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A tribute to George Sicilianos

August 29, 2000 marked the eightieth anniversary of the birth of composer George Sicilianos, one of the most important figures in Greek music.

In this context, it is a privilege for the Notebook to present an essay on the relationship of the composer to Ancient Greek Drama, written by Valia Christopoulou, researcher of George Sicilianos and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Athens.

Interested readers can also find in these pages, an earlier interview granted by the composer to Ms. Christopoulou, which includes Biographical information and List of his Works (available in Greek only). The visitor to the Music Library can examine all of his works in the library’s microfilm collection.


Panos Vlagkopoulos

George Sicilianos’ oeuvre and ancient drama

George Sicilianos was born in Athens in 1920. After completing his theoretical studies in Greece, he went to Italy where he studied composition at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome with Professor Ildebrando Pizzetti. He continued his studies in France and the United States until 1956. At that time he settled in Greece permanently and devote himself entirely to composition. He is one of the Greek composers who first introduced to Greece the modern techniques of composition.

A considerable part of the work of George Sicilianos stems from the composer’s exposure to Ancient Greek Drama and lyrical poetry. The significance of this assertion is prominent in the theoretical texts of the composer himself (lectures, articles, interviews), where he relates his own pursuits in contemporary music and more particularly Greek music, with the effort of developing his own identity as a composer “who must believe his roots are in his place of birth; otherwise he is walking on rotten ground that slips away from under his feet”.1 A solution to the composer’s dilemma is his conviction that “the future of Greek music is found at the point where the Byzantine Church chanting meets the Greek folk song”.2 This notion, very prominent in the composer’s early works, is later completely abandoned by the composer as he starts a period of experimentation and study of contemporary musical tides.

Works by Sicilianos, which relate to Ancient Greek literature, appear after 1954, during the second and third period of his creativity. These are incidental music works (such as Ifigenia En Tavris, op. 18, 1959, Heracles Mainomenos, op. 20, 1960, Medea, op.33, 1973, ballets (Bacchae op. 19, 1959, Tanagraia, op. 17, 1957, 1967, 1970, Paravoli, op. 34, 1973)3 and vocal music works which were based on original ancient Greek texts or tragedies (Stasimon B’, op. 25, 1964, from Euripides’ Ifigeneia en Tavris, Epiklisis, op 29, 1968, from Aeschylus’ Persians, Kassandra, op.47, 1982-1983 and from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon), and on poetic texts (Mellichomidi, op. 44, 1980 on a text by Sappho). These works cover a period from approximately 1957 to 1983 and although there are stylistic differences, they were handled by the composer on an equal basis.

The concern of the contemporary musician “should be to discover the golden thread that ties together the Word, the Music and the Dance, using the musical virtue which fits him and his era best”, Sicilianos states.4

It is obvious that Sicilianos is not interested in giving arbitrary solutions that come from aesthetic or personal choices but rather, solutions serving the needs of the text itself, as they are manifested in the relationship of the composer, or the carrier of the contemporary musical culture with the principles characterizing the ancient dramatic and lyrical word.

The main axis around which Sicilianos moves is the word, or oral expression “not only as text but in relation to all other parameters: aesthetic, religious, philosophical etc., which are directly related to the habits and mores of a people”5, so as to create music which in any avant-garde or conservative idiom cannot but depend on the deeper sense and meaning of the tragic word, as the basic concept. For the tragic poet who was also a composer, the ancient word appeared to be the first and raw material in music.6 It led to specific choices as to the mode (musical scale), the form (which followed the structure of the poetic text) the type of musical instruments, the general movement of the melody, and the rhythm of the poetic text. Beyond its meaning, the word had an element of sound with a symbolic character, which played an important role in depicting the meaning of the text. The language followed prosodic rather than accentual metrics and, according to the composer, it had a plethora of vowels and diphthongs which, although we are not in a position to know how they were pronounced, it is unlikely they were pronounced in the flat manner adopted in later years.”.7 For these reasons, Sicilianos resorts, whenever possible, in the use of the original ancient text  as well as the adoption of the Erasmic pronunciation (Stasimon B, op. 25, Epiklisis, op. 29, Kassandra, op. 47, Melichomeidi, op. 44). Γιώργου Σισιλιάνου, Μελλιχόμειδη, op. 44 (1980), απόσπασμα («δέδυκε μεν α σελάννα...»). Anna Ivanova (σοπράνο) - ¶. Παναγιωτόπουλος (δ/νση).Πηγή: CD Agora (AG 179, c1999).

From the manuscript of the score of the ballet Bacchae, based on the tragedy by Euripides, which was composed by Sicilianos in 1959 for the Rallou Manou Ballet. Hellenic Horodrama, 1950-1960, [Athens] 1961: 161.

