John G. Papaioannou, Dimitri Mitropoulos a Greek Sonata (orig. Eine Griechische Sonate)

Dimitri Mitropoulos is, of course, very well known as one of the great conductors of this century. In this sense, some absolute superlatives have been conferred on him by quite a number of reviewers and other experts. Among these, he has been proclaimed as the only great conductor of his time to have mastered to the same degree both classical and romantic music, on the one hand, and extreme avant-garde contemporary music (for the propagation of which he fought consistently and vehemently for a long period within his career, and in which he excelled), on the other. Members of the Vienna Philharmonic told Kate Katsoyanni (his companion, “muse” and wife): «We have played under the batons of all the greatest conductors of this century; it is only under Mitropoulos that we have felt transformed to such a degree that we played well beyond our accepted potentialities.»

Many other statements place him at the top of what could be achieved in the field of conducting. This is also evidenced by the magnificent films, made clandestinely during rehearsals and now released, where his technique of inspiring the musicians to the utmost detail is shown in astounding persuasiveness.

Mitropoulos, however, was also a most remarkable composer and this is a less well known aspect of his personality. He left some forty-five compositions (1) that can be divided into three internally continuous periods. The first, from 1912 to 1920 includes most of his works and shows an evolution from very early (1912-1915) But talented examples from his student years, to a more advanced, more daring, innovative style (1916-20) in which he experiments with novel ideas in harmony, rhythm and writing. This period culminates, towards 1919-1920 with two major works (2): the most remarkable opera, Sœur Béatrice, on a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, given its world premiere, and only performance so far, in Athens immediately after its composition, and the present Greek Sonata for piano (October 15, 1920), similar in style to the opera and clearly showing the way towards the next truly avant-garde period. This sonata received its world premiere (and only full performance prior to Geoffrey Douglas Madge's) by the composer himself in Brussels, immediately after its composition, in a recital where this “abendfullend” work was the only item on the programme. The second period (1924-1926/27) follows a “void” (1920-1924) during which he completely stopped composing. It was the period of his studies abroad (Brussels, Berlin). At that time he made the acquaintance of Ferruccio Busoni who served, partially, as his mentor in composition; Mitropoulos was never a true “student” of the great Italian composer-pianist-theoretician.

Mitropoulos seems to have faced problems of orientation, prolonging his previous “innovations” towards atonality, serialism (just being invented by Schoenberg at the time) and other avant-garde tendencies. Pondering how to continue, he remained silent for some four years (as was the case with Schoenberg from 1915 to 1923 and Nikos Skalkottas from 1931 to 1935 and 1945 to 1949). Immediately upon returning to Greece in the summer of 1924 he sat down and started composing in an experimental, atonal style which, however, is an extension of the evolution interrupted with Beatrice and the Sonata. In this second period, we find his most advanced, most daring compositions, particularly the magnificent song cycle, Ten Inventions, on poems by Cavafy, using baroque contrapuntal forms, and two more isolated songs, two piano pieces, the suite, Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga (1924) for piano, which the composer declared to be his “most successful composition”, and the astonishing Ostinata (1926 or 1927), a three-movement sonata for violin and piano, fully twelve-tone (the first twelve-tone work ever by any Greek composer, and one of the very earliest by any composer, after Schoenberg, internationally. In style it is less Schönbergian, more presaging Stockhausen. This brings his career as a composer to a virtual conclusion. Thereafter, he devoted himself whole-heartedly to conducting and composed only occasionally over the next ten years. Concerto Grosso for chamber orchestra (1928), Amalia for women's choir (1934) and his two very last compositions: incidental music to Sophocles' Electra (1936) and Euripides' Hippolytos (1937). From 1937 onwards, when his family finally settled in the USA, he stopped composing altogether. Some of Mitropoulos' works were performed during his lifetime. Leaving aside the two major works, the Ten Inventions, some easier songs, piano pieces, Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga, Ostinata and the two incidental music compositions for Greek drama all received performances. Some works were also published during his lifetime (3). Posthumous performances have been given in Greece (4). The Ten lnventions seem to be his only composition often played abroad (Italy, France & Egypt) posthumously, together with Ostinata (USA).

Following presentations by the Union of Greek composers, the Greek Musical Circle in Athens organised two commemorative presentations: (I) in Athens on October 12, 1989; piano works including the posthumous world premiere of the third movement of the Greek Sonata and of two more piano pieces; and (II) mainly late works including Ten Inventions, Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga and Ostinata and two other posthumous world premieres: the song ‘Aprhodite Urania’, on a text by Sikelanios, and the second movement of the Greek Sonata. In addition there were public discussions on April 2nd & 3rd 1990, a large exhibition early in 1990 of manuscripts, documents, records etc. and screenings of films, organised in collaboration with the Gennadios Library in Athens where the films were shown and where a number of reproductions of documents were distributed to the public. The Greek Touring Club organised an illustrated lecture by the author of the present text in Tripolis, Peloponnese, on September 27, 1986, and another event held at the Epidauros Ancient Theatre on the next day. The Ksyme, the centre for contemporary music in Athens, organised a commemorative evening, in Thesaloniki on October 8 1990, inaugurating a five-day avant-garde music festival, and a film, together with a small exhibition. In 1985 a large exhibition had been organized by Apostolos Kostios and the Greek Ministry of Culture. On this occasion an illustrated catalogue was published and included documents, autographs etc.

