A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Nicos Skalkottas

Skalkottas, Greek composer, 1904-1949, is one of a legion of "great" composers who was ALMOST never discovered. Indeed, there are so many worthy artists who have never come before the public eye that one must wonder how many WEREN'T EVER discovered. It is common knowledge that the music of no less a composer than Joh. Seb. Bach lay fallow in a corner of a Leipzig library until the St. Mathew Passion was discovered by Mendelssohn in 1829 (54 years after the composer's death). WHAT IF Mendelssohn had not been looking for a piece for his community choir to sing? We know that, of the approximately 350 cantatas written by Bach, slightly more than 200 survive; if you do the math (one cantata=20 minutes (at least)), that's over forty hours of music, from the mind of one of the greatest musician who ever lived, lost. Lost.
Between 1927 and 1930, Nicos Skalkottas was a member of Arnold Schoenberg's Masterclass in Composition at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Schoenberg, history's foremost musical snob and elitist, included Skalkottas in a short list of individuals he considered to be "a composer." If Schoenberg said you were good, you HAD to be good. So there!
To be so designated by Schoenberg placed him at the zenith of estimable, artistic worthiness; so although one deplores the fact that Nicos was so completely forgotten, it is easy to explain this artistic anonymity when you remember that the composer's prime was right in the middle of World War II. After returning to Greece in 1933, he attempted to mount some performances of his work, but after meeting with hostility and rejection, he simply gave up, and lived out the rest of his life playing back-bench violin in the Athens Opera Orchestra. For years, nobody even knew that he was a composer.
However, when he died, a closet was discovered, in his house, filled to the top with completed scores plus parts, all copied out neatly and professionally, waiting for someone to come along and discover them. Many of these were then lost or destroyed (although, in 1954, some were recovered in the back of a secondhand bookshop), but we still have a fair sampling of his work.
I confess, the only composition with which I am familiar is the Contrabass Concerto. It made a deep impression on me when I first heard it. The piece is filled with the same concentration of ideas that characterizes the terse epigrams of Schoenberg's star pupil Anton Webern, and yet, in Skalkottas, there is also an expansiveness and humor (dig that string bass tango!), not to mention the tonal freedom, that characterizes Schoenberg's other great student, Alban Berg. You may even be so bold as to suggest that Skalkottas was the PERFECT Schoenberg student, the student who found a balance between two dangerous extremes implied in the 12-tone system.
As I sit here trying to think of how to explain what I mean by "dangerous extremes" I flash on the word "snooty." The Schoenberg Masterclass was filled with "snooty" characters. They bought into Beethoven's egocentric vision of the artist as the voice of God. a prophet, a saint who always looked down on the huddled masses with massive condescension. There is none of that in Skalkottas (I don't think there is in Schoenberg either, by the way)--it is full throated song, innocent and aware of its progenitors only peripherally, as it loses itself in enjoying itself.
It is impossible to give here a complete discussion of Herbert Brun's Statement vs. Argument aesthetic principle, but, to summarize:
1. a piece of music that is made completely of itself, original, anomalous, is called a "statement," and
2. a piece that relies on or makes reference to other pre-existing material (like Nixon jokes), must necessarily take on that material as psychological baggage, and therefore makes an "argument." (Perhaps a better word is "paradox?")
Brun always preferred the "statement," and I always tended toward an open-hearted acceptance of the "argument." In any case, Skalkottas certainly fills in the crack in that area; his music is bursting with personality and humanity that renders the underlying technique invisible and insignificant. A perspective that would have served well both snooty britches Webern and Berg. Skalkottas makes a positive statement about human life without fear of bringing in cultural/archetypal artifacts laden with progeny, unafraid to mix the human with the ideal. In other words, he writes like me.

Glennallen, AK
January 25, 2011

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