Apostolos Kostios, Dimitri Mitropoulos’ 10 Inventions

(Translation by Demetrios E. Lekkas)


The acclaim of DIMITRI MITROPOULOS (1896-1960) as one of the most illustrious conductors of the 20th century owes nothing to publicity mechanisms; a product of wide public acclaim, it has been established in its own right in the minds of both serious critique and, indeed, the harshest judges among all: musicians in major orchestras round the world.

The potential of an ever-growing discovery of Mitropoulos's universe on the part of both specialists and music lovers is due to the fact that the versatile Greek musician did precede his own time, not only as an interpreter-recreator (conductor and pianist) but also as an original creator-composer.

Dimitri Mitropoulos started composing at a young age (his first works date back to 1912). By the end of the 1920's, he gave up composing in order to dedicate himself to conducting fulltime. The catalogue of his works lists forty-eight titles (for full and chamber orchestra, piano, choir, voice and orchestra, voice and piano, opera, stage music); to these one should add five transcriptions (three for full orchestra, one for string orchestra and one for violin and piano, of works by J.S. Bach, Camille Saint-Saëns and Henry Purcell), as well as four adaptations for string orchestra (of quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven, César Franck and Edvard Grieg). Mitropoulos's corpus of compositions has already occupied its proper place in the realm not only of Greek but of international musical creation: he was the first Greek composer to abandon "functional" tonality and proceed to atonalism (10 Inventions), and to applying Schönberg's twelve-tone method (Ostinata for violin and piano), before Nikos Skalkottas.

Thanks to Mitropoulos's compositions, the element of folk music gets upgraded; having shed its “folkloric” decorative character, it assumes a specific functional role within the “system” of art music. This procedure paves a new road to the democratisation of music, a democratisation involving the non-discriminatory acceptance of elements of a “lower-class” provenance, an inward democratisation of music per se, not confined to the ways and means of its dissemination. In this context, Mitropoulos converges with Béla Bartοk. Having crossed the narrow straits of neo-classicism and the Vienna School, the overlooked Greek composer emerges not only as a pioneer for his own time but also as a forerunner of a much later era, so that he would appear very much modern even today; much more so, because of the ever-growing appeal that his work exercises on the contemporary international public.

Among his most important works are: opera Sœur Béatrice, Concerto grosso for orchestra, piano works such as Passacaglia, Preludio e Fuga, chamber music including Ostinata in tre parti for violin and piano, songs on poems by C. Gavafy (10 Inventions), by Angelos Sikelianos and others. The stage music he wrote for Electra by Sophocles and for Hippolytus by Euripides (directed by Dimitris Rontiris) has set landmarks and signalled new directions in the venture of reviving classical Greek drama.

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Mitropoulos’ opus 10 Inventions, settings of poetry by Constantine Cavafy, is an illustrious sample of his composing artistry as regards vocal music. Already by 1924, D.M. had completed the composition of fourteen inventions in all; eventually, he chose ten of them, which he published as a cycle of songs, rearranged in four units: I. 4 Canons, II. 2 Passacaglia, III. Preludio e Fuga a 4 voci, IV. Pedale-Coda (Finale). The premiere performance of 10 Inventions was presented in the Athens Conservatory concert hall on June 5, 1927, featuring soprano Popi Sertsiou, with the composer on the piano. Let it be pointed out that D.M. was the first composer ever to dare associate his music with the heretical vein of the “marginal” Alexandrian poet.

If –according to Schönberg– originality be one of the par excellence evaluating criteria for a composition, then, in his Inventions, D.M. sets a unique example –without precedent and, perhaps, without follow-up–, in which the vocal part actively partakes as a building block in shaping the strict Baroque-derived forms (canon, passacaglia, fugue), along with the other voices participating in purely instrumental parts (i.e. imitating the vocal part without carrying the text, as would be the case in a conventional context); in fact, these other voices undertake the task of a (strict imitating-canonic) support, far surpassing the limited character of a mere accompaniment. He thus designed a new species of “song”, which had never existed in the classical period so that it could be called neo-classical, or in the Baroque so that it would justify a classification as neo-Baroque. The case here is that of a synthesis of techniques and elements from different periods, which, in establishing form per se as an integral content of the composition (see below), essentially does away with the “antithesis” between form and content; and this would yield a different meaning to Mitropoulos's composing, identifying him as a true creator.

