The Work And Its Time

In the first two decade of the 20th century, the most important Greek composers –either living in Greece or abroad- dedicated the maximum of their creative efforts to opera.

This is historically justified mainly by two factors: first, European music was gradually acknowledged and appreciated throughout the then newly-established Greek State that had recently gained independence from Turkish rule; second, the rise of the Ionian Islands School, itself a unique music-cultural phenomenon, played a decisive role as to the wider acceptance of European music in the Greek dominion. The Ionian Islands School whose aesthetics naturally bears the marks of local history contributed so that the necessary transition the wider Hellenic world had to undergo in order to adjust to the “new” sound should not be reduced into a passively long-lasting and purposeless trade but, on the contrary, rapidly evolve into a creative phase both in terms of composition and organization. Hence, alongside the rise of such notable composers as Mantzaros, Padovanis, Xyndas, Carrer, Rodotheatos and several others, theatres and concert houses were also erected, thus marking the establishment of a musical and stage scene on the Ionian Islands. This gradually conduced to the formation of a cultural background in other Greek cities as well, such as Patras, Athens, Hermoupolis and so on, where the staging of operas had become the typical characteristic of theatrical activity.

At the turn of the 20th century, an equally important if not more important reason for the Greek composers’s attachment to opera was the prominent place opera held as an exceptional work of art in the European collective conscience, especially after the Wagnerian revolution in the second half of the 19th century. Opera –developed a new and elaborated upon- eventually gained the broadest public acceptance as an art form of high quality amongst all music genres, empowered to fully express the distinctive Greek musical idiom in a masterly combination of lyrics and music, image and sound, legend and history.

Hence, historical developments –both internal and external- laid the basis for the formation and development of a singular art form pertaining to classical music in the Modern Greek world for the very first time, with the epitome of this creative outburst being Athens rather than the provinces. This involved following:

a) The existence of a musical language rich in expressing elements and widely accepted even in its most extreme or marginal manifestations, in the manner these were articulated in Greece at least until 1920.

b) A rudimentary infrastructure in concert houses, conservatories, orchestras, choirs etc.

c) A more extensive updating on the part of Greek composers with regard to their contemporaries in the rest of Europe, as compared to the time of Mantzaros and Carrer.

d) A new music tradition, which proved to be intrinsically essential as regards various issues pertaining to technique, music theory and creativity, even though it lacked the time-depth dimension enjoyed in the rest of Europe; the full realization of this tradition along with its subsequent acceptance or dismissal necessarily marked the starting point for all attempts that were to follow.

e) The strong presence and work of such leading figures as Lavrangas, and subsequently Samara and Kalomiris. Their coexistence was in itself a critical element as to the technical standard of the overall music output with particular emphasis placed upon opera; on the other hand, it provided the incentive for the quality staging of various works of the composers, and especially the contemporary ones. This led to a more extensive interest manifested by the general public towards opera.

Consequently, the output of operatic works in the first two decades of the 20th century –both in terms of quality and quantity- was the outcome of the given historical conjunction of circumstances, and this is actually far more extraordinary even when compared to the total indifference subsequently displayed by several Greeks towards such a creative period of Modern Greek cultural life.

Completed works such as those by Samara, Lavrangas, Sakellarides, Kalomiris and Sklavos, but also half-finished ones by various other composers like Varvoglis and Riadis bear witness to the breadth and intensity of their collective effort.

The aesthetic origins and influences of all those works vary with the birthplace, education and place of residence of each one composer. Even the language used for a given libretto did not have to be Greek necessarily. For instance, Samara’s operas La Biondinetta (or Histoire d’ Amour), Mademoiselle de Belle Isle and Rhea were based on French script, even though they eventually made their mark mostly in Italy (in an Italian translation, of course), whereas Riadis’s half-finished opera Galatea along with Mitropoulos’s completed operatic work Soeur Béatrice were directly written in French.

