Challenging the Canon: Towards a history of Neo-Hellenic Music

Kostas Kardamis
The notion that the only musical foundations of Greek society were the so-called Byzantine chant and folksong is a stereotypical pattern that dominates the majority of attempts to provide a historical narrative of Greece’s place in art-music after 1453. This politically-motivated idea has its immediate roots in mid-19th-century Greek folkloric studies and resulted in a “Hellenocentric” approach to Western art-music. In this regard, the diachronic anti-western views of the conservative Orthodox clergy must be taken into consideration, especially after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. The Orthodox church at this time fell under the supervision of the Sultan, and it was thus used to form the political foundation of the Ottoman Empire’s Christianity. This resulted in a continuous degradation of the importance of Greece’s contribution to Western music, as well as in an immoderate projection of a musically orientalized “noble savage” image, which came to be all but universally accepted. This paper attempts to reassess this stringent canon by documenting the country’s vital participation in specifically Western art-music, both inside and outside of the borders of today’s Greece. Recent research has demonstrated that not later than the early 15th century, progressive circles were looking toward the practices of Western music as an integral part of an expanding Hellenic (as opposed to Byzantine) social consciousness. This objective reached an apex beginning in the late 18th century which extended to the mid-19th century, when significant persons established the ideological roots for an independent Greek state. Among the other unconventional ideas they supported was the adoption of Western music as a legitimate legacy of Ancient Greece to the West. Based on this reasoning – and without ignoring Asian influences– it will be asserted that an assiduous historical narrative of Hellenic art music should be one of interdependent duality.

In 1850s Greece was a state limited in that part of the Greek world, which profited the least from the western financial, social and cultural developments and which at the same time had to forge its unity. The building of ‘national mythologies’ was inevitable in this context. These were based on the view a certain part of the newlyestablished Greek society had of itself, as well as the way romantic Europe wanted to envisage ‘new-Greeks’. The Greek historiographic model proposed in mid-19th century by Spyridon Zambelios and Konstantinos Paparigopoulos further projected an idea of uninterrupted historical continuity from ancient times to modern era through the period of the so-called ‘Byzantine Empire’. This resulted in a ‘Hellenocentric’ approach to history, typical of every nationalistic 19th-century historical narrative. Regarding the period after the fall of Constantinople (1453) this approach had two basic axes, one spatial and one temporal. These converged at the beginning of the 1821 revolution in mainland Greece in the establishment of a seemingly independent Hellenic state in the southern part of what is today Greece. As is to be expected, this approach left several questions unanswered, such as how the historical development of the Greeks who lived outside the Ottoman Empire (Crete, Ionian Islands, Italy, Russia, Austria, etc.) fit into this model. Even the idea of what was Greek was on shaky ground, since during the Ottoman Empire, this term included every Christian ethnicity living in its domain. Nonetheless, for several decades Greek historians looked back to a glorious tripartite past through the distorting glasses of an outmoded romantic historiography.
Kostas Kardamis, Challenging the Canon Paper presented in SMI and RMA Joint Annual Conference Dublin, 9-12 July 2009


since it took for granted that ancient Greek music remained unaltered in the hymnology of the ‘Byzantines’. to bring it back in Greece via the learned world together with its scientific [i. Within the limits of the Enlightenment. systematic] method and the rest of its virtues. in forming the identity of the ‘new-Greeks’. as we did with other sciences and arts.e. It also considers the cultural history of a nation as static and unaffected by external factors. Naturally. or by (forced or willing) connections with other cultures. the emerging urban classes (including Greek scholars and intelligentsia. that is to say. while naturally encompassing several contradictions. 19th or 20th centuries were curtly dismissed as ‘western-oriented’ and their Greek legitimacy automatically negated.. it comes as no surprise that since the early 20th century those few attempts to write a historical narrative of art-music in Greece were almost entirely characterized by this ‘Hellenocentric’ and puristic prototype. [slide] Nikolaos Flogaites (1799-1867): Elementary Principles of Music (Aegina. not to the society as a whole. This approach clearly reflected the myth of continuity. The unilateral conviction that the only musical experiences of the Hellenic state resided in what is known as Byzantine chant and in folksong is a stereotypical pattern that dominates the majority of attempts at historical narration of Greece’s place in art-music. writings or activities of the Greek society (in its larger context) reflecting the general practices of Europe in the 18th. The fact that Greeks for many centuries had no political existence and were split between Ottoman rule and influence from the West created a multifaceted and tolerant musical culture. who constituted the living past. as well as in the ‘folk’. only folksong or monophonic Orthodox chant were considered the indisputable music of the Greeks. 16th or 17th centuries were until recently either unknown or concealed. Nonetheless. while Greek works in western genres from the 15th. such as political and social conditions. the historical narratives either mocked or viewed condescendingly attempts of the progressives to relate themselves to 18th or 19th century music in the broader European context. For early 20th-century music historians. creatively assimilating trends both from East and West. 9-12 July 2009 2 . Those musical compositions. The same attitudes can be observed in the place of art-music in the emerging urban societies of the 19th-century Greek kingdom. including music. Challenging the Canon Paper presented in SMI and RMA Joint Annual Conference Dublin. It is useful to see which internal and external factors forged this one-sided canon..’ [ This book was probably published for the pupils of elementary and secondary schools of the newly-established Greek State under Ioannes Kapodistrias (1776-1831)] Kostas Kardamis. without their ‘Greekness’ being questioned until the mid-19th century. this myopic attitude does not consider culture as a phenomenon larger than time periods and geographic limits. as something inherently Greek. most of which we find [today] in the civilized nations in a state more perfect that which our ancestors [the Ancient Greeks] knew. 1830) ‘. I said earlier and I say now that. Usually. the various Greek regions and societies were able to express themselves by several musical means during successive periods. we must also do the same for Music.With this in mind. It refers exclusively to remote rural communities of mainland Greece and to the clergy. inside and outside of what is today Greece) propagated the importance of Western European culture.

