A veritable hidden gem of the modern Greek piano repertoire, “For a Little White Seashell” is something of a brief overview of the big aesthetic paths in and outside Greek music. Starting from the previous quasi-Bartokian efforts by Skalkotas and Kalomiris at writing classical Greek music and combining it with sounds from twentieth-century France, Russia and America, Xatzidakis creates a novel blend of old and new, illustrating the full expressive range of Greek music. From the curiously atonal opening of the March to the vivacious and exultant finale of the Grand Sousta, the work maintains a character of effervescence and vitality, which is particularly pronounced in the dances and often contradicted by the comparatively introverted lyricism of the preludes.
Manos Xatzidakis (Μάνος Χατζιδάκις, 1925- 1994) was an Oscar-winning composer, poet, songwriter, conductor and pianist, one of the most influential figures in the history of late-twentieth-century Greek music. He is widely regarded as the first composer to synthesize elements of folk and art music, forging the “entekno” genre of pop music, or “art popular” music, which achieved widespread popularity very quickly as it became a vessel for the expression of the common people. After leaving the countryside where he was born to move in Athens, he came into contact with legendary modern Greek cultural figures such as George Seferis, Nikos Gatsos, Giannis Tsarouchis and Carolos Koun, which all played a great part in shaping him ethically, philosophically and musically. He wrote music in a multitude of genres ranging from solo instrumental works to operas, however his most successful works include his music for films such as “Stella”, his song cycles such as “The C.N.S. Cycle” and his music for the theatre stage.
This work has been labeled by the composer as Op. 1, even though it wasn’t his first published work. Xatzidakis probably felt that this piece was the first to encapsulate the true essence of his work; a belief in the emotional truthfulness of Greek folk styles and a desire to bring them in dialogue with modern aesthetic values and principles. The piece is comprised of five sets of preludes and dances for solo piano, the former tending to showcase his interest for European trends of the twentieth century, the latter colourful arrangements of famous traditional Greek folk dances. His work is heavily inspired by the anti-romantic principles of such composers as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Copland, who denounced the emotional self-indulgence and excessive languor of post-Romantic music in favour of cleaner textures and a reconnection with folk music. This is evident from the introductory note he includes in the beginning of the score, which discusses “the style and interpretation of the work”. In it, he states that “For a Little White Seashell” was composed with a so-to-speak, reactionary intent. Reaction against maltreated “musical sensitivity”; against “feeling” as defined by the teacher with a coloured pencil; against the pomposity of professors and composers; and finally, against every dusty concept (provincially European in origin) concerning Music and its interpretation.” He is clearly referring, in this case, to tendencies of Greek conservatoire professors to disregard the composer’s instructions in favour of overt sentimentalism, which led to many overly romanticized interpretations of classical and Romantic works. This work marks his beginning as a figure of rebellion, foreshadowing a lecture he gave a few years after its publication at the Art Theatre in Athens that was to establish him as a controversial and radical figure in the Greek music scene.
Xatzidakis’s relationship with rebetiko music was one of true love and passion right from the beginning. A friend of his, in an interview published in “The Mirror and the Knife”, recounts how enamoured Xatzidakis was with rebetiko when he first heard a rebetiko orchestra playing their music in a local tavern. Rebetiko was a genre of folk music that was brought to Greece by the Greek communities that lived in the coasts of Asia Minor when they were forced to leave their homes following the destruction of Smyrna in 1922. It settled mainly around the ports of Athens and Thessaloniki, as they were the poorest and most marginalized areas of the cities, and it flourished there as an urban genre of folk music. The uprising of the middle class in Greece around that time saw a growing group of people denouncing this music as being worthy only for the scum of society, preferring instead the cultivated sounds of late 19-century Italian opera and American pop music trends. However, in 1949, only two years after the publication of “For a Little White Seashell”, in his monumental lecture at the Art Theatre in Athens, a 24-year-old Xatzidakis decides to name the rebetiko style a piece of Greek national heritage, likening it even to the work of Bach. His work from now on takes a determined turn towards popular song with a hint of the stylings rebetiko, creating what is now called “entekno” music.
In the following brief descriptions of each of the ten movements, I have included links to YouTube videos showing examples of the Greek dances I am going to be talking about. Listening to them in preparation for the work will give you a solid idea of the type of stylization that Xatzidakis’s musical material was in dialogue with.
March: This piece clearly betrays influences of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev in its angular melodies, quasi-tonal harmonically ambiguous opening and driving march rhythm. However, Xatzidakis makes sure to always leave his expressive stamp on every page of this work, with a deeply touching lyrical and tonal melody in the second half of the piece, bringing us into a shining F major chord. Hearing this opening piece feels as if our ears have been momentarily purified of all Romantic tendencies and retuned to a Neoclassical sound world, ready to experience the rest of the suite.
Syrtos: A folk dance originating from Ancient Greece, this is Xatzidakis’s first of several statements on the way Greek composers before him arranged folk tunes. A repeated chordal accompaniment in the outer sections of this piece is all that he needs to provide an accompaniment for a melody that apparently “says it all”; the harmonic simplicity of this arrangement lets the melody speak for itself, maintaining a laconic yet deeply expressive style, which can range from introverted pondering in the middle section to pompous celebration in the finale.
