Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949)

   Nikos Skalkottas, one of the most important figures in Greek music of the first half of the 20th century, was born in the town of Chalcis (Euboea) in 1904. The family moved to Athens five years later, and young Skalkottas studied violin with Tony Schulze at the Athens Conservatoire (1912-1920), graduating at the age of 16 with the highest distinction, the ‘Gold Medal of Andreas and Iphigenia Syngrou’. In the following year, having received the ‘Averoff Foundation’ scholarship from the Athens Conservatoire, he embarked on postgraduate studies at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik under violin professor Willy Hess. In 1923, he turned to composition, studying with Robert Kahn, Paul Juon, Philipp Jarnach, and Kurt Weill (orchestration), before being admitted to Arnold Schoenberg’s composition masterclass at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin (1927-1931), a stronghold of contemporary music at the time, where he studied on a private scholarship from Greek national benefactor Manolis Benakis. In interwar Berlin, Skalkottas had a remarkable career both as a composer/orchestrator and as a performer, and was held in high esteem by his teachers as well as his colleagues. With the rise of Nazism, conditions deteriorated, and he could no longer survive there. Around March 1933, he was forced to return to Athens, leaving behind in Berlin about 70 music manuscripts. At first, he had difficulty adapting to the musical circles of Athens, but he soon resumed his career, working as an orchestrator at the National Theatre and, later, as a violinist in the Athens Conservatoire Orchestra (subsequently Athens State Orchestra), and the Greek National Opera Orchestra; he was unable, however, to make his mark as a composer, his work remaining largely unknown at that time. In Athens, he created an admirable catalogue of works, in quality as well as volume, feverishly composing more than a hundred in the sixteen years between his return and his sudden death, of strangulated hernia, in September 1949.
   His oeuvre comprises all kinds of music, except opera. His stylistic uniqueness lies in the originality of his simultaneous practice of two different idioms: tonal and atonal music, in open interaction with neoclassical techniques and national identity. His tonal works include the famous 36 Greek Dances for Orchestra (1931-1936), the ballets The Maiden and Death (1938/1947) and The Sea (1949), the Classical Symphony (1947), and the Sinfonietta in B-flat major (1948). With regard to his atonal or twelve-note output, such compositions as the Return of Ulysses (1942), the 2 Symphonic Suites, his Concertos (for violin, for piano, for double bass, for two violins, for violin and piano, for violin and viola), his 32 Pieces for Piano, the 15 Little Variations for piano, the 4 Suites for piano, the series of chamber works for wind instruments and piano, the series of works for violin and piano, and the string quartets  constitute landmarks as far as balance of form and content, compositional technique and musical maturity are concerned. 
   Recognition of his work has been largely posthumous. No more than three of his compositions were published during his lifetime, and he only lived to see very few works of the Athens period publicly performed. These works were his ballet music, some of his 36 Greek Dances, and a few chamber compositions. Immediately after his death, an unofficial Skalkottas Committee was formed, with musicologist and music critic Minos Dounias as chairman; in 1961, this committee became the Friends of Nikos Skalkottas Society, which was responsible for the Skalkottas Archive for a number of years, before it was transferred to the Emilios Hourmouzios–Marika Papaioannou Foundation in the early 2000s. As early as 1953, however, the publication of Little Suite for string orchestra by Universal marked the beginning of a systematic effort to publish, record, and internationally promote his work, mainly thanks to musicologist Yannis G. Papaioannou (1915-2000). During the 1980s, interest in the Skalkottas oeuvre reached the other side of the Atlantic, and, mainly through the efforts of composer, conductor, teacher, and music publisher Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), another series of works was brought out by Margun publications (later transferred to G. Schirmer, Inc.; subsequently Music Sales Classical). The decision, in the late 1990s, of the BIS label to record the composer’s complete works proved decisive for a wider appreciation of Skalkottas; 17 CD titles have already been released, and the edition is still in progress. The contribution of the ‘Lilian Voudouri’ Music Library of the Friends of Music Society, which now houses the Skalkottas Archive, is expected to provide impetus to research on, and dissemination of, the great Greek composer’s oeuvre, while the publication of hitherto unpublished compositions and orchestrations by the Hellenic Music Centre has enriched our knowledge of a part of his complex creation that remains largely unknown.

Yannis Samprovalakis
Musicologist, Hellenic Music Centre

[English translation by Helena Grigorea]