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Zoras: Nepenthe and Satires

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Zoras, Leonidas (1905-1987)

Nepenthe and Satires, KCN 70 (1951-1959)

Seven poems by Kostas Karyotakis

Musical setting for voice and piano

1. Nobility

2. Pen-pusher

3. Bronze Gypsy

4. Career

5. Michaliós

6. Childish

7. March: Funereal and Vertical

Duration: 15΄

ISMN: 979-0-801168-09-2

Pages: 56

Score editing: Sofia Kontossi

Score design: Yannis Samprovalakis

Music copying: Evelina Charkoftaki

Introductiry note and critical commentary: Sofia Kontossi

English translation: Helena Grigorea

Graphic design: Antonis Kapiris

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Composer Zoras, Leonidas

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Leonidas Zoras: Nepenthe[1] and Satires,[2] KCN 70


Seven poems by Kostas Karyotakis

Musical setting for voice and piano


The life of Karyotakis brought his melancholia. His melancholia brought the turbulent imagination, the thirst for the antilogical, the Faustian. The imagination brought the Elegies. The Elegies led to the Satires. The Satires led to suicide. It could not have been otherwise.

 Tellos Agras[3]


   When you cannot come to terms with reality and hover between the earthly and the spiritual, between beauty and necessity, you inevitably become a satirist. The irony that hides the deep sob, the bitterness about the absence of all things beautiful, great, or at least tragic, which the poet sought, out of sheer romanticism, throughout his prosaic life as a clerk, pervades the poems of Kostas Karyotakis that Leonidas Zoras chose —a felicitous choice indeed— to set to music. The neo-urban realism of Karyotakis’ poetry, and the modest, subdued, puzzled tone of his verse find their ideal expression in the unsophisticated, richly lyrical music of Zoras. And therein lies the success of the composer: he managed to capture the poet’s mood in Nepenthe, and to render the intensity of the dramatic crescendo of the Satires that led to his suicide.[4]


Birth of the work

Athens, Berlin 1951-1959


The composition of the song cycle Nepenthe and Satires [Νηπενθή και Σάτιρες] spanned the ’50s. At first, in the period 1951-52, Zoras composed four songs, entering the cycle in a manuscript chronological catalogue of his works as Nepenthe and Satires, 4 Poems by K. Karyotakis, and listing the songs in the following order: 1. “Pen-pusher” [“Γραφιάς”], 2. “Career” [“Σταδιοδρομία”], 3. “Michaliós” [“Ο Μιχαλιός”], and 4. “March: Funereal and Vertical” [“Εμβατήριο πένθιμο και κατακόρυφο”] (no such manuscript has been preserved). Two years later, in 1955, he finalized “Bronze Gypsy” [“Μπρούτζινος γύφτος”], reworking a 1925 first version (see Zoras and Karyotakis below), and in the following year he completed “Nobility” [“Ευγένεια”]. It was then that he must have copied out all six songs in the only final manuscript that has been preserved,[5] placing them in their definitive order. In 1959, having settled in Berlin, he composed “Childish” [“Παιδικό”]; we do not know if it was originally meant as part of the cycle or as an independent composition. In any case, it formed part of the cycle as penultimate song by the time of the first performance of the work by mezzo-soprano Nounouka Franghia-Spiliopoulou and pianist Yannis Papadopoulos on 1 Feb. 1967, at a Song Recital of Works by Leonidas Zoras (Terpsichore Hall, The Athens Hilton Hotel).[6] The work in its entirety was revived almost 40 years later, by baritone Spyros Sakkas and pianist Dora Bakopoulou, during the events entitled Leonidas Zoras: A Hundred Years From His Birth (5-16 Dec. 2005, Goethe-Ιnstitut Athen; organized by the Leonidas Zoras Archive).


Zoras and Karyotakis: a long relationship


The early encounter

With his love of poetry and his natural inclination for the art of versification, Leonidas Zoras recognized, as early as 1925, first among Greek composers, the poetic value of Karyotakis. Long before the publication of Elegies and Satires [Ελεγεία και Σάτιρες] (1927), and its impressive impact, at a time when, according to Pantelis Voutouris, “Greek society proved friendlier towards the model of the godlike poet-leader represented by Palamas, than the mortal and ultimately feeble poetic model of Cavafy and Karyotakis”,[7] Zoras wrote the first version of “Gypsy” [Γύφτος],[8] from the poet’s second collection, Nepenthe [Νηπενθή] (1921). Through that choice, the composer expressed his need to align himself with the poetic trends of his day, giving, at the same time, early intimations of his future dissociation from the sphere of influence of Manolis Kalomiris and the National School.

