Music Over Money: Our Debt To The Greeks

Greece's Orpheus stamp. i

Greece's Orpheus stamp. iStock. hide caption

itoggle caption iStock.
Greece's Orpheus stamp.

Greece's Orpheus stamp.


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.

Greek Music, From The Ancient To The Modern

  • Byzantine Chant

    'Les Silence des Anges - Terres Et Voix De L'Orient Orthodoxe' by Olivier Mille and Jean-François Colosimo.

    An excerpt from a French documentary about the Greek Byzantine Choir, founded in 1977 by Lycourgos Angelopoulos. Angelopoulos is one of the foremost exponents and scholars of Byzantine chant in the world today.

  • Manolis Kalomiris

    The final movement of Kalomiris' Symphony No. 1.

    Manolis Kalomiris has been called a domineering figure in Greek art music — not just for his compositions but for his musical ideologies. In 1908, at the first concert of his works, the program notes told of "building a palace in which to enthrone the national soul." His opinions were strong enough to alienate other Greek composers. In his efforts to establish a Greek school of composition — and despite his obvious indebtedness to 19th-century German romanticism, and particularly the music of Wagner — he founded the Hellenic Conservatory and later the National Conservatory.

  • Nikos Skalkottas

    The Accademia di Santa Sofia in Italy play one of Skalkottas' Five Greek Dances: Epirotikos.

    First a violinist and then a student of Schoenberg (where Marc Blitzstein was a fellow pupil), Nikos Skalkottas emerged as one of Greece's foremost composers in the first half of the 20th century. In his work — and particularly in this group of folk dances he arranged repeatedly between the early 1930s and his death — he drew upon authentic Greek folk tunes as well as original material in a rough-hewn, folksy style.

  • Iannis Xenakis

    Steven Schick gives an astonishing performance of Xenakis' solo 'Psappha.'

    Although there's nothing particularly Greek-sounding about much of the music written by composer/theorist/architect/engineer Iannis Xenakis, he found strong inspiration in the writings and mythology of classical Greece. One example: 1975's 'Psappha' — in English, 'Sappho.'

  • Manos Hadjidakis

    Kostas Grigoreas plays this classical guitar arrangement of Hadjidakis' 'I Parthena Tis Gitonias Mou' — 'The Virgin Of My Neighborhood.'

    Manos Hadjidakis was a self-taught composer and proponent of the rebetiko style of urban folk song, a genre once derided by so-called serious Greek composers and even, for a time, outlawed. He was a strong promoter of new Greek music, financing competitions, founding orchestras and festivals and introducing music by Xenakis, among others. Hadjidakis' songs, more than his instrumental works, served as inspiration for a younger generation of composers.

  • Mikis Theodorakis

    Highlights from the classic 1969 Costa-Gavras film 'Z,' based on the true story of a murdered Greek politician, with a score by Mikis Theodorakis.

    While non-Greeks usually only know Theodorakis' music for "Zorba The Greek," Greeks worldwide still sing his songs — settings of iconic 20th-century Greek poetry or his socially conscious protest music. They might also guide you some of his other terrific film score work, including the super-saturated musical colors of his score to the political thriller 'Z.'



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.