Nikos Skalkottas (Greek: Nίκος Σκαλκώτας) (21 March 1904 – 19 September 1949) was one of the most important Greek composers of 20th-century music. A member of the Second Viennese School, he drew his influences from both the classical repertoire and the Greek tradition.
Commemorative plate in Berlin.
Skalkottas was born in Chalcis on the island of Euboea, to a poor family said to have been folk musicians and marble carvers. He started violin lessons with his father and uncle Kostas Skalkottas at the age of five, at about the same time as his family moved to Athens. He continued studying violin with Tony Schulze at the Athens Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1920 with a diploma of high distinction. The following year a scholarship from the Averoff Foundation enabled him to study abroad. From 1921 to 1933 he lived in Berlin, where he first took violin lessons at the Prussian Academy of Arts with Willy Hess. Deciding in 1923 to give up his career as a violinist and become a composer, he studied composition with Robert Kahn, Paul Juon, Kurt Weill and Philipp Jarnach. Between 1927 and 1930 he was a member of Arnold Schoenberg's Masterclass in Composition at the Academy of Arts, where his fellow pupils included Marc Blitzstein, Roberto Gerhard and Norbert von Hannenheim. Skalkottas had been living for several years with the violinist Mathilde Temko; they had two children, though only the second, a daughter, survived infancy. In 1930 Skalkottas devoted considerable effort to having some of his works performed in Athens, but they were met with incomprehension, and even in Berlin his few performances did not make much better headway. In 1931 he seems to have had a personal and artistic crisis: his relationship with Temko came to an end and he is also reported to have fallen out with Schoenberg, though the nature of their disagreement is unclear and Schoenberg continued to rate him highly as a composer. In any event Skalkottas seems to have composed nothing for at least two years.
In 1933 he returned to Athens, intending to stay a few months and then return to Berlin. However he was unable to obtain a fresh passport (apparently because he had never done military service) and in fact remained in Greece for the rest of his life. Among the various possessions he left behind were a large number of manuscripts; many of these were then lost or destroyed (although some were found in a secondhand bookshop in 1954). In Athens Skalkottas sought other means of funding through scholarships or paid work as an orchestral player, but he was quickly disillusioned with the state of musical affairs in Athens at the time. Until his death he earned a living as a back-desk violinist in the Athens Conservatory, Radio and Opera orchestras. In the mid-1930s he worked at the Folk Music Archive in Athens, and did transcriptions of Greek folk songs into western-music scores for the musicologist Melpo Merlier.
As a composer he worked alone, but wrote prolifically, mainly in his very personal post-Schoenbergian idiom that had little chance of being comprehended by the Greek musical establishment. He did secure some performances, especially of some of the Greek Dances and a few of his more tonal works, but the vast bulk of his music went unheard. During the German occupation of Greece he was placed in an internment camp for some months. In 1946 he married the pianist Maria Pangali; they had two sons. In 1949, at the age of 45 and shortly before the birth of his second son, he died of what appears to have been the rupture of a neglected common hernia, leaving some symphonic works with incomplete orchestration, and many completed works that were given posthumous premieres.
Nikos Skalkottas and DImitris Mitropoulos
Skalkottas' early works, most of which he wrote in Berlin, are lost, as are some of those written in Athens. The earliest of his works available to us today date from 1922–24; these are piano compositions as well as the orchestration of Cretan Feast by Dimitris Mitropoulos. Among the works written in Berlin are the sonata for solo violin, several works for piano, chamber music and some symphonic works. Although during the period 1931-1934 Skalkottas did not compose anything, he resumed composing in Athens and continued until his death. His output comprised symphonic works (36 Greek Dances, the symphonic overture The Return of Ulysses, the fairy drama Mayday Spell, the Second Symphonic Suite, the ballet The Maiden and Death, works for wind orchestra and several concertos), chamber, vocal and instrumental works including the huge cycle of 32 Piano Pieces.
Besides his musical work, Skalkottas compiled an important theoretical work, consisting of several "musical articles", a Treatise on Orchestration, musical analyses etc. Skalkottas soon shaped his personal features of musical writing so that any influence of his teachers was soon assimilated creatively in a manner of composition that is absolutely personal and recognizable.
Skalkottas's short life seems to symbolise the special vulnerability of the Schoenberg pupil whose musical roots lay a little outside Austro-Germanic traditions. Throughout his career Skalkottas remained faithful to the neo-classical ideals of Neue Sachlichkeit and 'absolute music' proclaimed in Europe in the 1925. Already in Berlin he was taking an interest in jazz and at the same time developing a very personal form of the twelve-note method, making use of not one but several tone-rows in a work and organizing these rows to define different thematic and harmonic areas. (For example, the Largo Sinfonico employs no less than 16 twelve-tone rows.) Like Schoenberg, he persistently cultivated classical forms (such as sonata, variations, suite), but his worklist is divided between atonal, twelve-tone and tonal works, all three categories spanning his entire composing career. Such apparent heterogeneity could have been intensified by a love of Greek folk music. The most striking example of his commitment to Greek folk music is the series of 36 Greek Dances composed for orchestra between 1931 and 1936, arranged for various different ensembles in the ensuing years and in part radically reorchestrated in 1948-49. About two-thirds of these dances are based on genuine Greek folk themes from different parts of the Greek mainland and islands, but the other third use material of Skalkottas's own composition in folk style.