   Despite the fact that the theme of the poem is essentially traditional, the message and the formal elements are modern. Zoras did not fail to notice this innovation, giving it emphatic musical expression with gusto and humour, and introducing the most ‘neoteric’ tools that he had at his disposal: the gypsy’s “kick at the sun” is accompanied by a five-tone cluster rendered within the framework of a whole-tone scale, and by a touch of Sprechgesang notation in the voice part.[9]

   The song was performed in 1927, and, after extensive revision that radically changed its form to the point that it became a completely different work (melismatic elaboration of the voice instead of the initial syllabic setting, repetition of lines, twice as long text, and richer accompaniment), it was published in 1936 as part of a song collection entitled Sketches [Σκίτσα] (Kontossi Catalogue Number 38); since 1934, when it took its ‘final’ form, it has been performed by many great singers and pianists.


The mature appreciation

With the exception of the five-song cycle by composer Theodoros Karyotakis, published in memory of his cousin the poet in 1934,[10] when the shock of his suicide had not died down yet and the phenomenon of Karyotakism was still spreading dynamically, and while critics were divided as to the poetic value of his work,[11] the poetry of Karyotakis met with little response among Greek composers in the two decades that followed.[12] It was Zoras that picked up the threads in the early ’50s: using his favourite medium, song for voice and piano, he revamped his style, dissociating himself from the National School, and embracing modernism and atonality.

   In a direct dialogue with Greek modernist poets, the composer embarked on this transition with the pioneering choice of Seferis’ haiku (Instantaneous [Ακαριαία: Greek term for haiku], 1950, KCN 62), writing, at the same time as Argyris Kounadis,[13] one of the first settings in Greek music of the poet’s verse. He went on to approach George Th. Vafopoulos’ free verse (The Offering [Η Προσφορά], 1952, KCN 64), while, in 1954, he presented Diptych: Walls-Candles [Δίπτυχο Τείχη-Κεριά], to the poetry of Constantine Cavafy. In 1956, he returned to Seferis with the cycle Tomorrow Our Soul Sets Sail [Η ψυχή μας αύριο κάνει πανιά] (KCN 68). Still working at the Cavafy settings, he attained the consummation of his personal style in 1960, with Fourteen Poems of Constantine Cavafy [Δεκατέσσερα ποιήματα του Κωνσταντίνου Καβάφη] (KCN 73).

   Karyotakis kept him busy throughout the ’50s, a fact that explains the multiple melodic affinities between this work and the other song cycles of that period (direct affinities indeed with Instantaneous and The Offering).[14] Fully prepared, by that time, to musically render the “disruption of traditional verse in the poetry of Karyotakis”, as Kostas Stergiopoulos characteristically —and approvingly— describes it,[15] Zoras resumed the Karyotakis settings in 1951 with the poem Michaliós,[16] a kind of manifesto choice in a country devastated by a civil war and trying to heal its wounds. Through clear melodic allusions to “New Fate” [“Νέα Μοίρα”] from the earlier cycle Instantaneous, as well as to “Climbing Up” [“To Ανέβασμα”] from the cycle The Offering that was to follow, Zoras underlines in “Michaliós” the frequently meaningless death of the common man, juxtaposing the piano accompaniment (starting with rhythmic patterns of a military march that gradually turns into a funeral march) with the melodic supplication of the dying soldier’s unfulfilled wish to return home.

   The three songs that followed, “March: Funereal and Vertical” that closes the cycle, “Career”, and “Pen-pusher”, were completed within a week, in August 1952. One cannot but think that his choice of these two last poems reflects the deep disappointment Zoras experienced during his twelve years (by that time) as principal conductor at the Greek National Opera. If the opening motif of the piano in “Pen-pusher” sounds like the axe blow of cruel, inexorable fate, the simultaneous utterance by the voice of the line “Yet I’m still writing” [“ὅμως ἀκόμη γράφω”] at the end of the song is a clear indication of acceptance. In a different tone, the rhythmic uniformity of the dreary vocal line in “Career”, and the absence of support by the thin piano texture reinforce the sense of resignation that both poet and composer wish to convey. At the same time, the use of the quasi parlato technique allows the singer to render the poet’s sarcasm about the deceptive ideals that human life is often wasted on.

   In 1955, Zoras returned to “Gypsy”, reworking the first manuscript of 1925 in modern idiom. The more refined voice line, strictly faithful, from a rhythmic point of view, to the rendering of the internal rhythm of the words, bespeaks the experience gained by the composer in the three decades that had elapsed after the first version, while even the 1934 “Gypsy” is discreetly present in the piano accompaniment. So, in the programme of the first performance of “Bronze Gypsy”, the composer notes:

   “Forty-odd years ago, the first try. Many other attempts followed and, at long last, my music took a ‘final’ form. In this form, it was published and became known. But today I respectfully look back on the first inspiration. I believe that therein lies perfection.”

   In 1956, Zoras composed “Nobility”, choosing these eloquent verses for the opening of the song cycle: “When bitter years come, / Out of your pain make a harp, / And sing it out” [“Πικροὶ ὅταν ἔλθουν χρόνοι, / κάνε τὸν πόνο σου ἅρπα / καὶ πέ τονε τραγούδι”].

   The song “Childish” (last in chronological order of composition) was written in 1959, in Berlin, where Zoras had settled in the previous year. In the piano part, a melody reminiscent of a child’s innocent song contrapuntally magnifies the tragic quality of the words of the child’s prayer, and intensifies the emotion-charged atmosphere, leading up to the climax, the inevitable ending that follows.

