Nikos Skalkottas

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Nikos Skalkottas biography

Is Nikos Skalkottas (1904–1949) the last great ‘undiscovered’ and ‘misunderstood’ composer of the twentieth century? Perhaps. Norman Lebrecht’s summary of him as ‘a pupil of Schoenberg, who returned to Athens with a gospel no-one wanted to hear, played violin for a pittance and died at 45’ (1992, p. 327) encapsulates the thumbnail image most frequently preserved of this often-marginalised Greek composer.

Yet in the 1920s Skalkottas was a promising young composer in Berlin and a student of Schönberg between 1927 and 1932. It was only after his return to Greece in 1933 that Skalkottas, shunned by his compatriots and confronted by enmity and harsh criticism, became an anonymous and obscure figure. He was a young, iconoclastic composer, who had found his own musical language at a time when art music in Greece was still trying to find its own identity but largely reflected the conservative and deeply nationalistic ideals of the political and cultural environment.

Although Skalkottas absorbed and imaginatively deployed traditional Greek folk elements in his music, he did not align himself with the prevailing folkloristic musical aesthetics of his compatriots. Instead his compositional style and harmonic language is characterized by both stylistic division and stylistic synthesis – tonality and dodecaphonism. Throughout his compositional career he often composed twelve-note, atonal and tonal works simultaneously, or alternately, and occasionally used different harmonic idioms in the same piece. The often misunderstood Skalkottas composed his dodecaphonic works in complete isolation until his death, refining his idiosyncratic musical language and maintaining his high ideals. More recently, in the twenty-first century, his reputation is being re-evaluated and he is now considered a leading figure of early Greek music modernism.

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