Nikos Skalkottas: biography μουσική
(biography by Christophe Sirodeau – English version)

Despite a very striking personality, an abundant œuvre of a very high quality and a highly original musical language, the Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949), a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill and Philipp Jarnach, has remained almost unknown to the public up to the present; he is known only from dictionary entries and to a small number of musicians. Nevertheless, in the 1965 edition of Larousse’s French musical dictionary, the musicologist Harry Halbreich in his article on Greek music already wrote: ‘But it is the following generation (after the founders of the national school, Kalomiris and Petridis) who offer us the greatest of all Hellenic composers, Nikos Skalkottas’. And Halbreich adds later: ‘His œuvre is warm, lyrical and sombre like Alban Berg’s, sometimes as tenuous and re.ned as that of Webern, and as rhythmical as Stravinsky or Bartók. But, above all, he possessed a clarity and lucidity that were truly Mediterranean’, and he speaks of
the compositions of Skalkottas as ‘representing one of the most important œuvres of our epoch’. Nikos Skalkottas was born at Halkis on the island of Evia on 8th March 1904. His father, Alekos, originally came from the island of Tinos (Cyclades) while his mother, Joanna, came from Hostia in Beothia. At the age of .ve, with the help of his father, he built himself a little violin. It was his uncle Kostas who, the same year, started to teach him the violin. In 1909 the family moved to Athens to provide Nikos with a better education.