A long sequence of stirring political events, which kept up with the afore-mentioned, complete the puzzle and most patently provide the setting for the wider social and cultural background against which Dimitri Mitropoulos and his generation came to maturity. Succinctly, we make mention of the military coup at Goudi on the outskirts of Athens, which led to the downfall of the government (1909); Macedonia’s struggle for independence from Turkish rule, and its subsequent integration into the ten newly-established Greek State (1912); the Balkan Wars (1912014); World War I (1914-18); the Asia Minor Expedition (whose aim was to unite within the bounds of a single state all the areas of Greek settlement in the Near East); the “demotic” movement that resulted to widespread academic disarray amongst the Greek intelligentsia (the struggle for the rise of the modern vernacular Greek as opposed to a more formal, purist Greek closely linked to ancient Greek linguistic patterns).

An exceptional talent at the Athens Conservatory back in 1910, the young pianist and composer Dimitri Mitropoulos came to gradually discover he vast world of art under the expert guidance of his master Armand Marsick (1877-1959), who was his tutor in harmony, counterpoint, composition and orchestra conducting. The manner in which the distinguished student experienced, felt and pondered on music was naturally defined by his tutor’s distinctive personality, knowledge and personal perspective on art. Of decisive importance as to the composer’s musical maturity was also his upbringing and family background. In her book on Mitropoulos, Maria Christopoulou points out among other things that “Dimitri’s parents were music-lovers and attended several performances on a regular basis, manifesting a particular interest in operas, where they used to take their children along.”

A fairy-like account of the composer’s spark of genius can also be found in the same book, on page 11: “It must have been around 1910, it is said, when the Mitropoulos family had permanently moved to 13, Tritonos Street at Palaeon Phaleron on the outskirts of Athens, in a seaside residence. Armand Marsick, at the time professor in Theory and Composition at the Athens Conservatory, went out for a stroll and just happened to be passing by the 14-year-old Dimitri’s house. The impassioned adolescent was getting to grips with an improvisation on the piano, and the sweeping sound of waves coming along the agitated sea provided an unusually alluring accompaniment to the young composer’s original music theme. Marsick stopped by the window, and for quite a while he listened to the improvisation with growing interest. A few minutes later, he would knock on the door and get in to introduce himself to the young composer. The professor instantly prompted Dimitri’s parents to enroll their son in the Athens Conservatory.” But far from any story-telling approach with regard to their acquaintance –be it accidental or not, the essence of student-master relationship remains a most critical aspect in fully recognizing Dimitri Mitropoulos as a music phenomenon. In particular, as far as the composer’s first creative period is concerned, the student-master relationship was defined by the young composer’s apprenticeship next to Marsick. Consequently, we should herewith pay attention to Marsick’s diverse personality, who was professor in music theory and chief conductor at the Athens Conservatory from 1908 to 1921. Born in Liège, Belgium, in 1877, Armand Marsick came from a long-standing line of musicians. Initially, he studied the violin at the Conservatory of his native city, only to continue with his studies in music theory at the “Conservatoire de Nancy”, France, under the influential French composer Guy Ropartz. He earned his diplôme from the “Scuola Cantorum” of Paris, under the expert guidance of César August Franck’s spiritual offspring and successor, V. d’ Indy. At the same time, he was also leading violinist at the “Opera Comique” and the “Concerts Colons”. Marsick’s spiritual and artistic make-up was defined by two factors:

  1. The prevailing cultural climate in his native Wallonie, in the manner this had been shaped towards the end of the 19th century and before; hence, due to Franck’s decisive influence, the musical world’s fervent attachment to the work of Richard Wagner played an important role.
  2. The Franckian tradition and aesthetics, especially should we bear in mind that Ropartz along with d’ Indy were two of the chief exponents and successors of Franck’s approach to art.

Marsick and Mitropoulos –or, master and disciple- were united by a common bond: Wagner and Franck appeared to be the foremost ideal figures for the master, whereas for the disciple, they emerged as the prime source of inspiration for the composition of Soeur Béatrice. The young Athenian composer thus attempted to express himself by shaping a romantic, poetic language enriched with elements from the music of Claude Debussy. Besides, Mitropoulos’s relationship with Debussy is made apparent through the former’s choice to use Maeterlinck’s libretto for his opera. According to Costas Zaroukas* in his book on the French-speaking Flemish poet, Maeterlinck had initially written the “miracle”, as he used to call Soeur Béatrice, for Gabriel Fauré who did not set to music Maeterlinck’s script in the end. The person who did so (other than Mitropoulos himself) was Albert Wolff** who set Béatrice in a single-act opera divided into three tableaux. Wolff’s version was first staged in Nice in 1948m without seemingly having made any particular impression.

