“Our wealth is not found in a bank account. Our wealth lies in education and culture.”*
“In my view, music is the art form that best captures the quintessence of human existence. It is rightly called the ‘staple food of the human soul’.”
Each melodic world has its own roots. Traces of German folk songs can clearly be heard in melodies by Mozart, Schubert and Brahms. Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky were influenced by Russian folk music. Baltic composers use their musical heritage in a way that is both modern and firmly rooted in tradition – contemporary composers such as Pēteris Vasks and Erkki-Sven Tüür have developed styles that strike a balance between tradition and modernity and combine first-hand experiences of nature with a deep awareness of cultural heritage.
So what musical roots does a Greek composer have? The legacy is clear: Greek composers carry the world of Hellenism inside them. The fruit from the ancient tree of European music provided their education. Greece’s music scene is made up of highly diverse musical currents which composers respond to in very different ways. Is this a sign of fundamental change combined with an awareness of cultural roots?
Musical genius does not just express itself through composers, but also in the form of melodic manifestations. Developed over the course of centuries, folk music is essentially made up of countless melodies. Its second element is rhythm, which is often based on dance. The melodies and rhythms of folk music vary between nations and historical periods.
But they are always based on human sensibilities, and they play on the most tender strings of human emotion. They offer food for the imagination and give shape to our mental world. The human soul needs this nourishment. But people’s understanding of the vital role of music is no longer a given in modern society.
“In an age when shepherds have replaced their pipes with transistor radios, people underrate the way in which art in general and music in particular provide food for the soul.
I firmly believe that no other art form comes as close to a miracle as the primordial melody. Why do certain melodies, intervals and rhythms move us while others leave us cold? Why do some melodies survive the test of time while others are forgotten almost as soon as they are composed? Why does one sequence of notes awaken feelings of joy and exuberance, while another evokes pain and despair?
There is only one answer to these questions: a melody’s truth and authenticity merge with human emotions in an organic way. That is why a melody that carries psychological and emotional meaning can shake us to the core. And that is nothing but a miracle – as much of a miracle as the birth of life, be it that of a plant or a highly developed human.”
Mikis Theodorakis is considered to be Greece’s foremost contemporary composer.
He was a key figure in Greek cultural policy in the early 1990s, when he acted as a government minister and was subsequently appointed General Musical Director of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation’s symphony orchestra and choir.
Born on 29 July 1925 as the son of a composer, he joined the resistance movement against the German and Italian occupation during the Second World War and was arrested and tortured. In 1947, he was sent into exile on the island of Icaria near Chios for being a communist.
Once again, he was subjected to horrific torture. After being released, he started composing in the mid 1950s and discovered Greek folk music. The score for the film Zorba the Greek made him world famous in 1964. Theodorakis was arrested once again following the 1967 military coup. International protests led to his release in 1970. While in exile in France, he became the main symbol of a democratic Greece.
His return to his home country following the fall of the junta in 1974 sealed his status as a national hero. In the mid 1990s, he began focusing exclusively on his artistic work as a composer and conductor. Nevertheless, he plays a central role in bringing contemporary music to a wider audience, both in his own country and in Europe. His credo:
“I respect today’s listeners and try to understand them – this applies to all listeners, but especially to Greek audiences. And I can see that their general musical education is not sufficient to enable them to identify with ‘absolute’ forms of music. That is why I base my music on ‘living’ poetic texts that help listeners to understand the content of the work by listening to words and their logic. These texts help me in two ways: First, I feel that the musical ideas flow more freely from the poetic atmosphere of a text. Second, they allow me to use the human voice (in chorus or solo), which I consider to be a valuable, if not indispensable, medium in the dialogue between music and today’s average listener.”
At this time (2006), Theodorakis clearly separated musical developments into two spheres: the first includes music referred to as “folklore”, which is understood to mean traditional, local, ethnic music from days gone by. This definition – especially the latter part – does not apply to Greek music. In Greece, “folk songs” are not passed down through the generations; they are living songs by well-known composers – a far cry from the latest popular songs written for entertainment and dancing; the short-lived hits whose sole raison d’être is to support the entertainment industry.
“Because they are pure escapism to help people forget their worries, I like to call them ‘songs of oblivion’. Greek folk songs, on the other hand, are ‘songs of remembrance’. Like the German lieder, they are the works of important poets.”
In other words, Greece has a living musical tradition on a high aesthetic level. But what form does it take? Does it find its specific niche at the crossroads between music and language? Is it a new form of the song?
