By Patricia H. Kushlis
I recently finished reading Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise, a nearly 600 page prize-winning history of 20th century music of Europe and the United States. It’s amazingly comprehensive and well written – but even comprehensive and well written books don’t capture everything.
What I found missing were not only Spanish and Latin American composers but also almost all of the Greeks. True, Ross mentioned Nikos Skalkottas once in passing and Yiannis Xenakis several times whereas he ignored the Iberian tradition entirely. But when I think of the most influential twentieth century Greek composers, Manos Hadjidakis (photo on right) (1925-1994) and Mikis Theodorakis (1925-) first come to mind.
The missing iconoclastic Greeks: Hadjidakis and Theodorakis
Both are best known for their award winning film scores - from Theodorakis’ Zorba the Greek to Hadjidakis’ Never on Sunday. Yet composing for film was or is just part of their professional lives - although presumably among the most lucrative.
I suppose one can argue that for Ross these composers don’t count because they wrote for the cinema or because they wrote outside the symphonic tradition or because their works were heavily influenced by the traditional music of the Eastern Mediterranean – foreign and cacophonous to many western ears. I don’t know. But I do know that they - through their compositions - brought the strains, rhythms and soul of Greek music to the West in ways others did not.
What I also know is that the largely self-trained Hadjidakis was - along with Theodorakis - the first to make the music of the Greek underclass respectable at home and abroad.
Bringing respectability to the music of the Greek underclass
They took the sometimes grating, mournful, wails and growls of the Greek rebetika singers and instrumentalists out of the hashish dens, the jail cells and the cafes and made their plaintive and anguished cries a part of the mainstream Greek musical vocabulary thereby forming the basis for much of contemporary Greek music.
That Hadjidakis first did this in the late 1940s was remarkable. The country was just recovering from the devastation of World War II and in the midst of a vicious civil war between left and right. The underclass from which the rebetika tradition sprang was far more aligned politically with the losing left than the winning right. To have made its music respectable was a major feat and perhaps incurred personal risk in itself.
Rebetika – a musical form that had traveled with the impoverished Greek refugees from the Asia Minor port city of Smyrna (Izmir in Turkish) after World War I and the ensuing Greek army defeat in the country’s ill-fated attempt to reclaim those parts of Turkey that Byzantium had lost in the Middle Ages – is far more influenced by the hypnotic sounds and soul of the Levant than by the melodious, structured Italianate music of Greece’s Adriatic coast.
Musical instruments used in traditional rebetika include not only the bouzouki but also other stringed instruments unfamiliar in the West which provide their own unique sounds that Hadjidakis replicates on the piano.
These instruments are part and parcel of the East, not the West. The tonalities and complex rhythms are also Eastern. Rebetika songs are – it seems to me - far more at home in today’s Istanbul or elsewhere in Turkey – than in Italy or France. But what intrigues me as much is that this music’s roots originated in Byzantium – the long expired Empire ruled by the Byzantine Greeks from their capital of Constantinople until 1453 when it fell to the Ottoman Turks. This, according to Greek pianist Danae Kara who recorded the album “For a Little White Seashell” which contains the complete piano works of Manos Hadjkidakis. Hadjidakis, she tells us, made the connection with the past – arguing against the established view – in 1949.
There are innumerable recordings of Hadjidakis’ film music available internationally at least for those 18 films produced abroad. But finding his music for piano outside of Greece is another story – until Naxos re-released this 1995 Agora recording late last year performed exquisitely by Juilliard trained Kara.
Kara (photo on right) has spent a good part of her professional career studying, performing and recording the works of Greek modernists Nikos Skalkottas and Dmitri Mitropoulos who wrote in the classical symphonic tradition. But she decided to record Hadjidakis’ piano works because, in her words, he represented “the other side” of the Greek musical aesthetic that could not be ignored.
The four large works (For A Little White Seashell, Six Popular Pictures, Ionian Suite and Rhythmology) contained in this album each consist of anywhere from five to 11 separate short sections all improvisatory in character. The first two were composed about the same time (1947-8) and (1949-50) respectively. Ionian Suite came a little later (1952-3) but Rhythmology was not composed until 1969-70 when Hadjidakis was living in New York. Hadjidakis coincidentally completed the piece at the time of the death of his friend the Nobel Prize winning Greek poet George Seferis to whom Hadjidakis dedicated the work.
In fact, Hadjidakis and Theodorakis are identified with the creation of the Greek song in a similar way to Franz Schubert - almost 130 years earlier - who made the "lied" the identity card of the German song.
That Hadjidakis, like Theodorakis, used music to help solidify the Greek identity by drawing upon popular forms that, at the time, included politically and socially “inappropriate” songs is another part of the picture.
“You hear it and you know it is Hadjidakis”
Yet, what makes Hadjidakis stand out is, as Kara says, the “unmistakable originality of his identifiable sound . . . a simple song-derived compositional technique.” In short, “you hear it and you know it is Hadjidakis”- a feat in and of itself. This includes his large repertoire of music for film, theater, ballet, orchestra, piano and voice.
Hadjidakis' circle of friends
Hadjidakis was well respected at home as well as abroad. He formed part of the circle of influential and cutting-edge Athenian artists and intellectuals that gravitated around the art theater of Karolos Koun. In fact, many of Hadjidakis’ works were written for Koun productions. But Hadjidakis also collaborated with internationally known film directors Jules Dassin and Elia Kazan as well as choreographer Maurice Bejart.
As Kara says, “Hadjidakis knew his limits, he knew his musical world and he never attempted to compete with figures like Skolkottas, the world of great symphonic forms, or twentieth century techniques.” Nor did he need to.
Danae Kara's recording of “Manos Hadjidakis (1925-1994) Piano Works: For a Little White Seashell, Rhythmology, Six Popular Pictures, Ionian Suite” on the Naxos label is available in CD and via Audio Streaming on the web.