’ Western travelers’ interest in Greek folk music.. that the traditional airs will be silenced and foreign songs will invade the folk. were a creation of the 19th century’s romantic notions. the younger of these musicians grabbed his violin and started playing a selection from Fra Diavolo. an external factor that further underscored the importance of chant and folk-music against ‘western music’ lay within the philosophy of 19th-century European romanticism. .. and not their own songs. Maybe it was a coincidence that the whole order of these songs represented the history of the NeoHellenes. the Greek clergy’s anti-western sentiments led to a stance opposed to the neoclassical approach and to relations with the West embodied by the emerging Hellenic society. young Greeks from Smyrna. If one adds to these the Greek Revolution and its French roots. The projection from ‘enlightened Europe’ of the medieval practices combined with an interest in folk music and its alleged relation to the music of Ancient Greece gave mid-19th century conservative circles a perfect argument to counterbalance the criticism of the progressives. By the mid-15th century. with its exotic and oriental elements purposely underlined. from the mid-19th century onward and until relatively recently. the ‘folk’ (whatever this might mean) and the Middle Ages. Under the Ottoman conquest. Furthermore. was already evident in the 18th century and travelers’ suspicion toward. [slide] Hans Christian Andersen: A Journey in Greece [spring 1841] ‘. There happened to be in Athens two wandering musicians. which of course was (and still is) the orientalized version formulated during the Ottoman conquest. Moreover. Greeks prefer listening to these melodies of Auber. Folklore studies. 9-12 July 2009 3 . medieval music in Greece was equated with Orthodox chant.. .. not to say total distaste. a mythic ‘purity’ was the historians’ aim. the orthodox fundamentalists also became the political leadership of the Empire’s multiethnic Christianity. Already now. which actually had many differences. Orthodox church doctrine and folklore studies played crucial roles in this orientation. Challenging the Canon Paper presented in SMI and RMA Joint Annual Conference Dublin. it becomes more than evident that the newly-established Greek Kingdom met perfectly the romantic expectations of the industrial north.. Europe was by this time already looking for the lost ‘harmony of man‘ and an effective way to reunite with these lost mythic roots was to look back to primitive man. who would sing for me the best traditional songs. as well as the diachronic fixation of Europe with Ancient Greece. fervently supporting Ottoman rule and projecting diachronically an Ottoman prototype of ‘Greekness’. on the other hand.. It is not a coincidence that in Greece they emerged almost concurrently with the historiographic construct of continuity and that they forged canons that unified local cultures. a canon that eventually set the ‘primitiveness’ of Greek music as its most highly praised attribute. for the possible relations of Greek to ‘western’ music is often obvious. The resulting convictions led by the 1850s to a continuous degradation of the Kostas Kardamis.Despite Flogaites’s ideas. exoticism. by uniting with the ideas of European Romanticism. Suddenly. Robert [le Diable] and other French operas. This fact further underlined the triptych of continuity and forged the almighty canon of ‘Greekness’. It was disgusting! It seemed to me like an omen. against the supposedly decadent ‘western art music’.

