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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

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Greece has not been a major factor in European music, though it has produced one major conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960), who himself wrote the first modern Greek opera, Soeur Béatrice (1919), as well as a string quartet and other works, and perhaps the most outstanding soprano of the century, Maria Callas (1923-1977), whose ability to instil the expression of character into a vocal line has never been equalled. The dearth of performing bodies of a sufficient calibre (apart from a period in the 1920s and 1930s when Mitropoulos conducted the Athens Symphony Orchestra), and of companies interested in recording and disseminating modern Greek music has greatly hampered Greek composers, and limited outside knowledge of their work. Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949) has particularly suffered, and his large body of works that developed an expressive version of 12-tone techniques needs to be more widely heard and explored. The elder statesman of modern Greek music was Manolis Kalomiris (1883-1962), who attempted to create a Greek nationalism with Romantic means, most obviously in his sumptuous but over-obvious Symphony No.1 `Levendia' (1918-1920), influenced by his stay in Russia (1906-1910). A prolific composer, his activities as a teacher were perhaps more important: he founded two conservatories. Mikis Theodorakis (born 1925) became instantly famous for his colourful score for the film Zorba the Greek (1963); his concert works, after early orchestral and ballet suites on Greek subjects, have attempted a fusion of popular elements drawn from pop music and Greek and North African folk sources, which while often appealing lie in a similar relation to classical music as the Broadway musical does to opera. He has been politically active, being imprisoned by the `colonel's regime' (1967-1970), and more recently serving as a member of the Greek Parliament and Minister without portfolio. The works of Jani Christou (1926-1970) include large-scale religious pieces with ritualistic tendencies.

However, Greece can claim one composer who has had a profound influence on European music through his personal, intellectually rigorous and complex, but sonorously arresting avant-garde works. Iannis Xenakis (born 1922) has lived in France since 1947, working with the architect Le Corbusier in addition to his compositional activities until 1960. His major intellectual contribution has been the demonstration that modern mathematical principles could be the foundation of a plastic and immediate musical idiom; his major musical contribution a personal vision of the avant-garde that has an immediate physical impact on more general, rather than specialist, audiences.






born 8th March 1904 at Chalkis (Halkis), Euboea

died 19th August 1949 at Athens


It is still very difficult to gain a full idea of the overall worth of the music of Nicos Skalkottas, but he has a remarkable reputation with those fortunate enough to encounter a large cross-section of his output. His obscurity is partly due to the strange circumstances of his life. Having already produced atonal works in the early 1920s, he then from 1927 to 1931 studied with Schoenberg, who considered him one of his most talented pupils. In 1933 he returned to Athens, and there played violin in various orchestras, completely cut off from any subsequent developments in European music, his own works unheard. After his death a very large number of compositions were found (his output totals over 150 works); taking their point of departure from his studies with Schoenberg, they developed a personal and isolated form of techniques derived from 12-tone methods, managing to combine it with a sense of tradition (he also wrote a number of more traditional works, such as the Thirty-Six Greek Dances, 1936, for orchestra, that echo Greek folk music).

After his study with Schoenberg, his output falls into periods. From 1928 to 1938 his works follow a strict 12-tone system, though those written after his return to Athens are more spacious. From 1938 he started to vary the strict techniques and add modifications of his own, and his works became longer. In place of a single row he developed multiple rows, as many as four interacting at any given moment, creating a rich polyphonic counterpoint and luxurious sonorities. These rows are often subdivided, producing considerable possibilities of variation, though Skalkottas avoided those that would be aurally too complex (such as inversion and transposition). His overall structures are often developed from traditional sonata form; the use of flowing melodies drawn from the rows (as opposed to more jagged or pointillistic lines) and sometimes a sense of a tonal centre in writing that is never tonal, are two of the elements that create a link with tradition. In his final period (1946-1949), when he concentrated on a small number of chamber pieces, his idiom became freer, without obvious tone-rows, and the emotional colours darker. Energetic rhythms play an important role, and are not systematized. The overall idiom has often been described as having a Mediterranean sense of colour and lucidity, and the richness of sound and use of more flowing melodic lines has been compared with that of Berg.

Of a number of major orchestral works, The Return of Ulysses (1942-1943), and intended as an overture to an opera on the same subject, has a high reputation, while the Symphonic Suite No.2 (1944-1949) is on a monumental scale, in six movements and lasting an hour-and-a-half. These orchestral works are almost impossible to encounter, and this aspect of Skalkottas badly needs to be recorded and disseminated. Thirty-Six Greek Dances (1936) is the best known orchestral work, but, delightful though it is, it is not representative of Skalkottas's main concerns. More likely to be heard are a handful of his more than 50 chamber works, or piano pieces that follow the general changes of style outlined above. The graceful Octet (1931) for four winds and four strings was discovered in the shop of a Berlin music dealer, while the String Quartet No.3 (1935) follows the strict organization and methods of Schoenberg.

