanashvili’s style. This is also apparent in his approach to multi-voiced textures. Imitative polyphony is by no means absent from Bardanashvili’s music; yet his polyphonic textures more frequently involve the superimposition of different thematic materials, creating intense dialogues between different timbres, tempi and styles.

Dialogue is thus a key feature in Bardanashvili’s works, and with it comes a sense of fluidity. Even when the work seems to draw clear boundaries, they might well be transgressed later. In Poem-Dialogue (1975), for instance, there is, initially, a clear contrast between the aggression of the horns and piano and the cello’s humane lyricism. But as the music proceeds, characteristics of one instrument or group seem to move to the other; and the eerie calm of concluding section affects the entire ensemble.

This fluidity is even more pronounced in the composer’s later works. In many of his concerti, for example, he deliberately avoids a clear distinction between ‘soloist’ and ‘orchestra’. In the Serenade-Concerto for violin and string orchestra (1985), there are many passages for solo strings; in the Flute Concerto the soloist frequently merges with the orchestral flutes; in Dialogue for violoncello and symphony orchestra (2002; IMI 7501), the cello solo is enveloped by the orchestral celli towards the end. The piano concerto Quasi una fantasia (1996/7) represents a more complex case. In the first movement, the piano is clearly the only soloist, and the orchestra sometimes has a purely accompanimental role. But in the second movement – titled Postlude – the piano soloist is joined by a solo violin and solo harpsichord. In this short slow movement, partly dominated by Bardanashvili’s characteristic parallel thirds and projecting an aura of eerie calm, none of the three soloists seeks unequivocal dominance.

In these cases, one can speak of genuine rapport between the imaginary protagonists portrayed by the music; but Bardanashvili’s music explores a wide variety of dialogic relationships. In the notes to Dialogue for cello and orchestra, Bardanashvili describes the relationship between soloist and orchestra as having “an antiphonal structure of questions and answers”:

The antiphonal style unifies the many varied elements that comprise the dialogue: introspection vs. openness, the warmth of the individual vs. the coolness of the surrounding society, a warm, human hug vs. coolness and distance, dialogue between the solo cello and the cello section in the orchestra, dialogue between an external idea originating in the orchestra and the soloist’s development of the idea, and the anger of the group vs. the individual calm.

This quotation suggests an unambiguous dichotomy between the cello (cast as the warm, calm individual) and the orchestra (cast as cold, angry society). Other passages in Bardanashvili’s notes – and, more importantly, the music itself – portray a more complex relationship, in which these roles are often reversed. For example, when the strings introduce a serene theme, which Bardanashvili described as a Georgian prayer melody, the cello joins the brass and percussion in disrupting this melody. Similarly, in the più mosso section, when orchestral solo strings seem to launch a calm, dance-like melody, the cello continues its low-register grumbling (a variant of Bardanashvili’s ornamental figurations). This latter section seems to evoke a dialogue of the deaf between the cello and the orchestral strings: they each present their respective musical materials with ever-growing energy and vehemence, apparently oblivious to each other’s contribution. The sense of conflict intensifies as other sections in the orchestra are brought in – some joining the cello or orchestral strings, others launching their own independent material – until all sense of recognisable melody breaks down.

The relationship, however, is not always adversarial. In several passages, there is a sense of unity and cooperation within the orchestra, and between it and the soloist. Some of the work’s most dramatic outbursts are shared by soloist and orchestra. The opposite affect unites soloist and orchestra in the Molto sostenuto section near the beginning of the work (bb. 31ff). Here, the harp introduces the diatonic, parallel-third melody (Bardanashvili’s familiar emblem of reflective spirituality). The cello responds with a diatonic, elegiac version of the tortured, chromatic, impassioned material with which it opened the work. Shortly afterwards, the cello introduces an extended quotation from Salomone Rossi’s canzonetta Torna dolce il mio amore. This melody is clearly treated as a quotation: the cello plays it using flageolet tones, giving it a distant, eerie sound; the accompaniment’s calm, homophonic texture isolates it from preceding sections. But thanks to the transition that led into it, this Renaissance quotation does not sound incongruous, even in a work which started out in a defiantly modernist sound.