. the relation of ‘Neo-Hellenes’ to ‘western music’ was continuous and larger than the confined time and space of the newly-established Greek State. Villoteau. was a general understanding among the Greek intelligentsia as early as 16th century. As late as the 15th century. and has its base mainly in a foreign music. This is a brief and selective overview. Zarlino]: On the use of the music notation of the Greeks (btwn 1551-1558) ‘[Because] I have followed these [musical] elements since my childhood and have exercised the science of music by using this notation. However. provided that one knows some elements of European music and history. This is undeniably true. .’ Now. D’Alembert.. but because of that of our [contemporaries] just a short time before our days . This was already an established belief among the Greek Diaspora and in those parts of today’s Greece then under Western rule.VI. even if one takes the 1821 revolution as the pivotal point. . Challenging the Canon Paper presented in SMI and RMA Joint Annual Conference Dublin.1815 ‘. progressive circles were looking toward the practices of “western music” as an integral part of an emerging “neo-Hellenic” (differentiated from “Roman” or “Byzantine”) social consciousness.. [slide] Ieronymos o Tragodistes [a Cypriot student of G. Current [church] music is one thing and a different thing from that of our [Ancient] Greek ancestors. as with language that has been contaminated with Turkish and Italian words.IV.. I observed faults.. which. this transformation of post-Byzantine chant.. We must resuscitate European music in our homeland. music was in similar manner mixed in Constantinople with the music of the minarets.. as well as the importance of Western music in Hellenic culture.. However. it is a telling thing to note that the mass musical expression of the parties revolting resided in the adoption of French revolutionary melodies adapted to Greek words and not in the use of church music or folk songs.. The imposition of this unilateral approach also on musical historiography led to the suppression of important historical facts. Let us consider now our Church Music.’ Adamantios Koraes (1748-1833): from a letter dated 3. The composition of polyphonic hymns based on the descant technique was a practice Kostas Kardamis. not because of the carelessness of the earlier [authors].. 9-12 July 2009 4 . Greece in 1821 was already looking toward Western Europe and was seeking to ‘re-import’ (as the theorists of the Greek revolution claimed) from the West the culture and the science of ‘their ancestors’.1828 ‘. For example. and in other places (like Chios and Crete) with Italian melodies.. that of Arabia.. the vulnerability of Orthodox chant because of its oral transmission and the infiltration of Ottoman influences were not taken always seriously in the historical narratives.importance of Greek connections to Western music and to the universal promulgation of a musically orientalized “noble savage” image. Current [church] music on the contrary is produced by.. Forkel.] Konstantinos Kokkinakes (1781-1831): General Newspaper of Greece 27. Sulzer and editions of Ancient Greek literature as means to ‘purify’ church music.’ [Koraes suggests books by Rousseau.

Leone Allacio’s Drammaturgia is still one of the major sources of information for opera researchers. The island of Crete. Challenging the Canon Paper presented in SMI and RMA Joint Annual Conference Dublin. The Ionian Isles too were uninterruptedly linked to European traditions no later than the late 12th century and they became the only part of what is today Greece that followed all of the trends and the developments of ‘western’ thought and culture. music included. despite the fact that the return of these émigrés to the soil of ‘classical Greece’ from the 1820s until the present time decisively affected Greek society. a composer who showed interest in symphonic forms. After independence. Spyridon Xyndas and Spiros Samaras. as early as 1816. These communities also showed a remarkable and continuous interest in new musical composition as early as the Renaissance. as well as community music (in the form of bands. ‘western music’ also found its place in the newly-established Greek State as a whole. the first Governor of Greece. the heterogenous society of the small Hellenic Kingdom continued its connection to art music as a whole. during the Renaissance and until 1669 the island’s populace supported a lively secular and sacred music life and produced at least one composer of repute. which is considered to be a legitimate extension of the pre-1453 tradition. The organist and organ builder Isaakios Argyropoulos is a previously neglected figure of the Greek Diaspora connected with the courts of the Medici and Sforza families. Pavlos Karrer. Adamantios Koraes proposed in the late 18th century researching Greek church music through European music treatises. 9-12 July 2009 5 . This interest in ‘western music’ did not exist to any lesser degree in the ‘classical land’ of Greece itself. Dionyssios Rodotheatos. a fact that can be attributed principally to the lack of organized music education. until recently. The importance of art music in the European Greek communities (ranging from London to Odessa) was. Cyprus until 1572 also demonstrated a creative assimilation in its musical culture as demonstrated by the Franco-Cypriot music manuscripts of Turin. it gave rise to a distinctive style of orthodox chanting. aesthetic thought and. both in Kostas Kardamis. for example. Apart from that. Of course. The ideas and activities of the Constantinopolitan writer and politician Alexandros Rangavis further demonstrate that 19th-century Greeks did not consider their music static or confined within narrowminded philosophies. organized music education. The list of composers from the Ionian Islands extending from the late 18th century through the mid-20th century is impressive given the islands’ small population. Opera flourished there. since he considered the ‘enlightened Russian church’ the perfect model for the Greek clergy. Greek aristocrats were listening to Haydn’s quartets. and indeed through until modern times. However. Despite the obvious practical obstacles. these attempts were far from ideal. but we will here mention only Nikolaos Mantzaros. in order to ‘purify’ it while at the same time interested himself in operatic and concert performances. In 1828. Ieronymos o Tragodistes proposed theoretical and practical ways for the reformation of the rhythmic practices of Byzantine notation in order to facilitate its use for composition in the manner of the polyphonic music of his time. is today known for its folk music. actively supported the adoption of Russian chanting. Francesco Leondariti. choirs and mandolin ensembles). It is also worth mentioning that in 18th-century Constantinople the orientalized ‘mismayias’ coexisted with songs of western origin. unknown and not taken into consideration. also came from Ionian Islands.used in the Orthodox chant by the time of the [Paleologian] Renaissance. Kapodistrias. During the 18th century too in the Principalities of Vlachia.

