El Greco - Greece
Born in 1541, in either the village of Fodele or Candia (the Venetian name of Chandax, present day Heraklion) on Crete, Dominikos Theotokopoulos was descended from a prosperous urban family. Here El Greco received his initial training as an icon painter of the Cretan school. Tempera and gold on wooden panels, post-Byzantine and Italian mannerist stylistic and iconographic elements where characteristic of his early art. Candia was a center for artistic activity where Eastern and Western cultures co-existed harmoniously, where around two hundred painters were active during the 16th century. Crete and Greece were through the history meeting points, fertile soils for fresh ideas coming from the west and the east. This environment proved indispensable for the birth of a civilisation so unique in its intellectual produce as El Greco's art itself.
This anthropocentric cosmosystem, both aestheticly and politicly, that conquered the Western world through the Latins and the Italian Renaissance, inspired numerous composers of the chamber music genre to compose pieces that reflect this philosophy. George Tsontakis' "Portraits by El Greco" writes a tribute to the spirituality of El Greco in 2014 to honour the 400th anniversary of his death. Antonín Dvořák is intrigued by the rare temperament of modern Greek poetry and composes "Three Modern Greek Poems", Maurice Ravel sees in the Greek folk songs an important source of artistic inspiration and Mikis Theodorakis with his "Cretoise" Sonatine No.1 completes our program with a most Hellenistic work, full of light and life .
George Tsontakis - Portraits by El Greco
Antonín Dvořák - Three Modern Greek Poems op.50
Maurice Ravel - Five Greek folk songs
Mikis Theodorakis - Sonatina No. 1 "Cretoise" op.75
Portraits by El Greco
George Tsontakis studied conducting with Jorge Mester and composition with Hugo Weisgall and Roger Sessions at Juilliard from 1974 to 1978. Later he worked with Franco Donatoni at the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. His successful career gained added prominence when he won both the prestigious Grawemeyer Award (in 2005) and the Charles Ives Prize (in 2006) in close succession. Add to those distinctions the 2002 Berlin Prize, recognition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and two Grammy nominations, and Tsontakis has earned a reputation as one of the leading composers of his generation. Tsontakis has taught at Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music, Sarah Lawrence College, and is now on the faculty at Bard College. He was also the founding director of the Contemporary Ensemble at the Aspen Music School, where he teaches composition classes.
When Tsontakis he was awarded the Charles Ives Prize, his fellow-composer David Del Tredici (a member of the selection committee) described Tsontakis’s music as “full of heart, a quality that erases boundaries as it satisfies and enriches the soul.” The erasure of boundaries and the connection with Ives is instructive, giving some insight into Tsontakis’s style and technique. Like Ives, he frequently quotes from both the classical repertoire and other genres, not in the semiotically bland mode of postmodern quotation but out of a genuine respect for music of the past. In that regard he shares George Rochberg’s anti-modernist musical philosophy, celebrating musical history rather than attempting to erase it. He is also deeply involved with the traditional music of Greece, and especially Crete, his family’s original homeland. Greek melodies periodically find their way into Tsontakis’s music, and Greek terms into his titles.
Although Tsontakis excels in the large-scale orchestral forms of concertos and concertante works, he has also composed numerous solo, vocal, and chamber works. He wrote four numbered string quartets in the 1980s, for example, then returned to genre for a fifth quartet in 2006. During the 1990s, Tsontakis penned several piano quartets including his 1997 Bagatelles (the Piano Quartet No. 1) for a standard formation of piano, violin, viola, and cello; Eclipse (1995) for a Messiaen ensemble of piano, clarinet, violin, and cello; and Gemini (1996) which replaced the clarinet with a horn. In 2005 he wrote a second piano quartet for the standard instrumentation.
Tsontakis wrote a quintet, Portraits by El Greco, in 2014 to honor of the 400th anniversary of the death of the Greek artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos who, because he worked for much of his career in Spain, was known simply as “El Greco.” Tsontakis scored this work for a variant on a Messiaen ensemble, employing the same instruments as Messiaen’s seminal Quartet for the End of Time only with an added viola. (Alternatively, the scoring could be thought of as a standard piano quartet plus clarinet.)
Each of the six movements in this suite were inspired by a particular painting of El Greco, most of them religious, but beginning with his famous and unprecedented landscape of the Spanish city of Toledo, his adopted home town. The painting contrasts a dark, glowering sky with a rich green pasture in the foreground, that visual tension represented in music by a mysteriously repeated two-note interval throughout the movement.
The remaining five El Greco “portraits” all focus on aspects of Christ’s nativity, life, and legacy, but not in narrative order. The “Pieta” depicts the Holy Mother, Peter, and Mary Magdalene taking the gray, lifeless body of Christ down from the cross. The composer characterizes this moment with mournful chants, contrasted with a moment of frantic grief and anxiety. In El Greco’s “Christ and the Money Changers,” the artist presents a maelstrom of righteous indignation and disruption, paralleled in the rhythmic commotion and grotesqueries of Tsontakis’s music. The next section, “The Vision,” refers to El Greco’s painting of the vision of St. John, particularly the opening of the “Fifth Seal” (Revelation 6: 9-11) when white robes are distributed to the righteous martyrs. Here the music is both apocalyptic and ecstatic, and an allusive nod to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which is also based on a passage from St. John’s Book of Revelation.