Thus, Bardanashvili’s music creates dialogues between different national and historical styles. A particularly powerful illustration of this dialogue can be found in his Symphony No. 2 (The Way To…) (2001). This intense, driven work is woven around quotations from four different works (listed here by order of their appearance in the symphony): Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 (third movement); Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (first movement); Schoenberg’s Der Jakobleiter; and ‘Abschied’, the final song in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Bardanashvili combines these heterogeneous borrowed materials with his own original themes, forging them into a compelling single-movement work.

In two cases (the Mozart and the Mahler), Bardanashvili chose to quote figures which served an accompanimental function in the original context. The Mozart quote is the opening semiquaver figure from the first movement; it is introduced immediately after the Shostakovich-inspired outburst, which opens the work. Through its constant presence, this Mozartean figure provides a sense of unity to Bardanashvili’s exposition section, underpinning the otherwise contrasting materials, timbres and tempi. Yet this unity is rather shaky. The insistent rhythm is hurtled from one instrument to another, and provides a kind of nervous pulse; in its appearances on tuned percussion, it sounds almost like an alarm bell. As the exposition proceeds, the quotation temporarily loses its original identity, narrowing gradually until it becomes a single repeated note. In this guise, it underpins the introduction of Bardanashvili’s characteristic ornamental figures. In isolation, this section’s combination of undulating ornaments over a single insistent note sounds characteristically Bardanashvilian, seemingly devoid of external quotations; yet that note later grows back into the more familiar Mozart theme.

For Bardanashvili, quotations and allusions are not merely sources of inspiration; rather, he regards them as signposts, situating his music within wider musical and extra-musical contexts. When he speaks or writes about his music, he often draws attention to them – although, as a composer, he often integrates them so completely that they cease to function as quotations. A similar ambivalence affects the composer’s attitudes towards his extra-musical inspirations. He considers himself a “conceptual composer”, whose works usually grow out of a specific extra-musical inspiration – such as narratives, philosophical ideas or visual images. He claims that these inspirations have more to do with the compositional process than with the work’s ultimate message, and he is reluctant (and not always consistent) in discussing them publicly; yet he still finds them essential for the works’ inspiration and communicative power.

Indeed, clarity of expressive communication is paramount for Bardanashvili. In pursuing this goal, he believes that all styles and sources of inspiration are available to composers and could potentially serve their purposes. “The use of various musical languages in one work”, he writes in his introduction to the 2002 Contemporary Music Biennale, Tempus Fugit, “still leads to an organic outcome, as eclecticism is our musical language”. Accordingly, Bardanashvili does not pursue stylistic purity and has no fear of anachronism. On the contrary: he presents, alternately or simultaneously, materials with diverse geographical, historical and stylistic resonances, and from the fertile dialogues between them he weaves multi-faceted works of considerable expressive and dramatic intensity.


Dr. Uri Golomb


List of Sources Cited

This list contains only those sources directly quoted in the essay. Additional information was provided by Dushan Mihalek and the composer himself. 


Bardanashvili, Josef. Notes to the premiere performance of Dialogues for violoncello and symphony orchestra; Rishon LeZion, June 2002.

Bardanashvili, Josef. Introductory comments [in Hebrew] to the 2002 Contemporary Music Biennale, published in Oznayim le-Muzika [Ears for Music] 8 (October 2002), p. 23; my translation.

Dolidze, Leah. “Georgia, I: Art Music”, in Laura Macy (ed.), New Grove Online (, accessed June 2006.

Hirshberg, Jehoash. “Josef Bardanashvili’s A Journey to the End of the Millennium: A New Israeli Opera”. IMI News 2005/2, pp. 2-4.

Yitzhaki, Ofra. “Jewish Cantillation and Soviet Avant-Garde – Josef Bardanashvili’s Fantasia for Piano (2004)”. In: Israeli Piano Music After 1985 – Analysis and Comparison in Historical Perspective (DMA Dissertation, The Juilliard School, New York, 2006), pp. 78-91.


© Israel Music Institute, 2006