It is also evident that the composer, in the particular opus, attempts a personal proposal-solution to the problem of conjoining speech and music –in a manner far removed from any previous attempt in Greek musical literature. This problem had remained largely unsolved, despite persistent efforts by Manolis Kalomoiris and later composers. This solution does constitute inventing a mechanism of balance between demands of articulating speech and rules of structuring strict musical form. Step 1: he will choose to employ a mostly syllabic setting rather than a melismatic one (i.e. one rather than many notes to one syllable), according to the model of proto-Byzantine melopoeia, a style favoring the projection of speech, especially in a language such as Greek, with its rich thesaurus of multisyllable words. Step 2: he will liberate poetic speech from the “imitating-canonic” requirements governing the other parts –as already pointed out–, so that, much as the vocal part contributes melodically, it will not be subdued to formalistic demands, rendering its function a primus inter pares in the voicing complex; at the same time, the rest of the voices, substantiated in the piano part, are cast in an equally protagonistic role rather than in an auxiliary accompanying one. Step 3: he will release his music from the tyranny of measure and bar-line, thus allowing Cavafy's speech to pursue its own phrasing without constraint, simultaneously securing the potential of preserving verbal prosody without deviation. Step 4: he will avoid large jumps in the sung part, mostly executing steps of small or large seconds, effectively bridging the gap between music and speech as though by something akin to musical recitation (Sprechgesang).

One extra element bestowing originality on Inventions (a feature of all the works of his second, composing period, 1924 and thence) is the following fact: in turning towards neo-classicism; or rather by his neo-Baroque shift, not only does the composer adopt the forms of the era concerned by a forced choice dictated by atonalism's aversion towards sonata form (an atonalism that has not yet reached the twelve-tone solution for organizing the tonal material), but takes advantage of Baroque music's “symbolist” character, affording a meaning to its elements of form, aided by speech; he achieves that by furnishing these elements with a semantic function extending way beyond structure, as an architecture in its own right, as "moving forms in sound" according to Eduard Hanslick's familiar expression, and by avoiding the “naiveté” or triviality of descriptive music: for instance, the canon per diminuzione in the poem “Long ago” paints a music-morphological picture of fading memory by dragging each note far apart from the corresponding notes of the other voice. The per movimento contrario in the canon of poem “Comes to rest” keeps a direct significative / symbolic rapport with the speech, suggesting the contrast between an illegitimate erotic excitement and the fears of social contempt and taunt. The distance of memory from the actual imagery is represented in canon per imitazione rytmica in invention “The next table”, while the persistent agonized quest for a lost lover or the recurrent reminiscing of distant past events are made into music through obsessively repeating the rhythmic figure in the passacaglias of inventions “Days of 1903” and “Gray” respectively. As memory is awakened, triggered by each and every visual detail in the room that once was the erotic playground, the theme in invention “The afternoon sun” duly figures successively in all the parts of the four-voice fugue, weaving the experience long gone.

The emancipation of discord, featuring in all dissonant intervals (from small seconds to sevenths, to ninths et al.), the wise contrapuntal craftsmanship, the succession of chords in cluster-type blocks so frequently introduced (and at such an early time), all these contribute to the creation of a climate in each poem-invention upholding the composition of an opus where, much as musical form is served by the poem, the poem itself is also served by the musical form, within the context of a dialectic symbiosis spanning speech and music at once.

The composer's restrained musical expression of the poet's expressionist mood is detectable here; yet, however familiar and alert the listener be, he/she will probably conceive this expression in a more impressionistic fashion, in the sense of an emanating atmosphere. The 28-year-old composer writing in times of inhibition, 1924, coming forth boldly enough so as to venture a proposed subtitle “Hedonistic poems” in a letter of his addressed to the poet (15.07.1926), has preferred to avoid direct identification, reverting to creating his Inventions within a highly suggestive code of “musical apocryphism”, instead; thus he will only let “Delight of flesh between those half-opened clothes” be savored via breeches of sudden sforzandi in his music. He himself will explain why in his above-mentioned letter to the poet:

Now you may indeed be surprised at the boldness I dared show in my choice [of your songs]; yet, despite all the fears I had, the music is so befitting to this kind of measure and atmosphere that even the most moralist people liked it, I assure you; this time it has been music that has managed to appease the morally obsessed nerves of some of my audience.

It is evident that the composer shapes his choices in accordance with his personal aesthetics, but still without defying the moral code of his times-whether art purists like that or not. Behold, a similar respect to the social codes of his times, whichever they were, was also paid by no less than Mozart!

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