Greece's Orpheus stamp. iStock.
It's been one big Greek drama lately. The debt crisis in Greece has weathered as many ups and downs as a good Euripides tragedy. There's the Franco-German debt deal, the surprise referendum, its subsequent demise, along with the departure of the Greek Prime Minister, and now a new power-sharing government. Stay tuned for Acts 4 and 5 ...
In the meantime, let's take an intermission to consider a different kind of debt — the one music lovers owe Greece for its rich and colorful music history, especially its line of exceptional 20th-century composers.
Music has always played a broad and important role in Greek life, going as far back as 2700 B.C. to the Minoan culture, and then to Plato, who mused on how music may enlighten civilization. In the third century A.D., Quintilianus remarked, "There is certainly no action among men that is carried out without music," from sacred rites to feasts to war. The Greeks thought of music as everything from a science to a good way to chill out.
In Western music, what we've come to call "early music" is often considered something of a curious appendage to the classical canon. In Greece, ancient chants — in the form of the liturgical and sacred music of the Greek Orthodox Church — are still part of everyday culture.
Evolving since the Byzantine empire was established in Constantinople (now Istanbul) until it fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Byzantine chant shares characteristics of classical Greek music, music of its near Eastern neighbors. Chant notated from the 9th to 14th century and beyond is, to this day, the music that accompanies most Greek religious life.
Leaving aside a huge variety of folk and popular music, there are quite a few 20th-century composers of note, from Manolis Kalomiris (1883-1962), who founded two conservatories in Athens in short order, and whose own music was very clearly influenced by Wagner, to such internationally famous composers as Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949), who bridged the folk and classical music worlds, and Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), an architect and musician who created high conceptual art.
There are also composers who known around the globe like Manos Hadzidakis (1925-1994) — he of "Never On Sunday" — and Mikis Theodorakis (b. 1925), who not only wrote (for better or worse) the inescapable "Zorba The Greek" dance, but also a plethora of settings of great 20th-century Greek poetry, as well the anthemic sounds of another generation's political uprising.