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.