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Some thoughts on Mikis Theodorakis' chamber music (I) - NEW

A.C.A. Members, Themis Zafiropoulos, Philippos Tsalahouris & Babis Blazoudakis
In the program published by Athens State Orchestra on the occasion of Mikis Theodorakis' 80th birthday, Byron Fidetzis, the orchestra's artistic director wrote by way of introduction: Ask any Greek, and he will know who Mikis Theodorakis is. But not many Greeks are familiar with his symphonic works, and even fewer of his compatriots are aware of the fact that he composed chamber music during the fraught 1940's.

This is why Athens State Orchestra, with the support of the New Hellenic Quartet, is focusing its tribute on this relatively unknown part of his complex oeuvre, in the hope of making this aspect of Theodorakis the composer common knowledge as welt.

I belong to the category of listeners who are more familiar with Mikis Theodorakis' symphonic works that with his songs. Since my student days at the conservatory, I have witnessed most of the premieres of his works from 1982 onwards: the 4th Symphony, the oratorio Ta Kata Sadoukeon Pathi (The Sadducean Passion], the opera Kostas Karyotakis etc.

Even for me — and I was familiar with some of the better known chamber music pieces such as the Trio and the Sonatinas for Violin and Piano — the Quartets and Etudes came as a revelation.

If I were called upon to describe them, I would say that what we have here are works of unique, rare and virtually incredible balance. And we are talking about pieces written in times marked by events that had little or nothing to do with music.

A youthful zest expressed with the determination of absolute certainty, extroverted rhetoric and introverted lyricism, a Greek vocabulary built on Western forms, and in general all of the contradictions born from approaching Greek music with tools borrowed from the accomplishments of Western "classical" music, spontaneity and self-control, a pioneering language within classical structures, and, at the same time, classical expressions within progressive forms, head-on collisions of rhythmic and melodic patterns, beauty and deformation, tenderness and violence, light and dark, escape and return. It is no mean feat for a composer to put pencil to paper in this fashion, with the help of nothing but his inner voice, and to do this at such an early stage, thus producing works characterized by what results from the aforesaid pairs of opposites.

Thematic eloquence in a composer's early works, and on top of that, in an area influenced by strict structural molds such as that of the quartet, its language expressed by strings —instruments that must not only appeal to a composer, but also call for a certain amount of expertise- is quite unusual and extremely remarkable.

Another extraordinary fact is that with these works, Theodorakis not only began to build his thematic vocabulary, but rather also found the necessary time and space to try it out and develop it.

The eloquence which distinguishes these works conveys the impression that other works had preceded them. Since this is not the case, these pieces can by rights be referred to as the foundation of the edifice called Mikis Theodorakis, regardless of how it developed over the course of its construction.

There are differences amongst the three quartets. With the exception of the first, comprising three movements, the others consist of a single movement only.

The first quartet, entitled Strofi (Turn, Bend) although clearly the work of a youth, engages the listener with the purity of its material and the fresh approach chosen by the composer to the use of a traditional form.

The second quartet, entitled To Kimitirio (Cemetery), leads us straight to the core of Theodorakis' relation to Modern Greek poetry, offering us one of the best possible examples of music born from verse in the mind of a composer. A brief instrumental piece devoid of words but containing the substance of the poem by Dionysios Solomos, it helps us to grasp the process of transubstantiation from poetry to music.

Cavafy is of equivalent interest, as Theodorakis' choice to avoid setting his words to music and suggest the interesting form of recitation with instrumental accompaniment is more than just unique. It is a musical approach to Cavafy's poetry which remains fascinating to this day.

The third quartet, Oedipus Rex, with its dark introvertedness, in its initial version for string orchestra, is one of this composer's most consummate works. What is so unique about it is that it does not describe its title, as do so many other pieces, but rather focuses the listener's attention on thoughts and emotions of our times, as if Oedipus and his trials and tribulations stood for every conceivable disaster. From the very first time I heard this work, and during the process of its transcription for string quartet, these thoughts inhabited my mind, even though I was unaware of the text written for its premiere:.. .I must say that the Ode is by no means a work with a history, a program or a plan. We are all Oedipus — we Greeks, that is — blinded, ruined, albeit unintentionally, passing from one evil to the next, from one disaster to the next. The composer himself gave the transcription for string quartet the title Nyhtia Epohi (Era of Night), reminding us of the decades that followed upon the lack of light in those years.

The fourth quartet, found on scattered pages requiring extensive editing before it could be performed, is an self-contained chapter of Modern Greek music. Its title is Maza. There is nothing whatsoever it could be compared to, it follows none of the recognized aesthetic paths of its time, save the one that years later bore the name of its creator. The dramatic tension of the development, the emergence of the themes from the dense sound of the strings, the constant renewal of motives and the appearance of something new at precisely the moment when you needed it, although you never expected to — these are just some of the aspects that make up this masterpiece.

I would venture to say that it would not be completely misguided to regard the four quartets as one single major work including much more than the mere intentions of a composer.

The Etudes which followed are so charged by the circumstances under which they were created that they elicit emotions even before one has heard them. Nevertheless, the emotion is even greater afterwards. And this is because all of the features of the contrasts I mentioned earlier when referring to the quartets apply here as well, but exponentially so. Not many artists had the courage to create under such difficult circumstances, to lift their fellow human beings out of the dark over to the bright side of life, and to do so in such a profound way. The Etudes are close to perfection in every respect - instrumental, aesthetic, narrative, morphological and composition technique. The work of a composer who, although he did study the violin for a short time, was not predominantly conversant with string instruments.

By the same token, the Variations for Solo Violin, are a bold undertaking which led to a successful result.

How many works for solo violin do we know from that period? How many works for these types of instrumental ensembles?

It is difficult to distinguish the boundaries of the form of a study which the composer himself refers to in connection with his work, from the need to record his life experience during those years: documents of an era jotted down in a notebook, pure musical thought, a chronicle of events and emotions.

If all of the aforesaid do not constitute sufficient grounds to allow us to welcome these works into the 21st century repertory as masterpieces, then all I can do is urge my readers to listen to them.

Philippos Tsalahouris

Excerpts of the booklet with "Chamber Works" (I) by Mikis Theodorakis

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