   In lieu of an epilogue, I shall let the composer himself define the style of this work, by quoting a comment on “March: Funereal and Vertical” from the programme of the first performance:

   “Stark, gloomy, lacklustre —no metallic clangour— my own march seems to follow the course, funereal and vertical, of the poet. Without redemption.”



[English translation by Helena Grigorea]



Februar 1, 1967

Terpsichore Hall, The Athens Hilton Hotel

Song Recital of Works by Leonidas Zoras

Nounouka Franghia-Spiliopoulou, mezzo-soprano

Yannis Papadopoulos, piano

[1] The word nepenthes (νηπενθής: dispelling pain) is Homeric (from νη- [not] + πένθος [grief]). The collection was first published in 1921. It includes the poems that became the first 3 songs of the cycle.

[2] The third and last collection of Karyotakis, Elegies and Satires [Ελεγεία και Σάτιρες], published in 1927, includes the poems that became the last 4 songs of the cycle.

[3] Tellos Agras, “Karyotakis and the Satires” [“Ο Καρυωτάκης και οι Σάτιρες”], essay published in the Complete Works of K. G. Karyotakis [Άπαντα του Κ. Γ. Καρυωτάκη]. Athens: Govostis, 1938.

[4] Reprinted from the programme of the events Leonidas Zoras: A Hundred Years From His Birth [Λεωνίδας Ζώρας: Εκατό χρόνια από τη γέννησή του]. Athens: Leonidas Zoras Archive, 2005.

[5] MS Catalogue No. 70.Α.α[Ο26.1] (see Sources).

[6] Leonidas Zoras Archive, Programme [ΠΣ2].

[7] Pantelis Voutouris, “Literary Pursuits” [“Λογοτεχνικές αναζητήσεις”], in Christos Hadjiiossif (ed.), History of 20th-century Greece: The Beginnings 1900-1922 [Ιστορία της Ελλάδος του 20ού αιώνα: Οι απαρχές 1900-1922], Vol. I, Part 2. Athens: Vivliorama, 1999, p. 300.

[8] Nepenthe, The Shadow of the Hours, Strophes no. 10 [Νηπενθή, Η σκιά των ωρών, Στροφές αρ. 10]. The title of the song was derived from the first line.

[9] This last feature appears in the 1934 manuscript.

[10] The note “In the Poet’s Shadow / A Tribute” [Στη σκιά του ποιητή / Αφιέρωμα] on the second title page of the edition reveals the emotional origin of the work. The cycle consists of the following songs: “Poplars” [“Λεύκες”], “Free From Everything, I Want” [“Απ΄όλα θέλω ελεύτερος”], “A Little House Out of the Way” [“Ένα σπιτάκι απόμερο”], “For Twenty Years I Gambled” [“Είκοσι χρόνια παίζοντας”], “Bronze Gypsy” [“Μπρούτζινος γύφτος”].

[11] In his study “Karyotakism: A Phenomenon Inside and Outside Literature” [“Καρυωτακισμός: ένα φαινόμενο μέσα κι έξω από τη λογοτεχνία”], in Karyotakis and Karyotakism [Καρυωτάκης και Καρυωτακισμός] (Maria Stefanopoulou [ed.]; Athens: Modern Greek Culture and General Education Studies Society / Founder: Moraitis School, 1998), Alexandros Argyriou summarizes the critical attitudes up until the publication of Karyotakis’ Complete Works (1938), comparing the views of six authorities (A. Karantonis, T. Agras, V. Varikas, K. Th. Dimaras, T. Malanos, and G. Seferis). In his conclusion, he mentions, among other things, that, though all the scholars are convinced that “Karyotakis expressed a spirit —personal or collective, no matter— in a ‘unique’ way […], able to be conveyed to his reader”, they are in disagreement as to whether this was expressed in poetic language (p. 152).

[12] After the publication of his Complete Works in 1938, there were no reprints until interest was revived by the scholarly edition of his Works by George Savidis (1965, 1966), and Kostas Stergiopoulos’ treatise Influences in the Work of Karyotakis [Οι επιδράσεις στο έργο του Καρυωτάκη] (Athens: Sokolis, 1972).

[13] In that same year(1950), Kounadis completed the song cycle Plans for a Summer [Σχέδια για ένα καλοκαίρι], to the poetry of Seferis.

[14] For an account of these affinities, see: Sofia Kontossi, Aspecte ale Liedului în creația compozitorilor greci din prima jumătate a secolului XX[The Song for Voice and Piano in Greek Musical Creation During the First Half of the 20th Century]. Iași: Artes, 2011 (pp. 229-254).

[15] Kostas Stergiopoulos, “The Disruption of Traditional Verse in the Poetry of Karyotakis”, Poiesi [Ποίηση], Issue No. 3, Spring 1994.

[16] The songs are described in chronological order of composition, not in the order in which they appear in the song cycle.

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Zoras: Nepenthe and Satires

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