The final two movements are bookends of Christ’s mortality, in reverse order. “Christ Carrying the Cross” is one of El Greco’s most poignant, sentimental, and moving paintings. Bell-like chanting and prayerful chorales capture the dual temperaments of tragedy and heaven-directed devotion. Just as Christ’s face in the painting looks upward from under the weight and pain of the cross, so does Tsontakis’s music weep, then rise. The last movement, “Annunciation,” is a mere wisp of a coda to the suite, as the Blessed Virgin feels the divine enlivening within her.
3. Christ and the Money Changers
4. The Vision
5. Christ Carrying the Cross / Entombment
Three Modern Greek Poems op.50
Dvořák´s music excels in rich and original melodic invention often referring to folk roots, marked rhythm and colourful instrumentation.
Dvorak wrote the cycle Three Modern Greek Poems in the summer of 1878. He took his literary source from a collection of Greek folk poems translated into Czech, published in 1864 by poet Vaclav Bolemir Nebesky as Modern Greek Folk Songs. Dvorak chose three poems of a predominantly balladic character with dramatic endings, aspects which he further emphasised in their musical settings.
all three are composed in a minor key, the music is restless and undergoes various unusual modulations.
The composer’s endeavour to emulate the rare temperament of modern Greek poetry gave rise to a largely “un-Dvorakian” interpretation, which is probably the reason this song cycle tends to be overlooked. The work was premiered at Dvorak’s first independent concert on 17 November 1878, at which the composer was introduced to the Prague public as both composer and conductor for the first time. The songs were performed by baritone at the National Theatre Josef Lev, in an arrangement for voice and orchestra which is no longer in existence. The piano version has survived in the composer’s manuscript, as well as in printed form, published by Hainauer in 1883.
1. Klepht Song (Koljas)
2. Nereids (Nereidy)
3. Parga's Lament (Zalozpev Pargy)
Five Greek folk songs
Ravel had met Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi (a Greek-French music critic) while studying at the Paris Conservatoire, and both would become known for their interest in exotic musical influences. The two were also part of a revolutionary group known as Les Apaches, a Parisian group of artists and critics who believed that native folk songs were an important source of artistic inspiration. Margeurite Babaian, a favorite singer of Ravel’s, would later remark on his Greek tunes, “Who could do it better than Maurice Ravel?” It was in 1905 that Calvocoressi identified several folk songs from the island of Chios that he wished to use in a demonstration of popular Greek music. He had been working with a group of musicians and musicologists at the School of Art in Paris’ École des Hautes Études-Sociales, where scholars and students had become increasingly interested in popular and folk music. Ravel was immediately chosen to harmonize the melodies, and he did so with gusto, at least according to Mme Babaian’s description. The rest was a whirlwind: after their premiere at Calvocoressi’s lecture, they were sent to the publishing house just weeks later in 1906. By their second publication in 1909, the cycle of five songs had become a well-known crowd pleaser at recitals around Europe.
The last of the five songs is Tout Gai!, a lively dance tune, and its manuscript is housed in the Memorial Library of Music at Stanford. Its hasty genesis is evident in Ravel’s scrawl and in the performance edits presumably added for its presentation at Calvocoressi’s demonstration. The Stanford Music Library also offers printed scores of the entire cycle, Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques, which includes Tout Gai!. Both the Music Library and Stanford’s Archive of Recorded Sound hold a variety of sound recordings, in vinyl disc, CD, and digital formats, from as early as 1960.
In fact, Tout Gai! is one of eight Greek folk songs harmonized by Ravel. Five were originally completed several years earlier for a similar lecture by Pierre Aubry in 1904. It was at Calvocoressi’s request that Ravel wrote three more, including Tout Gai!. Three of the earlier songs were discarded and eventually lost, while the remaining five were published as the Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques.
1. Chanson de la mariée
2. Là-bas, vers l'église
3. Quel Galant m'est comparable
4. Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques
5. Tout gai!
Sonatina No. 1 "Cretoise" op.75
Theodorakis' Sonatinas constitute a most healthy expression of Hellenism in the middle of the 20th century, when all the trends were busy restructuring themselves. The Sonatinas do not look back, they are forward-looking and succeed in reestablishing a Modern Greek musical vocabulary in the international "textbooks". Clear thoughts free of worry and weight, full of light and life. Balance is struck between many extreme opposites, which were typical of the composer in those, years, and the fact that this is achieved in an actual fashion enhances the attractiveness of the music. It is worth remembering the contribution made by Manos Hatzidakis to the third movement of the 1st Sonatina. Hatzidakis added an intercalated episode to the final part - as attested by Theodorakis himself - by using his pencil to put a musical mark on time, thus helping us to understand the relation of the two.