There is a Skalkottas Society in Athens, which has published some of his works.


works include:

- symphony for wind instruments; sinfonietta

- cello concerto; double-bass concerto; 3 piano concertos; violin concerto; concerto for two violins; concerto for violin and viola; concerto for wind instruments and other concertos

- Thirty-Six Greek Dances, overture The Return of Ulysses, 2 Symphonic Suites and other works for orch.; Little Suite and Ten Musical Sketches for strings

- sonata for solo violin; sonatina and Little Serenade for cello and piano; 4 violin sonatinas; Duo for violin and cello; Variations on a Greek Folk Tune for piano trio; 4 string quartets; Nine Greek Dances for string quartet; octet for winds and strings

- The Unknown Soldier for chorus and orch. and other choral works; cantatas; songs

- ballets Death and the Maiden and La Mer

- `fairy drama' With the Spell of May


recommended works:

So relatively rare are performances or recordings of Skalkottas's music, especially in the context of his large output, that any encountered are recommended as a sample of the music of this unusual composer.



N.Skalkottas The Technique of Orchestration, 1940 (in Greek)



born 29th May 1922 at Braïla, Rumania

died 4th February 2001 at Paris


Among all the avant-garde composers who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, Xenakis's music has been among the most difficult to grasp intellectually (unless one is a mathematician), but among the most immediate in terms of aural appreciation by a non-specialist audience. He was born in Rumania of Greek parents, moved to Greece in 1932, and lived in France from 1947, becoming a French citizen in 1965. Since much of his music includes Greek titles (and references to Greek myths or concepts), and since there is throughout an element of sonority and ritual that feels redolent more of a Greek than a French atmosphere, it seems appropriate to include this entry under his country of origin.

Xenakis' methods were his own, and partly reflect his prominent parallel career as an architect. Many of the initiating ideas and subsequent construction of his works were based on mathematical or physical models not normally associated with music (from Boolean algebra to the Kinetic Theory of Gases), but which he transferred to musical structure (Xenakis has regularly used a computer to aid the evolution of the mathematical/musical structures). The details of these methods and models, except perhaps the area of probability theory, are not necessary for an immediate appreciation of the music, fascinating though they are and recommended to anyone who has already enjoyed Xenakis' individual musical approach. The word applied mathematically to probabilities is `stochastic': that in any defined model an allowance must be made for the element of chance or randomness, and that in a random and chaotic set of elements the laws of probability allow for a combination of elements that is neither random nor chaotic (the most famous and extreme example is that a monkey, given enough time on a typewriter, will eventually and randomly type a combination of letters that are a Shakespeare sonnet). Xenakis consistently used these principles, especially after the advent of the computer, but it must be stressed that (unlike some of his contemporaries) his music is not aleatoric in the sense of chance occurring randomly and uncontrolled during performance.

The connection between architecture and music surfaced in Metastasis (1953-1954), written for 61 instrumentalists in 61 parts, and the only Xenakis work with serial elements. It is primarily composed of glissandi, whose continual divergence in many parts sets up a constantly shifting weave of sound, dominated by the sonorities; that divergence from the horizontal inspired Xenakis' design for Le Corbusier's Brussels Pavilion in 1958 (see also the entry on Varèse, who wrote the music for the pavilion) and the structures are geometrically systematised, using the Golden Section. The work resembles in its sounds an electronic score, intentionally, as Xenakis wanted to show that the same sound world could be produced by an orchestra. The effects of sonorities, with clusters and very high string effects, were further explored in Pithoprakta (translatable as `actions by probabilities', 1955-1956) for 46 strings, two trombones, xylophone and wood block, with interesting percussion sounds that look forward to his later work, and an inherent contrast between glissandi and pizzicati, and in Acchoripsis (1956-1957, meaning jets of sound) for twenty-one instruments. Acchoripsis further developed composition using stochastic techniques, but the refinement of the idea came with the use of an IBM computer in the composition of ST/10 (1956-1963) for ten instruments (ST standing for `stochastic', 10 for the number of instruments), more likely to be encountered in its version for string quartet, ST/4. The rich sonorities and potent energy of Syrmos (1959) for eighteen strings are based on transformations of eight base textures, including glissandi and `clouds of pizzicati', with a mathematical structure and swooping and gliding effects.

At the end of this period Xenakis wrote a number of purely electronic scores, of importance mainly for the kinds of sounds that Xenakis then wished to emulate with purely orchestral forces. Indeed, Bohor I (1962) sounds like his orchestral scores of the period, with the same sense of teeming life, the sound of a huge bell engulfing all else, and closing with roars of a hundred thousand voices that turn to a kind of storm, with sheet rain, as if played by a rain-sound machine. The earlier Diamorphoses II (1957) also has those storm-like sonorities, but offset by delicate sounds and glissandi in a memorable combination that makes this short piece one of the more effective examples of the genre in the period. Concert P-H II (1958) was written for the Le Corbusier Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Expo, acting as a prelude to music by Varèse, and is composed of delicate sounds, like the tinkling of hundreds of shards of glass.

