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.


6 thoughts on “The Renaissance That Never Happened

  1. You might want to be more specific and say that you’re referring to Greek *orchestral* composers. Or Greek *classical* composers.

    Because I haven’t heard the V word yet… Vangelis. He is a composer, after all.


    1. He is indeed, but sadly not a particularly good one. Although my judgement is admittedly somewhat impaired thanks to the shame I feel for my prog rock youth, which included, among other weaknesses, a love of Aphrodite’s Child…


  2. “Why did Constantinople get the works?
    That’s nobody’s business but the Turks….”

    I think that there is probably a real sense in which you are right about the dearth of Greek ‘classical music’ being due to ‘the Turks’, so to speak. After the fall of Constantinople and the collapse of the Roman Empire in the East, many (you would have to consult the historians for anything more precise than that) of those who fled from the East to refuges in the West were artists, artisans and craftsmen, poets, musicians, what we would call ‘the intelligentsia’– the best and the brightest who were able to escape, many of them did, to the enrichment of the Renaissance but the impoverishment of Greek culture. When once political independence had been gained in the 19th c, what sources were the Greeks to use? think of all of the West’s music history down to the 1830s (Palestrina, Victoria, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Handel…); while I don’t suppose that there was a total non-reception of Western music in Ottoman Greece I very much doubt that outside of Athens or Thessaloniki or a few other port cities any ordinary intelligent or musically-inclined Greek person heard much of it– perhaps apart from, as you mentioned, in the former outposts of the Venetian Empire or (even more speculatively) the several other places formerly ruled by the Crusader princes. From pan-pipes to Messiaen in 175 years would represent a vast development to be surprised at rather than expected, I think– and that period was marred by two world wars and who knows how many revolutions and similar unpleasant events disruptive of the peace, along with mass movements of people from Anatolia. I suspect that describing the Islamic occupation of parts of the Iberian peninsula as ‘trouble with the Ottomans’ is, hmm, perhaps too much of shorthand– one suspects (but does not know) that there are massive tomes elucidating the differences and similarities between the history of the Umayyids in Iberia and the Ottomans in Greece and the Balkans. The Kalomiris is pleasant enough, sure, and it beats Vangelis and Xenakis all to heck, but what virtues are not much earth-shattering, I think.


  3. Marc, thank you so much for the comment — insightful as ever! (I apologise for the delayed and possibly insubstantial response, but I am thoroughly distracted at the moment with job and family…)

    I too share your doubt that we can hardly have expected such a quick evolution in Greek classical music, but then I think of Taleb and wonder if a ‘black swan’ event would have made it possible. We can now assuredly say that Greece’s tumultuous history diminished the chances of great classical music emerging, but it was pretty unlikely that a Takemitsu would emerge in Japan, a Charles Ives in America — blimey, even Bach’s 19th century revival and current popularity was far from inevitable.

    Yes, unfortunately I rather soon became bored exploring Kalomiris.


  4. The comparison with Spain is interesting, I think. The Christian monarchs of northern Spain fought for centuries to oust the Muslim rulers of the south. By 1492 they had succeeded and the glories of Spanish music were soon to follow. In Greece, alas, freedom was long in coming and it was not the result of the local population winning a war of independence, but of European powers intervening to push back the Ottoman empire. This process went on throughout the 19th century and didn’t finish until the end of the First World War. No wonder there is hardly any classical music tradition in Greece!


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