Dimitri Mitropoulos was born in Athens on 18 February 1896. After private piano lessons, he enrolled at the Athens Conservatory in 1910, his main teachers being Belgian violinist, composer and conductor Armand Marsick (harmony, counterpoint) and German pianist and music teacher Ludwig Wassenhoven. On 22March 1913, he made his first appearance as a pianist and composer at a private chamber music concert together with Marsick (presenting Un morceau de concert for violin and piano), and on 29 April 1915 he conducted the Athens Conservatory Symphony Orchestra in his composition Taphē (‘Burial’). In 1919, he completed his piano studies and was awarded a Soloist Diploma (with hons.) and the ‘Andreas and Iphigeneia Syngros Gold Medal’. At the same time, he was granted a scholarship for studies abroad by the Conservatory Board of Trustees.
Mitropoulos’ compositions during the period 1910-1920 display an overall cosmopolitan style with elements of late romanticism, impressionism, modality, selective folk influences and programmatic allusions. This period is completed with two large-scale works: the three-act opera Sœur Béatrice, to a play by M. Maeterlinck, Athens, 13 May 1920, and the prodigious four-movement Eine griechische Sonate, Brussells, 15 October 1920. After a brief stay in the Belgian capital, Mitropoulos sought new intellectual and musical stimuli in Berlin, where he initially joined the circle of Ferrucio Busoni. His silence as a composer during the years 1920-24 was counterbalanced by the rich experience he gained especially as a music assistant and piano accompanist at the Berlin State Opera, under the guidance of Erich Kleiber (1922-24).
Upon his return to Athens in the summer 1924, Mitropoulos took over the Hellenic Conservatory Symphony Orchestra and, in 1925, he became chief conductor of the ‘Concert Society’ Symphony Orchestra (which resulted when the student orchestras of the Athens and Hellenic Conservatories merged). From 1927 to 1939, he conducted the Athens Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, reviving the Athenian musical life. At the same time, he was moving in new directions as a composer: with the works Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga for piano (1924), 14 Invenzioni for voice and piano, to the poetry of C.P. Cavafy, and Ostinata in tre parti for violin and piano (1926-27), Mitropoulos introduced musical modernism in Greece through atonality and the twelve-note method. The significance of this move for a country of the European periphery is enormous, considering that in Italy, for example, dodecaphony was introduced by Luigi Dallapiccola as late as 1935-36. His temporary adoption of a more neoclassical identity, with additive rhythms, along with neotonaland sporadic folk allusions, is effectuated in the Concerto Grosso of 1928. Virtually detached from the spirit and ideology of the Greek National School, as early as 1910, Mitropoulos gradually dissociated himself from the circle of his fellow-composers. This fact, in combination with his dedication to conducting, which presaged the possibility of an international career, led him to abandon composition. His final works were the incidental music for two Greek tragedies, Electra by Sophocles (1936) and Hippolytus by Euripides (1937).
Dimitri Mitropoulos’ leap to international acclaim came on 27 February 1930, when he appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the triple capacity of conductor, pianist (in Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto) and composer (conducting his own Concerto Grosso). This was soon followed by a series of international engagements: Paris, Rome, Milan, Monte Carlo, Warsaw, Moscow, Leningrad, Boston. From the 1937-38 season, he took over the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, establishing it as one of the top American symphonic ensembles. During the season 1940-41 he made his debut as guest conductor in 14 concerts of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with great success. In 1941 he made his first appearance as conductor of the N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra, upon the invitation of Arturo Toscanini himself, and in 1942 he also conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Between 1944 and 1948, he was artistic director of the ‘Robin Hood Dell’ music society in Philadelphia. From the 1949-50 season, he became music director (together with Leopold Stokowski) of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1950, Mitropoulos returned to Europe. He appeared at the 13th Maggio Musicale of Florence, conducting R. Strauss’ Elektra. In 1951, he conducted the New York Philharmonic at the Edinburgh Festival, and in the same year he was elected artistic director of this orchestra. In 1952, he conducted the Italian première of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in the temple of the bel canto, the Teatro alla Scala. In the 1952-53 season he reduced his appearances as he was convalescing after a serious heart attack. During autumn 1955, the New York Philharmonic toured Europe; on 1 and 2 October, Mitropoulos conducted again in Greece, at the Herod Atticus Theatre, after an absence of sixteen years, in a pulsating and deeply emotional atmosphere.
In 1956, he continued his guest appearances in Europe (Teatro alla Scala, Salzburg Festival, Köln, Vienna State Opera). From 1957 onwards, the administrative council of the New York Philharmonic reverted to the system of joint chief conductors, with Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein. In the following year, Mitropoulos resigned and continued his career as guest conductor with a series of engagements with the greatest orchestras, opera houses and festivals in Europe and America. In 1959, he suffered a second heart attack. However, in January 1960, he conducted the New York Philharmonic in the first four concerts of the Mahler Festival; this was followed by performances at the Metropolitan Opera, the Salzburg Festival (with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras) and the Vienna State Opera. His last appearance before an audience was made on 31 October, with the Köln Radio Symphony Orchestra.
On 2 November 1960, Mitropoulos had his third, fatal, heart attack and died at the podium during a rehearsal of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with the orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala. He left the legacy of his oeuvre, small but extremely important for Modern Greek art-music, his recordings, his archive that was preserved thanks to the perseverance of his close friend Katy Katsogiannē and, above all, the humanism of a great musical figure, a model and a lesson for future generations.
Assistant Professor, School of Music Studies, A.U.Th.
[English translation by Helena Grigorea]