From 1959 Xenakis increasingly concentrated on composition (as opposed to architectural activities), notably in a number of large-scale orchestral works in which the exploration of sonority is the immediate element. In Terretektorh (1965-1966) for orchestra each of the 88 musicians (dispersed in the audience) has three percussion instruments in addition to their own instruments. With its wonderful opening, long held strands of sounds, percussive clickings, whistles, and sonorities like the croaking of massed frogs, it has a powerful earthy energy. Nomos Gamma (1967-1968), for an orchestra of 98 musicians again dispersed in the audience, creates layers of event, using overlapping swathes of brass strands against other instruments, and held periods of a given colour, often with high harmonics against the crash of percussion. The summit of these orchestral works, Kraanerg (1968-1969) for orchestra and tape, is a huge piece, whose title signifies accomplishment combined with energy, and reflects the biological and cultural diversity, as well as the potential for conflict, that the modern explosion of the human population implies. With its swathes of sonorities ranging from deep sounds to extreme woodwinds, and the orchestra supporting the huge soundscape of the electronic tape, this monumental work teems with harsh life, like an industrial landscape threatening to overwhelm with grinding inevitability.

Meanwhile Xenakis had written two works with voices on classical Greek subjects that form an effective pair, whose immediate idiom make them a possible introduction to Xenakis's music. Oresteia (1965-1966) for chorus, children's chorus and twelve instruments, opens as a kind of primitive ritual, with clashing elemental sounds joined by reedy woodwind. The voices amplify the ritual by using chant-like lines, against small orchestral figures, creating a clarity of texture. Through the four sections this basic pattern gradually gets more complex, the events more pronounced and brittle, so that by the end it arrives at rich and complex textures, with massed voices, comparable to the immediately preceding orchestral works. It includes the use of a percussion instrument (either wooden or metal) of Xenakis's own invention, the simantra. Medea (1967) for male voice choir, pebbles and orchestra is equally ritualistic, now with heavy, pounding isolated deep drums, twists of orchestral strands, held fanfare-like sounds, and ritualistic declamatory vocal lines, eventually giving away to a primitive dance.

The ritualistic was also combined with spectacle in a number of monumental and arresting works designed for specific sites, some out-of-doors. The raucous and short (six-minute) Le Polytope de Montréal (1967) for four orchestras spread around the audience, was written for the Montréal Expo, and was combined with architectural light effects in the French Pavilion. Hibiki Hana Ma (1970) for 12 tape channels was written for a laser-beam spectacle at the Osaka Expo, and Polytope de Cluny (1971) for six hundred flashes, three laser-beams and seven tape channels for the Paris Autumn Festival. The culmination of this strand in Xenakis's music were two spectacular site-specific works written for the Persepolis Festival in Iran. Persephassa (1969) is for six percussionists, a full length tour-de-force of overlapping rhythms and sonorities with a pounding, monumental hue requiring great virtuosity. Deep drum sounds, usually struck with slight overlaps, dominate the opening and close of the work, but these are juxtaposed with and taken over by very delicate high tinklings, wood-blocks, high siren-whistles, and the metallic sounds of the simantra. By the end all coalesce into a long and exciting accelerando. Persephassa, with its clear unfolding of event, combines a primitive, elemental sound-world with sophisticated utterance in one of Xenakis's most arresting works. Persépolis (1971), subtitled `We bear the light of the earth', is electronic, and was originally combined with staged and lighting effects in the ruins of the palace of Darius in the city of the title. It is not difficult to imagine the effect of this dense and often harsh work in its original setting, but too much is lost taking it out of context.

The possibilities of purely percussive works were further explored in the catchy Psappha (1975) for solo percussion, with effects similar to the opening and to the accelerando dance of Persephassa, except that a gamelan-like section of tuned percussion bursts in to end the work. The title refers to the poetess Sappho, and rhythm, rather than percussive colours, is the primary concern. The attractive Pleïades (1978-1979) for six percussionists, wide-ranging in its colours, has proved one of his most enduring works, with unexpectedly jazzy sounds emerging briefly in the third movement (titled `Claviers'), using the keyboard percussion. Meanwhile, he had written one of the most difficult of all harpsichord pieces, the frenetic Khoaï-Xoai (1976) for amplified harpsichord, requiring, among other virtuosities, complex polyrhythms (7/8 against 9/8) and one hand sometimes to play both keyboards simultaneously.

