(Leipzig, 1907 – Sharon, Massachusetts, 1995)
Charilaos (or Harilaos) Perpessas (or Perpesas) was born on 10 May 1907 in Leipzig, where he spent his childhood and youth. He was the eldest son of Constantine Perpessas and Agnes Mustafa from Siatista, West Macedonia. His father was a prosperous fur merchant in Leipzig. Charilaos grew up in a wealthy, bourgeois environment and received an excellent education. He attended the König-Albert-Gymnasium of Leipzig and was taught the Greek language privately by Siatista scholar Christos K. Kapnoukagias.
Αt the age of twenty, he joined Arnold Schönberg’s Meisterschule at the Berlin Arts Academy. He never provided any information about his earlier musical studies. In 1947, Schönberg noted in a letter of recommendation for Perpessas addressed to the Juilliard School: ‘he must have graduated from a German conservatory (which means something to me!), and I would not have accepted him, if I hadn’t thought that he was talented’.
He only attended two semesters at the Arts Academy, and never completed the three-year course of the Meisterschule, due to serious financial difficulties of his family.
Although he was on excellent terms with Schönberg, he never adopted the twelve-note system, but remained faithful to the European musical tradition as it had evolved up to the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.
His first period includes pieces for piano and chamber music (which are not saved; they were probably destroyed) as well as a symphonic work entitled ‘Dithyrambs of Dionysus for Orchestra and Piano’ (preserved complete). With the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933, he left Germany – never to return — and after a brief stay in Zürich, he came to Athens. This marks the beginning of his second period. In December 1934, he received an award at the Composition Contest of the Athens Academy for ‘Piece for Orchestra’, a symphonic poem in three movements, adagio, allegro and finale bearing the pseudonym ‘ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ’. It was a programmatic work, inspired by the last moments of a dying man, and is not saved.
During his residence in Athens, he continued his creative career as a composer. His style was oriented towards romantic and post-romantic composers, especially Gustav Mahler. He never belonged to a national school, an attitude criticized by the musicologists of the time.
‘Prelude and Fugue for Orchestra’ was written in 1935 and premiered in January 1936 by the Athens Conservatory Symphony Orchestra with Perpessas himself as conductor. In the concert programme of the New York Philharmonic for the year 1948, when this work was performed under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos (4, 5 and 6 Nov.), we read the composer’s revealing confession: ‘One of the most important things I learned from Schönberg was impartial self-analysis and criticism. When my works did not survive either of these I simply destroyed them’.
During the years 1936-1937, he composed ‘Symphony no. 2’, with the movements Andante-Presto (destroyed or incorporated into later compositions).
In December 1944, at the onset of the civil war in Athens, he broke the curfew and was arrested by an English patrol. During his attempt to escape, he lost his left arm from a mortar shell.
In 1945, he married musicologist and singer Eleni Malafeka, head of the Department of Music at the Ministry of Education. Their daughter, Eleonora (1946-2009), taught piano in Massachussetts for over twenty years.
Perpessas started composing the ‘Christus Symphony’ before 1948, a year that marks the close of his second and the beginning of his third period, with his departure for America. It was completed in 1950, in New York and the first performance was given on 26 October 1950 by the Orchestra of the Philharmonic-Symphonic Society of New York at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos.
In the mid-1950s, Mitropoulos, the warmest supporter of his music, severed all contact with Perpessas when the latter broke an agreement to compose a new work as part of a commission on a yearly scholarship, for which Mitropoulos had used his influence. Instead of a new composition, Perpessas presented the ‘Symphonic Variations on Beethoven's Eighth Symphony’.
In the years that followed, he orchestrated J.S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 127 (‘The Infinite Bliss’, Symphonic Interpretation of Beethoven’s op. 127). The ‘Prelude and Fugue for Orchestra’, which was later renamed ‘Song of the Concentration Camp’ includes on a handwritten score the following allegorical motto (in English, therefore written in America): ‘Motto: I voluntarily descended into my Tomb in order, after having gone through Purgatory, to celebrate my triumphal Resurrection’.
Perpessas’ last work, ‘The Opening of the Seventh Seal’, is made up of two parts. The first, a four-movement symphonic work for soloists, choir and orchestra, includes the following titles: ‘Tomb and Resurrection’, ‘The Song of the Volga’ (original title: ‘The Song of the Boatmen’), ‘Worldrevolution’ (sic), ‘Worldrestitution’ (sic). The second part, a philosophical treatise based upon St John’s Revelation and texts of the early Christian apologist Hippolytus, explores esoteric philosophy and theosophy, metaphysics and mysticism, ancient Greek literature and mythology, as well as the principles of astrophysics and cosmology.
One can detect in his musical writing both his personal stylistic elements in the harmony and rhythm and the idioms of such romantic and post-romantic composers as Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, Ravel and R. Strauss. He described himself as a ‘traditionalist’, ‘a man of the great tradition’, and saw his individual style as ‘an attempt to continue the work of Gustav Mahler’. He would sign as ‘HP Aquarius’.
Existing works (unfortunately, only the first three in complete form): ‘Dithyrambs of Dionysus for Orchestra and Piano’, ‘Prelude and Fugue for Orchestra’, ‘Christus Symphony’, ‘Symphonic Variations on Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony’, ‘Symphonic Interpretation of Beethoven’s Quartet op. 127’, ‘The Opening of the Seventh Seal’, as well as some sketches upon works by Beethoven and Mahler.
He died on 19 October 1995 at Sharon, Massachusetts, at the age of 88.
Thanks to the efforts of the composer’s niece, Athina Rosenbaum, and upon the advice of musicologist Peter Gradenwitz, the authentic scores of these works were deposited at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, while copies on microfilm are kept at the ‘Lilian Voudouri’ Music Library of Greece.
[English translation by Helena Grigorea]