Nevertheless, he remained sceptical of the attempts of his Greek contemporaries to integrate folk music into the modern symphonic style, and only juxtaposed and mixed folk, atonal and 12-note styles in a few works such as the incidental music to Christos Evelpides's 1943 fairy-tale drama Mayday Spell. Skalkottas was evidently reluctant to deploy the kind of structural and stylistic tensions that would have betrayed the integrationist ideals of his Schoenbergian inheritance. This could be seen (in terms of a comprehensive connecting impulse) as a link between the Second Viennese, Busoni, Stravinsky and Bartókian schools. Around 1945 he seems to have reappraised his aesthetic direction to some extent and written several works in a more conventionally tonal idiom - many of these have key-signatures, for instance. Yet the general level of dissonance is not significantly lessened. Skalkottas was able to draw diverse and in some ways conflicting threads together and not to compromise, rather to enhance, his own originality, range and power of expression.
It was only after his death that Skalkottas' music began to be played, published or critically estimated to a great extent, partly due to the efforts of friends and disciples such as John G. Papaioannou.
In 1988 a short documentary (60 mins) about his life and work was filmed with funding from the local authorities of Skalkottas' birthplace (the isle of Evia) as well as the Greek Ministry of Culture.
In recent years, the Swedish record label BIS records has been recording and releasing his works on CD and SACD.
List of Works (selective)
Symphonic Suite No. 1 (1929)
36 Greek Dances (1931–36; new orchestrations of many dances made 1949, and individual numbers arranged for other ensembles – see e.g. String Orchestra)
Overture (often called Symphony) The Return of Ulysses (c.1942)
Symphonic Suite No. 2 (1944-6; 1949; orchestration unfinished; the movements listed have been performed as separate works)
1. Overtüre Concertante
4. Largo Sinfonico
5. Tema con variazioni (orchestration unfinished)
Classical Symphony for wind orchestra (1947)
Ancient Greek March (1947) (not orchestrated)
Four Images (1948; orchestrated from movements of ballet The Land and sea of Greece)
Sinfonietta in B flat minor (1948-9)
Greek Dance in C minor (1949? – unrelated to the 36 Greek Dances)
Concerto Grosso for wind orchestra (1928–31) (lost)
Concerto for violin, piano and chamber orchestra (1930)
Piano Concerto No.1 (1931)
Concertino for 2 pianos and orchestra (1935)
Piano Concerto No.2 (1937)
Violin Concerto (1938)
Cello Concerto (1938) (lost)
Piano Concerto No.3 (for piano and 10 wind instruments) (1939)
Concerto for violin, viola and large wind orchestra (1940–42)
Double Bass Concerto (1942)
Concerto for 2 violins (1944-5) (not orchestrated)
Piano Concertino (1948-9)
Nocturne-Divertimento for xylophone and orchestra (1949)
The Maiden and Death (1938, revised 1946)
The Gnomes (1939) (partly based on piano pieces by Bartok and Stravinsky)
Island Images, ballet suite (1943) (not orchestrated)
The Beauty with the Rose (1946)
The Land and the Sea of Greece (1947-8) (not orchestrated except first four movements as Four Images)
The Sea (1948–49)
3 Greek Dances (1936)
7 Greek Dances (1936)
10 Sketches (c.1940)
Little Suite for strings (1942)
Mayday Spell, a Fairy Drama for soprano, speakers and orchestra(1944; 1949)
Henry V, incidental music for Athens Radio (1947-8)
Sonata for solo violin (1925)
String Quartet (1926) (lost)
String Trio (1926) (lost)
String Quartet No.1 (1928)
Sonatina No.1 for violin and piano (1929) (partly lost)
Sonatina No.2 for violin and piano (1929)
String Quartet No.2 (1929–30) (lost)
Easy Music for string quartet (c.1930) (lost)
String Trio No. 2 (1935)
Sonatina No.3 for violin and piano (1935)
Sonatina No.4 for violin and piano (1935)
String Quartet No.3 (1935)
Piano Trio (1936)
Little Chorale and Fugue for violin and piano (c.1936)
March of the Little Soldiers for violin and piano (c.1936)
Nocturne for violin and piano (c.1937)
Rondo for violin and piano (c. 1937)
8 Variations on a Greek Folk Tune for piano trio (1938)
Gavotte for violin and piano (1939)
Concertino for Oboe and Piano (1939)
Scherzo for violin, viola, cello and piano (1936–40)
Scherzo for violin and piano (c.1940)
Largo for cello and piano (c.1940)
Menuetto Cantato for violin and piano (c.1940)
10 Sketches for string quartet (or string orchestra) (c. 1940)
String Quartet No.4 (1940)
Duo for violin and viola (1939–42)
Quartet for oboe, trumpet, bassoon and piano (1940-3)
Concertino for trumpet and piano (1940-3)
Tango and Foxtrot, for oboe, trumpet, bassoon and piano (1940-3)
Sonata for violin and piano (1940-3)
Sonata Concertante for bassoon and piano (1943)
Petite Suite No.1 for violin and piano (1946)
Petite Suite No.2 for violin and piano (1946)
Duo for violin and cello (1947)
3 Greek Folksong arrangements for cello and piano (c. 1942-48)
Bolero for cello and piano (1948-9)
Tender Melody for cello and piano (1948-9)
Serenata for cello and piano (1948-9)
Sonatina for cello and piano (1949)
Gero Dimos for string quartet (1949)
Choral work (R. Stein) on the Unknown Soldier (1930) (lost)
Doe for voice and piano (1931)
16 Melodies for mezzo-soprano and piano (1941) (texts by Hrissos Esperas)
Greek Suite (1924-5)
15 Little Variations (1927)
Suite No.1 (1936)
32 Piano Pieces (1940)
4 Etudes (1941)
Suite No.2 (1941)
Suite No.3 (1941)
Suite No.4 (1941)
Procession to Acheron (c.1948)
Keller, Hans: 'Nikos Skalkottas: An Original Genius', in The Listener, No. 52/134, 9 December 1954, p. 1041
Medieval Greece / Byzantine Empire
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