However, tragedy is not only Word and Music. These two elements are united in a continuous totality of movement to create a work which maintains the character of a religious ritual, the elements of which serve specific roles and not only aesthetic prototypes. For this reason, Sicilianos, when talking about music accompaniment in ancient drama or about music for dance theatre (the term dance theatre is used by the composer himself), he emphasizes that movement cannot be independent of the music.

The composer and the choreographer are not only collaborators; they are two personalities who “melt” in the effort to create a common work of art.8

As pointed out earlier, Sicilianos’ preoccupation with Greek Literature, begins during his second period as a composer. This period was characterized by an intense pursuit and experimentation with the modern musical techniques, the twelve-tone system, serialism, electronic and specific music that continues into his third period, during which the composer forms a personal musical language. It is obvious that the composer’s exhaustive study of the parameters, which make up the Ancient Word, i.e. music and movement, did not intend to create music closely related to ancient Greek music, but rather, a very modern type of music that expresses its inner character with contemporary means, without betraying the text. With regard to the selection of the musical material, the composer recommends that easily remembered melodies with small rhythmic values should be avoided. He recommends the large and, preferably, diaphonous intervals, large rhythmic values, combination of sounds in the form of harmonic support of the Word, the usage of electronic sounds and the usage mainly of wind and percussion instruments. He also proposes the usage of the twelve-tone system, and the usage of rhythm and pitch in a serial manner.

These techniques, considered to be very cerebral, may seem foreign to the character and ethos of Greek music. They did constitute, however, the vehicle on which the composer moved in order to serve his purpose of redefining Greek art music, without ignoring the need for him to reach a wider audience beyond the boundaries of Greece.   His basic motivation in involving himself with ancient Greek poetry and drama is that he believes they express values and truths that are universal and eternal. For this reason, the interpretation and rendering of Greek classical myths with music is not depicted as a necessity for a Greek rather than any other foreign composer.9 Perhaps a Greek composer feels tied to and inspired by the Greek tradition, but Greek art music should not be driven by the logic of isolation, in order to maintain its special character. It must try to widen its horizons, taking advantage of the achievements of other nations in the field of art music, thus:

“(...)how the art of a certain era is expressed—really an issue of aesthetics—is secondary to what it expresses in depth ... [yet] the general problem of expression is tightly related to problems of style and genre. This means that the element of expression in the case of art music, is liberated through the musical form that gives the work of art a degree of firmness, viability and expressive range.”10

Sicilianos, had, from the beginning, distanced himself from the route followed by the composers of the Greek National School.

“[The folk song] has its own free form. It is impossible for it to succumb to the rules of the Western European musical form. These rules, however, were borrowed and used by the composers of the “national school”, who didn’t even try to adjust to the demands of such unruly music, giving the impression that it is the musical form that imposes its expressive content, rather than the opposite. The result became a Procrustean Bed, where marvels of Greek folk music were used intact, as bases of polyphonic compositions, or as arias of operas, along with the harmonic language of Wagnerian or impressionistic style depending on the influences of individual composers."11

The distancing of Sicilianos from the National School did not signal his intent to sever his ties to the traditions, but rather the pursuit of the Greekness of Ancient Greek, a pursuit that, aided by his thorough familiarization with the Greek musical currents, gave his music an intense sense of drama. In addition, it showed a special and sensitive use of timbre, as well as strong and clear musical forms. These elements do not only apply to his music that refers to ancient Greek literature, but to all of his works, “due to the mysterious spiritual workings, that only true art can put in motion, music can be transformed into a lively and passionate journey which depicts the wider social role of music in the second half of our century.”12

“For this reason, his Music does not serve as the solution of an occasional personal adventure but rather as an eternal recording of the drama of human nature and human fate—it works like the catharsis of ancient Greek drama. This is how we come to understand the language of George Sicilianos. His musical language is universal and, at the same time, maintains its Greek nature. The dilemma of choosing between international and Hellenic is replaced by the sense of the universality of the Greek spirit”.13

Valia Christopoulou

1 Interview (1) with George Sicilianos in "Tachidromos" magazine, Athens, 18/2/1962.
2 Interview(2) with George Sicilianos at this site, Athens, September 1998(available in Greek only).
3 The myth of Paravoli derives from a variation of Euripides' Medea myth and the music comes from the music composed for the same tragedy.
4 George Sicilianos , «Music in ancient tragedy», (Athens, June 1965), p. 3.
5 _________, responce speech during the composers' proclamation as an emeritus professor at the Greek University, Musicology Department, Ahens, 1.3.1999.
6 _________,  «Music in ancient tragedy»: 6.
7 op. cit., note. 5.
8 Interview (1).
9 op. cit.
10_________, «Music in Greece», Χρονικό 74, (Αθήνα, Σεπτέμβρης 1973 – Αύγουστος 1974), σ. 32.
11 op. cit. , p. 33.
12 op. cit., p. 32.
13 Apostolos Kostios, laudatio from the composers' proclamation as an emeritus professor at the Greek University, Musicology Department, Ahens, 1.3.1999.

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