Nikos Skalkotas

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Nikos Skalkotas (Greek: Nίκος Σκαλκώτας) (21 March, 190419 September, 1949) was a Greek composer of 20th-century music. A member of the Second Viennese School, he drew his influences from both the classical repertoire and the Greek tradition.

Skalkotas was born in Chalcida on the island of Euboea, and started violin lessons with his father and uncle at an early age. His family moved to Athens, and he continued studying at the Athens Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1920. From 1921 to 1933 he lived in Berlin, where he first took violin lessons with Willy Hess. Deciding in 1923 to give up his career as a violinist and become a composer, he studied composition with Paul Kahn, Paul Juon, Kurt Weill and Philipp Jarnach. With Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Skalkotas returned to Athens, although his move may also have been motivated by the expiration of the scholarship that funded his studies. Once in Athens he sought other means of funding through scholarships or paid work as a player in different orchestras, but he was quickly disillusioned with the state of musical affairs in Athens at the time.

Skalkotas' early works, most of which he wrote in Berlin, are lost, as are some of those written in Athens. The earliest of his works available to us today date from 1922-24; these are piano compositions as well as the orchestration of "Cretan Feast" by Dimitris Mitropoulos. Among the later works written in Berlin are the sonata for solo violin, several works for piano, chamber music and some symphonic works. Although during the period 1931-1934 Skalkottas did not compose anything, he started composing again in Athens and continued until his death. His works comprise symphonic works (Greek Dances, the symphonic overture Return of Ulysses, the fairy drama Mayday Spell, the second symphonic suite, the ballet The Maiden and Death, the Classical Symphony for winds, a Sinfonietta and several concertos), chamber music works, as well as vocal works.

Skalkotas died unexpectedly in 1949 in Athens, leaving some symphonic works with incomplete orchestration, and many completed works that were given posthumous premieres. Besides his musical work, Skalkottas compiled an important theoretical work, consisting of several "musical articles", a treatise on orchestration, musical analyses etc. Skalkottas soon shaped his personal features of musical writing so that any influence of his teachers was soon assimilated creatively in a manner of composition that is absolutely personal and recognizable. Thus --in view of his works available to us-- Skalkotas' evolution as a composer follows certain invariable axes that define his confrontation with the historical, technical and musical challenges of his epoch, throughout his life.

Skalkotas's short life seems to symbolise the special vulnerability of the Schoenberg pupil whose musical roots lay a little outside Austro-Germanic traditions. Throughout his career Skalkottas remained faithful to the neo-classical ideals of Neue Sachlichkeit and "absolute music" proclaimed in Europe in the 1925. Like Schoenberg, he persistently cultivated classical forms, but his worklist is divided between atonal and twelve-tone and tonal works, both categories spanning his entire composing career. Such apparent heterogeneity could have been intensified by a love of Greek folk music. Nevertheless, he remained sceptical of the attempts of his Greek contemporaries to integrate it into the modern symphonic style, and only in one major work he juxtaposed and mixed folk, atonal and 12-note styles: the incidental music to Christos Evelpides's 1943 fairy-tale drama Mayday Spell, Skalkotas was evidently reluctant to deploy the kind of structural and stylistic tensions that would have betrayed the integrationist ideals of his Schoenbergian inheritance. This could be seen (in terms of a comprehensive connecting impulse) as a link between the second Viennese, Busoni and Igor Stravinsky schools. Skalkotas was able to draw diverse and in some ways conflicting threads together and not to compromise, rather to enhance, his own originality, range and power of expression. Nevertheless, his music has had only limited influence on postwar trends, even in Greece, probably due to its generally uncompromising demands on listener and performer alike, and its seemingly conservative formal and thematic aspects.

To the extent of the knowledge of any of this article's writers, Skalkottas's centenary day, 21 March 2004, passed without any significant acknowledgement from the musical world at large.

In 1988 a short documentary (60 mins) about his life and work was filmed with funding from the local authorities of Skalkotas' birthplace (the isle of Evia) as well as the Greek Ministry of Culture.

In recent years, the Swedish record label BIS has been recording and releasing his works on CD and SACD.

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