Songs are still alive among the Greek population. If the purpose of music is to express deep human emotions and bring exquisite musical pleasure, the Greek song has in recent years managed to turn Greece into an imaginary concert hall in which several hundred melodic works of art are played to the whole nation. Even in the most unexpected of places, you encounter people who listen to and sing texts by great contemporary poets, two of whom are Nobel laureates.
“This musical reality must seem incomprehensible to those who believe that the only valid form of music is the rarefied kind that is played in concert halls, in front of an exclusive audience. But to me, this refined form – to come back to the two spheres – actually belongs to the second sphere of music. But because in Greece, the song is the only musical form that exists in the first sphere, that of contemporary folk music, the only way of reaching the second sphere without moving away from this living form of music is to look for new forms that are compatible with it.”
These are the words of a composer who is in quest of a new, contemporary Greek form, which he intends to create in a gradual progression from the simple to the complex. This development became apparent in his song cycles, which he divided into seven major categories.
They included series of separate, stylistically loosely connected folk songs (type I) and poetic and musical works that moved away from the strict stylistics of the folk song whilst remaining as close as possible to the underlying forms of folk music (type II) – an example of this type is the song “Thakrysmena matia” from the cycle Lipotaktes. Theodorakis subsequently attempted to create a revue-like style performed as musical drama (lyrical theatre), contemporary tragedy, and an own form of “metasymphonic music”.
What followed were works of strict poetic and musical synthesis with folk music based on free verse and a clear distancing from folk songs (type III) that freed themselves to form “flow songs”, achieving a break from all forms of folk music and contributing to the evolution of modern Greek melodics by creating and developing all its main elements. These melodics are based on great works of poetry in free verse. Each song is significantly longer than a traditional folk song.
In this form, Theodorakis’s work is based on a holistic combination of poetry, song, dance, and instrumental music – an articulation of what is quintessentially human, in full awareness of the senses, unbroken – on the idea expressed by the term ‘musiké’.
This term encapsulates the characteristics of works by the ancient Greeks and the associated intellectual capacity. It cannot be translated as ‘music’ or ‘poetry’, nor can it be domesticated; grammatically, it is not a noun but an adjective, which can roughly be rendered as ‘artistic’ or ‘relating to the muses’. Musiké expressed itself as a process, an activity; not as a finished work.
At this point, the virtual dialogue with a composer who has left traces of his cultural identity in contemporary musical life and whose thinking puts an intensifying focus on questions relating to the structure and development of the musical establishment returns to its point of departure. What value do we currently attach to music? Do we measure its worth, note value for note value? How are changing circumstances shaping the way we think about music’s influence on society?
Philosophical reflections on music are almost as old as philosophy itself. The reasons for this are manifold: In ancient times, music played a central role in education, rituals and medicine. Its numerical structure inspired a certain mathematical fascination. Not least, its huge impact is reflected in all ancient sources, ranging from the Pythagoreans, whose cosmology linked music’s mathematical order to the cosmic order and recommended music as a stabilising remedy and educational tool, to Plato’s Republic, according to which the use of music should be strictly regulated to serve the state, to Aristotle’s theory of mimesis (as set out in his Poetics and, specifically with reference to music, in Book VIII of his Politics), which identifies and legitimises the cathartic and homoeopathic effects of music, to the Hellenistic treatise De Musica by Aristides Quintilianus, the only surviving text to provide a comprehensive insight into the status of and the various opinions on music in ancient Greece.
What all these writings have in common is the underlying belief that music has a profound effect on the emotions which, depending on the writer’s attitude, can be either dangerous or beneficial, but which is always eminently powerful. An atmosphere of melancholy lightness runs through the musical programme of “The Sound of Europe, Part III: Greece”, with works by Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, Eleni Karaindrou, and other artists.
The ancient Greek term “hé musiké” originally described a synthesis of language, sound and dance that only gradually separated into different concepts. In Aristotle’s day, the term still usually referred to this triad, even though it is sometimes not entirely clear whether he is invoking only the melodic aspect of music (for example in Book VIII of Politics, 6, 1340).
However, rhythmos and melos (in other words, music in the modern sense) are always made responsible for the medical, educational and ritual effect of “musiké” that purifies, controls or stimulates the emotions, just as the Pythagoreans thought they could detect the cosmic numerical order of music in its intervals and tempos. For all these reasons, it seems fair to identify Greek thinking as the source of music philosophy in the modern sense.
All quotations from Meine Stellung in der Musikszene (essays by and interviews with Mikis Theodorakis), Reclam, Leipzig 1984
*Interview by Georg Hermann, F.A.Z. 21 April 2009