In spite of these many posthumous tributes to Mitropoulos, and others not mentioned here, his work as a composer remained almost unknown, especially outside Greece. It was therefore natural that the presentation of a major work by Mitropoulos at the 1990 Middelburg Festival (4) on May 10, 1990, as a posthumous world première, should be hailed as a “true discovery” of a major unknown work by an unknown composer, performed for a Western audience, by a renowned pianist, Geoffrey Douglas Madge. A four-column review in the Dutch newspaper Haagsche Courant was titled «The largest grand piano is too small for Mitropoulos». It stated, amongst other superlative pronouncements: «This [Greek Sonata] is an explosion of creativity ... the fifty minute composition almost demands the impossible .... Madge ensured an incredible ending to the Festival of New Music in Middelburg; incredible also that one of the most ... colossal works of the piano repertoire be brought to the public for the first time since the premiere in 1920 ... the climax is the slow third movement with its extremely evocative, deep, inner blocks of sound ... A “Mitropoulos renaissance” in Walcheren (the province where Middelburg is located)».

The only previous complete performance of this sonata was given by Mitropoulos himself at Brussels; the two “inner” movements were given recent posthumous world premières by Efi Agrafiotis.

The Greek Sonata is an unusually large-scale work. It is exceptionally demanding, both technically and musically. Mitropoulos himself was a brilliant pianist (his public performance in Athens, for example, Beethoven's Sonata opus 106 and his frequent solo performances of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in various countries, at the same time as he was conducting, are remembered as exceptional feats). He understood how to write most efficiently for the instrument and composed a great deal for it. At least twenty-eight of his compositions involve the piano either as a solo instrument, or as an accompaniment to voice or violin. His piano writing is full, rich, sensitive, varied and, technically, extremely difficult at times, particularly in the “outer” movements of the Greek Sonata

The title Eine Griechische Sonate, in German on the original manuscript, evokes more than mere “folklore” with the occasional inclusion of tunes, rhythms and other elements from Greek folk music. The work represents a turning, characteristic at the time (1919/1920), towards an exploration of the potentialities of traditional Greek music as a source to be more thoroughly integrated into contemporary compositions. A similar attempt had preceded the sonata (5) and later, in 1926, Four Dances for Cythera followed in a somewhat similar style.

The Greek Sonata is an extension of the piano writing of the three piano pieces published in Brussels. The first, Béatrice (foreshadowing the theme of the opera), dates from 1915/1916 and had already explored more daring harmonies and rhythms; it points, in a certain way, in the direction of the Sonata. The next piece, “Scherzo” (initially called “Sparks of Happiness”) dates from 1916 and innovates even more in the same direction, at times almost reaching the realms of atonality. Whereas the third piece, “Cretan Feast” is closer to typical Greek folklore. At the same time the Sonata paves the way towards the piano writing which by this time was almost, or completely, atonal, or twelve-tone, for the seven works towards the end of this second period (6).The short Klavierstück from 1925 is a twelve-tone work and points to another more abstract direction.

In this light, the Greek Sonata occupies a key position, a sort of central, focal point, in the evolution of Mitropoulos' piano style. Summarising what preceded it, presaging what was to follow, it represents an exceptional moment, densely packed with new ideas, within the fifteen years of his main career as a composer, that eventually gave way to his other, still more successful role as a conductor.

Although conducting was Mitropoulos’ final choice, absorbing him entirely during his American career from 1937 to I960, and ensuring him lasting fame, Mitropoulos was a multi-faceted personality and could boast many other skills. Composition was definitely much more than a side-line; during the fifteen years he devoted to it seriously and successfully, he proved he was a most original, accomplished, brilliant composer whose many major creations are now there to be discovered by international audiences for their future satisfaction. He was an outstanding pianist, an excellent percussionist (his main profession before becoming a conductor), a Korrepetitor (before conducting he worked in Berlin, from 1922 to 1924, rehearsing choirs, orchestras and other ensembles). He was an expert mountain climber, ascending many difficult peaks with ropes and specialized equipment, and an avid excursionist. He was a philanthropist who helped many talented, young musicians, with exemplary abnegation, often from his own pocket, sparing time and effort to help them achieve their full potential. He was a thinker whose few but essential writings prove the depth and visionary insight of his attitude towards art and life.


(1) Including six transcriptions, mostly for orchestra: three from Bach and one each from Purcell, Beethoven and Saint Saëns. 

(2) Together with Fête crétoise for piano, 1919, and two songs with piano, Kassiani, 1919 and l'Alouette, 1920.

(3) Three piano pieces were published by “L'art Belge” in Brussels, two songs (Rome, Paris), the Ten Inventions and one song in a private edition in Athens; (for the last two works, Mitropoulos' biographer, Apostolos Kostios, provided detailled introductory notes); ther was also a German edition of an advanced piano piece. 

(4) Including the Ten Invention (performed quite often), Three Piano Pieces published In Brussels, Concerto Grosso, Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga (regularly performed), the Ostinata (regularly performed), other piano pieces and songs, and early pieces (orchestral, songs, piano pieces.

(4) In this festival, there were twenty-three performances of works by ten Greek composers, including two world premieres.

(5) Fête crétoise, 1919; later orchestrated, in 1928, by Skalkottas, with the world premieres of the orchestral form at the Athens Festival on August 9, 1989. It is another example of brilliant and extremely difficult piano writting.

6) Particularly the Ten Inventions, Aphrodite Urania, Pan, Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga and Ostinata.

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