He later continued his study of the violin with Tony Schulze at the Athens Conservatory, which he left in 1920 with a brilliant diploma. Indisputably one of the decisive events of Skalkottas’s life was obtaining a scholarship in 1921 from the Averoff Foundation which allowed him to move to Berlin (where he remained until 1933) and to pursue advanced study of the violin under Willy Hess at the Academy of Music at a crucial moment of both his artistic and human development. At this time Skalkottas would have had access to all the leading international aspects of music and the arts.
During the years of the Weimar Republic almost the entire artistic élite of the world visited Berlin. Since his first year of study he had known the Ukrainian violinist Mathilde Temko with whom he had two daughters, only the second of whom, Artemis Lindal, survived. They separated in 1931 and Mathilde moved with her daughter to Stockholm.
After studying the violin for two years in Berlin he decided to devote himself entirely to composition. His .nancial state of affairs was far from satisfactory and he worked, for example, in the cinemas accompanying films as well as orchestrating
music for the Odeon label. But he was also supported by a rich family, the Salomons. As early as 1925, after studying under Paul Juon and attending a number of courses with Kurt Weill (which seem to have continued until 1926), he produced his .rst masterpiece, the Sonata for solo violin (dedicated to Nelly Askitopoulou; BIS-CD-1024), prior to studying for two years under Philipp Jarnach (himself a pupil of Busoni). A second little jewel saw the light of day in July 1927. This was the collection 15 Little Variations for piano, a piece of astonishing maturity. It was only then that Skalkottas began his studies under Schoenberg, which continued until August 1930, this time with the support of a scholarship from the Benakis Foundation. Schoenberg, in the course of a conversation with the pianist Marika Papaioannou (a pupil of Arthur Schnabel) spoke very highly of his new pupil. In 1948, shortly before his death, he mentioned (completely ingorant of whether Nikos Skalkottas was alive or whether he had composed anything since 1933), that: ‘among my hundreds of pupils, very few have become [real] composers: Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Hans Eisler, […] Roberto Gerhard, Nikos Skalkottas, Norbert von Hannenheim’. It was in these years that some of his orchestral works were
performed in Berlin and during his trips to Athens. (John G. Papaioannou records that he conducted the inaugural concert of a series labelled as ‘popular’ comprising his Concerto Grosso for wind orchestra and the first performance in Athens of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony, D.944). These were in fact the only occasions on which he could hear or conduct his atonal or serial orchestral
scores. From the summer of 1931 his situation seems to have deteriorated, with his losss of the Benakis Award, his separation from Mathilde and, above all, a mysterious break with Schoenberg, the principal effect of which seems to have been his almost total cessation from composing in 1934-35. It seems, for example, that Schoenberg had reproached him for writing ‘too many notes’ in his
First Piano Concerto (BIS-CD-1014) to which Skalkottas replied with aplomb that his concerto contained all the necessary notes. In May 1933 he returned to Greece, intending to spend some months there, as on previous visits, before returning to Berlin – which explains why, without a qualm, he left his manuscripts as a guarantee for unpaid rent. But, not having done his military service,
he would not have been able to renew his passport; this would explain why he found himself unable to leave Greece. This was a return to his country which he certainly did not intend to be definitive at this time. In a letter to his friend Rudi Goehr in 1947, Skalkottas regretted ‘that he had not also been able to leave for America’. As regards his abandoned manuscripts (large numbers of
manuscripts were later accidentally destroyed), John G. Papaioannou recalls how, when he asked for news of the works written in Berlin, Skalkottas responded: ‘but if you are interested in these works, let me know; I shall be able to rewrite them for you’; in fact he remembered all his works in detail. In 1935 he reconstructed his First Symphonic Suite, written in Berlin in 1929, from memory.
His return to Athens marked the beginning of an extended period of research that led to his rediscovery of popular music: after several years of crisis as a composer, certain transcriptions – projects officially offered to him by Melpo Merlier – certainly encouraged him to produce the famous 36 Greek Dances which brought him his first definite success in his own country. In fact, only a few of his modal or tonal works were performed in Greece during his lifetime, notably two ballets. None of his other works was performed, all attempts to do so proving abortive. This was the case with the Concertino for Oboe, although that work was almost
performed, and Skalkottas even produced a programme note about it. This text is otherwise very instructive, as Skalkottas calls upon the audience to respond to the humour in his music. There is ample evidence to suggest that there were two distinct sides to Skalkottas’s character: that of a pleasant, dynamic figure keen on making jokes, and that of an isolated man (as much a result of
others’ rejection as of his own choice), secretive and sad. It seems that, on his return to his native country, Skalkottas was the victim of a certain number of intrigues and, in order to survive, he was obliged to fall back on work as a rank and file violinist in the three orchestras in Athens – which he continued to do right up to the end of his life. Disappointed, he isolated himself completely and
refused to discuss music seriously with anybody except on the exceptional occasions when he was certain that he was talking to somebody who understood him (as John G. Papaioannou has explained). Between 1935 and 1944 he produced
the principal works in his extensive œuvre, tackling highly diverse genres and utilizing notably (but not exclusively) a multi-serial dodecaphonic system of his own invention (very elaborate and rich in possibilities) in works which were often very large in scope. This is the case with the Second Symphonic Suite in six movements, which lasts for 75 minutes and which is one of his principal
works (alongside the 32 Pieces for piano presented here – written, by contrast, in ‘free’ atonality). We should call attention to the fact that the Second Symphonic Suite is still awaiting its first complete performance. Only three of the six movements have so far been heard, notably the sublime Largo Sinfonico (No.4; BIS-CD-904). The orchestration of the end of the fifth movement, which was interrupted by the death of the composer, and of the finale (No.6), has been completed by the musicologist and composer Kostis Demertzis who has also published an impressive work on Skalkottas’s orchestration. It was in May 1944 that Skalkottas was arrested by the Nazis for infringement of the curfew: he had the fortune not to be thrown out of office, as often happened at that time, and he was ‘rightly’ interned in the camp at Khaidari for several months. It was also during the war, in 1943, that Skalkottas met the pianist Maria Pangali. They married after the war in 1946. Their first son, Alekos, was born in 1947. But if this new situation gave him the courage to deal more easily with a new creative crisis, he still remained very withdrawn, capable of going for days at a time without uttering a word. In the night between Sunday 18th and Monday 19th September 1949, Skalkottas revealed to his wife that he had an intolerable pain in his abdomen. He had not wanted to upset her earlier because she was just about to give birth (on
Wednesday 21st) to a second son. Skalkottas was rushed to hospital for an operation but, three hours later, he died. In fact he probably did not receive treatment in time because of a wrong diagnosis by a doctor friend. At the time of his brutal death on
19th September 1949, Skalkottas was practically unknown, unpublished, unrecorded and unplayed. His past successes in Berlin were forgotten, save among some of his colleagues who were still alive such as Walter and Rudi Goehr. It was to be more than fifty years before all of his works were played at least once. At the time of his death it was Richard Strauss, who had died ten days earlier, who was being fêted. What is striking when one listens to the works of Skalkottas is their profound originality when
legitimately compared with those of his teacher, Schoenberg, or with the works of Berg, Bartók and above all Stravinsky, whom Skalkottas had always deeply admired. What one first admires are the incredible colours of his chords, often strikingly written using a very large compass, a kaleidoscope of very elegant harmonies, at once perpetually different and yet always presenting a secret
tie. The second element, closely associated with the first, is the richness of the rhythmic life and a very powerful energy that runs through the musical structures. Thirdly, one admires the extraordinary eclecticism of his musical language beyond the common stylistic aspects of all his scores: the musical language of Skalkottas is notably characterized by the frequent usage, often in parallel, of free atonality, twelve-note serialism, and above all of multi-serial, tonal and even modal, folkloristic music also including borrowings from Jazz. More especially, for Skalkottas, popular and demotic music and ‘scholarly’ music were not in opposition, but each fed the other. One also notices a tendency to use grandiose conceptions of musical time or of mass sonorities close to those of the titans of the end of the nineteenth century such as Bruckner or Mahler, not only in his orchestral scores but also in many of his chamber works. In effect, paradoxically, even if he was not proprietorial about the spirit of neo-classicism, Skalkottas felt much closer (as John Thornley has remarked) to the current of New-Objectivity. A very personal aspect is also evident in the way he uses a twelve-note system that is more complex than Schoenberg’s. As John G. Papaioannou explains: ‘in place of the single hierarchy (for
example the series of twelve notes – isolated note), he introduces a double hierarchy (complex of series – series – isolated note), the ‘complex’ consisting of between two and sixteen (exceptionally eighteen) independent twelve-note series – the basic material thus becomes richer and readily leads to much more varied works. Furthermore, the superimposed hierarchical levels (initially two) multiply (similar to the ladders, even ‘fractals’, discovered long after the death of Skalkottas). A further point that is equally often noted is his forced isolation in Greece from the international world of music, something that allowed him to develop a very personal path in music and its techniques away from the sometimes sterile debates – having been familiar with all the contemporary music in the world up to 1933, he seems in effect not to have read or heard anything after this date with the exception of the score of Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet from 1936, which he encountered after the war.

The music of Skalkottas fully reflects its cultural roots in all its aspects, including the mystical and non-temporal dimensions of ancient Greece – not only by certain atmospheres but also in the use of Pythagorean subtleties in structure such as the Golden Section – and this as much in his scores that were inspired by folklore, such as the 36 Greek Dances, as in the most sophisticated serial and atonal works, not forgetting the tonal works that have hardly been played at all yet, precisely on account of the ‘crusade’ to present Skalkottas’s major twelve-note and serial or atonal works.