The Renaissance That Never Happened

Here’s a tricky question: how many Greek composers can you name? I managed just one name — Iannis Xenakis. But even then, Xenakis was born in Romania and spent much of his life in France. And he was a mediocrity, a prolific composer of modernist dreck. It seems a great shame that he is the most well-known composer from Greece — a nation that laid the foundations for Western music. They gave us the word ‘harmony’, the modes, the lyre. Pythagoras discovered the ratios of intervals (the story goes that he overheard a blacksmith striking an anvil, and noticed that the size of the hammer affected the pitch of the sound). Opera was created through attempts to recreate Ancient Greek theatre.

So what went wrong?

It’s not that there aren’t Greek composers. There are certainly fewer than most European countries, but since the nineneeth century (according to Wikipedia) there’s been more than a handful. The interesting thing is that the early-mid nineneeth century composers came from the Ionian islands, which was for centuries under Venetian rule — then Napoleon conquered Venice, then the British defeated Napoleon and established a protectorate, and finally, decades later, the islands were handed back to Greece.

The rest of Greece (up until 1830) was part of the Ottoman Empire. Being under Ottoman rule mean that the Greeks were severed from their own musical tradition at a time when many other European nations were seeking to revive it. Ottoman music was comparatively simplistic, and I presume (though it is a prejudice) that the Muslim character of the Ottoman empire hindered cultural development.

Yet even after the Greeks reclaimed their sovereignty, they never developed a substantial classical music tradition. The Spaniards managed it despite their troubles with the Ottomans. And the Russians developed a music tradition in the nineteenth century that seems as if it came almost out of nowhere.

But I don’t know the history well and would gladly be corrected on any of this. I am trying to figure out an answer to a question that few people, so far as I can tell, seemed to have asked in the first place.

Let’s end with Symphony No. 1 ‘Levendia’ by Manolis Kalomiris (1883-1962). Somehow, though I’m not sure exactly how, this sounds ‘Greek’. It’s the use of modality and the perfect fifths on the horns, I think. (I also hear hints of what sounds like a lyre.) And there’s something very curious about the rhythms. It all sounds quite heroic, and ‘heroic’ is a word I associate with Greece much more than, say, my tribe, England. Apparently Kalomiris is thought of as ‘the father of the Greek national school of composition’. I definitely want to explore some more of his music.


Things that fall out of old books…

I’m doing a bit of reading on George Bernard Shaw while waiting for his three volumes of music criticism to arrive. From what I gather, Shaw’s writing should be, if nothing else, stonkingly good fun. I finally settled on buying the books when I read about the pseudonym he wrote under, Corni di Bassetto. It’s a ‘wretched instrument’, we are told — ‘the devil himself could not make a basset horn sparkle’.

The first book on Shaw I bought was a worn but attractive first edition of Chesterton’s very unbiographical biography (for pennies might I add; Chesterton first editions aren’t hard to come by). As I turned to page 22, a curious photograph fell out:


I love it. I imagine they are father and daughter playing some silly game. Looking at his uniform, it must be around the time of, or before, the First World War. And searching online, I am told that his cuff insignia is that of a lieutenant. There are no notes either on the photo or in the book to indicate date, name or place.

I quite often find odd stuff falling out of old books. Shopping lists, newspaper cuttings (often reviews of the book), torn fragments of notes, envelopes with old stamps reminding us of that wonderful pre-decimal currency we did away with. People must have picked up any old rubbish to use as a bookmark — yet I, decades later, find such rubbish terribly fascinating.

But I doubt the above photo was used as a bookmark. I wonder how it ended up in the book — did the daughter grow up and keep the book and photo as memories of her father? did she die, her books donated to a shop, and that’s how I found it?

Who knows. But getting back to Mr Bassetto, here’s a quotation from Chesterton’s book on Shaw (p. 37):

He is a daring pilgrim who has set out from the grave to find the cradle. He started from points of view which no one else was clever enough to discover, and he is at last discovering points of view which no one else was ever stupid enough to ignore.

I really can’t wait to read his music criticism.