To return to the Marsick-Mitropoulos relationship, I personally believe that the ideas which marked the great Greek composer’s life on a cultural as well as social level are rooted to a large extent in the teachings of the Belgian master. Through Marsick’s teachings, Mitropoulos was initiated to the apostolic spirit of Scuola Cantorum that entailed complete and utter dedication to art on the part of the artist, to the point of self-denial. Solon Michailides, teacher of mine and also student at Scuola Cantorum in the mid 1930s, conveyed the underlying spirit prevailing at the renowned Parisian School during class, often presenting us with lively descriptions and providing insightful comments as to the School’s wider ideological stance after the demise of Franck and d’ Indy.

Evidently, what his purely apostolic nature, which entailed unshakable faith in the sanctity of music along with a long-standing family tradition of religious piety that also characterized him since his early adolescent years, should we bring back to mind his own inscription in the form of a motto on his score for Burial.

We cannot be certain whether Marsick’s and Maeterlinck’s Belgian origin cinduced, in any way, to Mitropoulos’s acquaintance with the French script of Béatrice and his final choice as to the composition of the opera. But what we do know is that the text itself, with its underlying piety and implicit hints to the wider French School prevailing at the time (Debussy’s Pelléas, Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue based on verse by Maeterlinck), prompted young Mitropoulos set it to music.

From a musicological point of view, Wagner’s Tristan and Debussy’s Pelléas, were of critical importance to the 20-year-old composer; also, from a musical idiom perspective, the harmonic language along with Franck’s morphological-formative singularity played a significant role. Diverse shades of sounds emerging from monologues or combinations of instruments such as the English horn, the bass clarinet or the muted horns all create a sound atmosphere identical to that Mitropoulos’s role-models, especially Tristan. Even the morphological structure of the two contrasting acts instantly brings back to mind the well-tried Franckian cyclic form (thematic transformation) an the level of musique absolue (absolute music). At this very point, it would be pertinent to talk about Mitropoulos’s morphological-formative innovation in the realms of opera. The plot of the opera itself undoubtedly favours the link between the two contrasting acts. Nevertheless, should we examine it from a purely morphological perspective, this is not mainly about leitmotifs that relate various situations in the form of reminders, standing on a parallel with verse in the unfolding of the story. This rather about repetitions of whole unities, which are either identical or varied or even slightly enriched with some new element insistently recurring throughout the work.

Wagnerian hints that allude to Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg can also be encountered in abundance mainly in Act III, combined with a French-like sensibility in orchestration as far as the wind instruments and especially the trumpets are concerned.

However, the researcher of today is mostly impressed by the work’s creative assimilation of all influences it underwent, as well as its convincing morphological and dramatic integration. Moreover, the opera’s spontaneous lyricism bursting with intense emotional climaxes of an almost veristic passion makes it even more unique.

From Le Petit Quartet des Faunes, Burial and his piano pieces to Soeur Béatrice, Dimitri Mitropoulos shaped his own distinctive musical language, paying a tribute as a young composer to the grand meisters of his craft that preceded him, and ultimately blazing his own trail in the vast world of music. Old Saint-Saëns’s positive attitude towards Mitropoulos’s work might have disguised some traces of pride in the influence of French culture on Modern Greece. One way or another, it is certain that the great French composer was absolutely sincere, should one take into account his work, reputation and authority. Dimitri Mitropoulos’s Soeur Béatrice is justifiably regarded as an extremely important work in the rise and flourishing of opera in Greece at the turn of the 20th century, as well as a turning point in the overall history of Greek opera.

Translated into English from the Greek original by Evangelos Christopher Tyroglou

English Translation Copyright © Evangelos Christopher Tyroglou