In later works, Xenakis played down the complex vertical textures and sonorities in favour of a more linear flow, with what would seem to be the experience gained in the purely percussion pieces. The title of Aïs (1981) for baritone, percussion and orchestra is the classical Greek word for Hades, and the work is a setting of fragments of Homer (Ulysses visiting the land of the dead, and the death of Patrocles) and Sappho (longing for death). The writing for the baritone, often in falsetto, suggests an equation between the ecstasies of love and those of death; it is supported by the linear rhythms of the percussion, and by the flow of the orchestra. The result is a work, drawing its antecedents from the ritualistic elements of the classical Greek vocal works of the 1960s and the rhythmic patterns from the percussion works, that is more amenable to those unused to modern avant-garde music than Xenakis's earlier works. Kekrops (1985) for piano and orchestra includes the rich, complex, and dense orchestral sonorities so typical of Xenakis, but also a very strong linear pulse, and a kind of linear lyricism in some of the melodic patterns. The opening and close suggest B flat minor, and Xenakis uses scales in those melodic patterns that become aurally recognizable through the work. Some of the sonorities have a more direct lucidity than earlier works, and this powerful music, the soloist and orchestra often in opposition, has a direct impact. Sections of Exchange (1989) for bass clarinet and wind, brass and string announced a further departure in Xenakis' style. Although informed by Xenakis' experience in handling sonorities, and by the occasional extreme effect from the soloist, mathematical construction and complex rhythms are abandoned for music rich in swathes of sonority. There are passages with diatonic harmonies and recognizable tunes, and a slow progression and a general simplicity in its opening, although its builds up to more dissonant and complex material. At one point a resounding E-flat major chord leads to a passage reminiscent of Messiaen.

Xenakis's particular achievement was to introduce new possibilities of sonorities and sound-combinations into 20th-century music. Its effect has a sculptural quality, aurally tactile, and it has been pointed out that this comes from the strong visual sense of the architect. More than most avant-garde composers, this sound-world can be appreciated simply for those qualities, for the often harsh but usually exciting physical impact of the sound, based on its unusual but secure methods of construction.

Xenakis founded the school of Mathematical and Automated Music in Paris in 1966, and a similar department at the University of Indiana in 1967. He worked with the resistance in Greece in the Second World War, losing an eye and being condemned to death.


works include:

- Erikhthon, Kekrops and Synaphaï for piano and orch.

- Empreintes, Hiketides, Jonchaies, Kraanerg (with tape), Lichens I, Metastasis, Nomos Gamma, Noomena, Pithoprakta, Polytope de Montréal, ST/48, Terretktorh for orch.; Duel and Stratégie for 2 orchestras; Pour les baleines and Shaar for strings

- Akanthos for 8 instruments; Anaktoria for 8 instruments; Atrées for 10 instruments; ST/10 for 10 instruments; Amorsima-Morsima for 10 instruments; palimpsest for 11 instruments; Phlegra for 11 instruments; Acchoripsis for 21 instruments

- Analogique A et B for 9 strings and tape; Aroua for 12 strings; Retours-Windgungen for 12 cellos; Syrmos for 18 strings; Akrata for 16 wind;

- Nomos Alpha for solo cello; Keren for solo trombone; Mikka and Mikka "S" for solo violin; Charisma for clarinet and cello; Ikhoor for string trio; ST/4 and Tetras for string quartet; Morsima-Amorsima for piano, violin, cello and double-bass; Eonta for piano and 5 brass; Khal perr for percussion and 5 brass; Epei for 6 instruments; Persephassa and Pleïades for 6 percussion

- Evryali, Herma and Mists for piano; Khoaï-Xoai and Namma for harpsichord

- Aïs for baritone, percussion and orch.

- Anemoessa, Cendrées and Nekuia for chorus and orch.; Chant des soleils for chorus, children's chorus, 12 brass and percussion; A Colone for male chorus and 18 instruments; Media for male chorus and 5 instruments; Oresteia for chorus, children's chorus, and 12 instruments; Polla ta dhina for children's voices and 12 instruments; Pour la paix for chorus and tape; A Helene for female chorus; Nuits for 12 voices; Serment-Okos for chorus

- electronic Bohor, Concret P-H, Diamorphoses, Hibiki Hana Ma and Orient-Occident


recommended works:

Aïs (1981) for baritone, percussion and orchestra

electronic Diamorphoses II (1957)

Kekrops (1985) for piano and orchestra

Kraanerg (1968-1969) for orchestra and tape

Medea (1967) for male voice choir, pebbles and orchestra

Nomos Gamma (1967-1968) for orchestra

Oresteia (1965-1966) for chorus, children's chorus and 12 instruments

Pleïedes (1978-1979) for six percussionists

Psappha (1975) for solo percussion

Persephassa (1969) for six percussionists

Syrmos (1959) for 18 strings

Terretektorh (1965-1966) for orchestra



I.Xenakis Formalized Music, 1971



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