Conversation with Sergei Prokofiev: The title alone betrays Xatzidakis’s intention with this piece; a calmly ascending melodic line in octaves over a steady “oum- pah” accompaniment shows unmistakable traces of the “Dance of the Knights” from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” suite. And yet, this piece also draws a link with a type of Greek dance called “xasapikos”, which originated from folk dance practices in Macedonia but became widely popular as an urban dance to be danced in the havens of rebetiko musicians and songwriters. These musical references bring many layers of meaning to the piece, ultimately highlighting the many aspects of modern Greek music.
Tsamikos: This is an originally stately circle dance, noted for its steady succession of steps and the grace and earthiness which the dances assume while taking part in the dance. It is important to note that, according to the tradition, the leader of the group is responsible for executing virtuosic dance figures that ornament the otherwise unchanging procession, something that Xatzidakis manages to capture within the first bars of the piece by means of complex ornaments and broken chords. The second half breaks into rapturous excitement as rapidly repeated chords, wide glissandos and constant upwards runs give off a sentiment of elation and jubilance.
Mantinada: Perhaps the most intimate of all the pieces in the suite, this hidden gem is an arrangement of a tune used to recite Mantinades- short two-line poems in rhyming couplet form that are noted as a means of impromptu emotional expression, especially in the Aegean islands and in Crete. The arrangement that Xatzidakis has written for this exquisitely expressive melody is a slow but delicate buildup of contrapuntal texture, emphasizing the repeated nature of the melody, until an ending phrase comes to give end to a true moment of calm in the very middle of this work.
Ballos: Coming in stark contrast with the preceding prelude, this dance is noted for its sprightly winding chromatic melody over a constantly moving ostinato accompaniment that drives the energy to a staggering finale. It is worth noting that, in continuation of a tendency to avoid emotionally expressive markings in 17- and 18-century Western European music, Xatzidakis refrains from indicating any volume level until the very end of the piece. A superfluous instruction, perhaps, that could have been misconstrued and exaggerated by the over-indulgent pianist, dynamic markings seem to be of secondary importance when dealing with music so deeply rooted in instinctive and spontaneous performances as Greek folk music.
Nocturne: Every bar of this very short, 19-bar prelude is full of surprises. Smooth, jazzy and atmospheric sonorities are counteracted by rapid scutters, musical jests and fleeting gestures as the piece unfolds, bringing a nice blend of quirkiness and esoteric melancholy. Xatzidakis was known for his awareness of the recent innovations in classical music scenes around the world, and therefore he shows in the preludes his appreciation for the emerging trends through a remarkable variety of techniques used in this work.
Calamatianos: The only one of the dances written in an irregular metre- 7/8- the Calamatianos is a subcategory of Syrtos originating from Peloponnese. The first of its two sections unfolds with an almost alarming calm and restraint. It is once it has finished that the real celebration breaks out. Virtuosic acrobatics and tricky figures around every barline help connote the overflowing exhilaration of the dancers as the piece reaches its climax before gradually fading away, ending with nothing but a playful wink of the eye.
Pastoral: There are only a few examples of Pastorals in classical Greek music, and this one definitely stands out. Xatzidakis uses here his Impressionistic brush to paint bucolic scenes of the Greek countryside in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Debussy. The piece’s opening chords, built solely on fifths, always brings to my mind an image of a vast field on a bright spring’s day in Thessaly. A series of trills announce the new section, a passionate but thoughtful peasant’s song accompanied as if by a lonely lute. The music becomes more and more expressive until it decides to die out, giving its place to the original idyllic mood.
Grand Sousta: a veritable tour de force for the pianist, this finale is the perfect choice to end the suite. The Sousta is a dance whose origins lie in the Pyrrhichios, the oldest ancient Greek war dance traditionally performed wearing armor and holding spears. The dance made its way into the tradition of, among other places, the Aegean islands, where it gradually transformed into the Sousta, a dance performed in male-female couples known for its characteristic bouncing motion. After a straightforward statement of the main tune, the piece turns in the middle part towards a different melody full of charm and wit accompanied by an animated ostinato bass. The section ends with a small bang before a second, more powerful musical explosion is prepared. The final page of the piece starts off as a very quiet, rhythmically tiptoeing pedal note that, slowly but surely, rises to a tremendous blast of excitement as the dances dive in for the final statement of the melody.
Not only is this suite a perfect summary of several major stylistic trends in Greek music, but this is also done so in a novel manner brimming with the vitality of freshness. Xatzidakis is not afraid to let the musical materials unfold playfully, putting his mark on the history of classical Greek music.
Phoebus Kyriakoudis, September 2020
Xatzidakis, M., 1986. For A Little White Seashell- Preludes And Dances For The Piano. Athens: Seirios.
Xatzidakis, M., 1988. The Mirror And The Knife (Ο Καθρέφτης Και Το Μαχαίρι). Athens: Icaros.
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