Leonidas Zoras was born in Sparta, in 1905, and died in Athens, in 1987. His father Michael came from the island of Tinos, a lawyer by profession, but also a playwright; his mother Anna Miliari was from Smyrna, of Corfiot descent.
The death of his father, when the composer was only two years old, forced his mother to settle in Athens, where Leonidas had to go to work in his early teens.
In 1919, he started his musical studies (violin) at the Athens Conservatoire [Odeion Athinon], with Mario Lobianco. He also attended voice lessons with Arghyri Ghini, and music theory classes under Manolis Kalomiris, at the National Conservatory [Ethnikon Odeion]; during the same period, he received lessons in conducting from Emilios Riadis, Dionysios Lavrangas, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Ivan Boutnikov.
During the period 1921-1925, Zoras wavered between writing and composing. Under the penname ‘Lidas Doras’, he published his juvenilia in various periodicals, using the same pseudonym for some of his early musical works. Though his future clearly lay in music, he applied his literary talents to the translation of librettos, and his love of poetry led him to the composition of song cycles that stand out among his oeuvre.
The first public performance of his works (songs and instrumental music) took place in 1927, and, in 1928, he became chorus master and conductor of the mixed choir of the National Conservatory. At the same time, due to his unsuccessful appearance in the role of Yannakis in Manolis Kalomiris’ opera Mother’s Ring [Το δαχτυλίδι της μάνας], he abandoned singing and dedicated himself to conducting and composing.
In 1931 took place the first performance of his works for orchestra, Greek Dance [Ελληνικός χορός], and Night Song [Νυχτιάτικο τραγούδι] for solo cello and small orchestra, while, in the following year, he wrote the incidental music for Kostis Velmyras’ prize-winning children’s play The Fairy Tale of Violandó [Το παραμύθι της Βιολαντώς]. In 1932, he married Kalomiris’ daughter Krinó, and lived with her until 1939.
In 1933, he made an excellent debut as a conductor in Mother’s Ring, and went on to conduct subsequent productions of Kalomiris’ short-lived National Opera Company in Athens, Thessaloniki, and Egypt (La martire [Η μάρτυς] by Spyros Samaras, The Haunted Bridge [Το στοιχειωμένο γεφύρι] by Theofrastos Sakellaridis, etc.).
In 1936, the piano suite Pieces for Children [Τα παιδιάστικα], and the collection Sketches [Σκίτσα] for voice and piano were published by Gaïtanos, Athens.
In 1938, having completed his studies in fugue, orchestration, and conducting under Kalomiris at the National Conservatory, he obtained a scholarship for the Hochschule für Musik of Berlin, where he studied chorus, symphony orchestra, and opera conducting with Walter Gmeindl and Fritz Stein, and composition with Hermann Grabner, Paul Heffer, and Boris Blacher. At the same time, he attended the rehearsals of the three opera houses of Berlin, and those of the Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Furtwängler and Böhm; he conducted symphonic concerts with Greek works at the Berlin Radio Station (among them, the premiere of his symphonic poem Legend [Θρύλος]), as well as two operas at the Volksoper (Mother’s Ring and Madama Butterfly). Upon completion of his studies, he returned to Greece, and was appointed head conductor at the Greek National Opera shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1941, he married dancer and subsequent choreographer of the National Opera Tatiana Varouti, and was elected board member of the Greek Composers’ Union.
Zoras conducted world premieres and Greek premieres of many works: Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland [The Lowlands] with Maria Callas; Beethoven’s Fidelio; Dimitrios Levidis’ The Shepherd and the Fairy [Ο βοσκός και η νεράιδα]; Der fliegende Holländer in the first Greek staging of a Wagner opera; the symphonic poem Minás the Rebel, Corsair of the Aegean [Μηνάς ο Ρέμπελος, κουρσάρος στο Αιγαίο], and the musical fairy tale Sunrise [Ανατολή] by Kalomiris; and the one-act opera The Afternoon of Love [Το απόγεμα της Αγάπης] by Marios Varvoglis. His name became associated with those of great opera singers: Maria Callas, Eleni Nikolaidou, Kostas Paskalis, and Nicola Moscona. At the same time, he conducted the Athens State Orchestra and the Greek Radio Symphony Orchestra, he translated librettos, and taught Advanced Theory Courses at the National Conservatory.
Dedicated to conducting for years, it was not until 1947 that he completed two new symphonic works, the suite In the Fields [Στους αγρούς] and Symphony No. 1. In 1948, he composed two song cycles, Three Little Melodies [Τρεις μικρές μελωδίες] and Nostalgic Songs [Τα νοσταλγικά]; the Sonata for Piano and Violin [Σονάτα για πιάνο και βιολί], the Concertino for Violin and 11 Woodwind Instruments [Κοντσερτίνο για βιολί και 11 ξύλινα πνευστά], and the song cycle Instantaneous [Ακαριαία: Greek term for haiku], to the poetry of George Seferis, appeared in 1950. In the early 1950s, through the medium of vocal music, Zoras made an aesthetic turn, away from the sphere of influence of the national school, to which belong the works of his first compositional period, towards a more personal, freely atonal idiom: with the exception of the Sonata for Piano [Σονάτα για πιάνο] (1956), the most important works of this period are the song cycles for voice and piano The Offering [Η Προσφορά], to the poetry of George Th. Vafopoulos (1952); Tomorrow Our Soul Sets Sail [Η ψυχή μας αύριο κάνει πανιά], to the poetry of George Seferis (1956); Nepenthe and Satires [Νηπενθή και Σάτιρες], to the poetry of Kostas Karyotakis (1959); and Five Songs for Female Choir A Cappella [Πέντε τραγούδια για γυναικεία χορωδία α καπέλα], based on the ‘Gifts of Love’ by George Karapanos (1957). In 1957, he made a highly successful tour in Germany, conducting at the Dresden State Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin; he also appeared as guest conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and at the Leipzig Opera.
In 1958, he disagreed with the administration of the National Opera, and moved to Berlin, where he made a noteworthy conducting career (at the RIAS radio station, at the Dortmund Opera, etc.); he also devoted himself to composition, completing the song cycle Fourteen Poems of Constantine Cavafy [Δεκατέσσερα ποιήματα του Κωνσταντίνου Καβάφη] (1960); Τhe Songs of Little Helen [Τα τραγούδια της μικρής Ελένης] (1961),to the poetry of Marina Krassa-Zora (his wife since 1953); and the Sonatina for harpsichord or piano (1961).
In 1968, he returned to Greece in order to take over as Director of the National Conservatory of Athens, and married Brigitte Kossov (1972). From that time on, his compositional output was limited: he wrote a short work for tuba, a few choral songs, and the orchestration of the suite Pieces for Children [Τα παιδιάστικα]. He made occasional appearances as conductor of the National Opera, the Athens State Orchestra, the Thessaloniki State Orchestra, and, more frequently, the Greek Radio Symphony Orchestra. He served as president of the Greek Composers’ Association, as board member of Greek Radio, as judge at the Grand Prix Maria Callas competition, and as a member of the Athens Festival Advisory Council and of the National Opera Artistic Committee.
[English translation by Helena Grigorea]