The first organized private music school would be founded in Athens only in 1871. However. this time through what was termed ‘Greek popular song’. the so-called ‘Greek National School’ proposed a fusion between the ‘Hellenocentric’ approach and that of art music by creating works based either on Byzantine chant or folk music. Patras and other cities. while couching it in a post-romantic idiom.) In sum. 9-12 July 2009 6 . (The development of avant-garde music in Greece both in pre-war and post-war years. This is a stereotype forged in mid-19th century. progressives within the same society supported with at least equal fervency. However. Syra. and Wagner‘s collaborator. as well as provincial towns. when the unity and the ‘purity’ of the newly established Greek Kingdom was in question and the western world considered Greece as the ideal place for the realization of a ‘lost paradise’. and the parallel establishment of instrumental ensembles are not the only indications that society considered its music to be something more than just chanting and folk songs. exceeds the limits of this paper.theoretical and practical terms. it is clear from the historical evidence that the development of music in Greece was never confined exclusively to Byzantine chant and folk song. The cases of the symphonist Dimitrios Lialios from Patras. proposals of this kind were to be expected in Greece. Challenging the Canon Paper presented in SMI and RMA Joint Annual Conference Dublin. despite its importance. During 19th century. as were amateur choirs. People in both large and small cities of 19th-century Greece attended opera and operetta performances. it took several decades for musicological research to begin establishing the factual groundwork for an acceptance of the importance of ‘western music’ in the formation of Greek music history and aesthetics. Dimitrios Lalas demonstrate the serious western interests of the ‘Neo-Hellenes’ in musical creation of the kind practiced in mainstream Europe. The nationalistic expectations of the Greeks were expressed through patriotic songs. It is useful to note that in the early 20th century. Nonetheless. that one should consider these dual and seemingly contradictory approaches. Of course. Greek melodramatic troupes were active all over the country. not from the point of view of ‘purity’ and Kostas Kardamis. the nation’s need for further cultivation of the already existing connections with western art music as part of the new Hellenic culture. operas and band music that bore all the characteristics of western music. mandolin groups and wind bands. if one takes into consideration the historical background of the era. this was not the first time that folk music became the basis of musical composition. Since the 1830s such material was used in operatic works by Ionian composers. the two pillars of musical ‘Greekness’ were also canonized in the field of ‘western’ music. the existence at this time of operatic troupes composed of Greek singers and musicians. and even the performances of ancient Greek drama used incidental music by Mendelssohn. opera houses were constructed in Athens. In the early 20th century. In any case. The same applies in regard to the survival of the canon of the musical continuity in post-war years. which as late as 1950s was considered in Greece as an emblem of antipatriotism. and community music became a token of social development in major Greek urban centers. These two matters forged an artificial foundation supported by the conservative part of Greek society. This research inevitably leads to a direct opposition to the dominant canon and asks for a new approach: namely. to be followed by many other such schools in 20th century. thus leaving no real space for the development of musical modernism. Apart from Italian and French.

‘continuity’. rather than of forged romantic canons. a comprehensive historical narrative of Hellenic art music should be one of interactive duality. social and historical contexts. Based on the above. Challenging the Canon Paper presented in SMI and RMA Joint Annual Conference Dublin. 9-12 July 2009 7 . Kostas Kardamis. which sought musical expression within the confines of specific political. but as actions of a society.

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