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Nikos Skalkottas (1904-49). On the occasion of two recent publications


Commemorating 100 years since the birth of this great Greek composer, I would like to review two noteworthy publications, one in German and one in English, and present some of my thoughts on them. These publications are Judit Alsmeier's book Komponieren mit Tönen, Pfau, Saarbrücken 2001, and Evangelia Mantzourani’s article “Nikos Skalkottas: sets and styles in the Octet”, The Musical Times 145, 3/2004, pp. 73-86.

Judit Alsmeier, Komponieren mit Tönen, Pfau, Saarbrücken 2001

Alsmeier's book is a slightly revised edition of her PhD dissertation, which was deposited at the Folkwang Academy of Music, Essen, in 2000. The dissertation exhibits the known qualities of German scientific literature; qualities that become immediately evident by reading the table of contents: the material is transparently organised in chapters and subchapters, and the dissertation has a clear purpose, illustrated by the cohesion and continuity of its sections, and the (short) conclusion chapter in the end.

The author makes her intentions clear in the subtitle of her book, in which she outlines its subject: Νikos Skalkottas und Schönbergs “Komposition mit zwölf Tönen”. Thus, the first part of the book, which is considerably smaller, refers to Schoenberg’s “twelve-tone composition”, while the second part examines its variation (Variante) by Skalkottas. The work, therefore, has a comparative perspective, something that should not cause frustration, since the brief presentation of the rationale of Schoenberg’s composition (not of its crystallised technique) sets the stage for understanding the method of composition used by the Greek composer.

In the beginning of her book, Alsmeier tries to explain how a certain confusion and obscurity regarding terminology (and thus substance) was created and prevailed in the German-speaking community for several decades. She traces it to the fact that the composer’s (Schoenberg’s) contemporary theoreticians took into consideration his first twelve-tone works (op. 25 and 26), thereby equating the concept of the series with horizontal motivic and melodic formations. However, these works were essentially “intermediate steps leading to something substantial”. The author maintains that only Adorno understood, in Schoenberg’s later works, that the series is latent reference material rather than exclusively melodic-motivic-thematic material [1], a fact that led to the wrong (?) conclusion that the composer took excessive liberty in using the “method”. The composer, that is, understood the “composition with twelve tones” as the freedom to use all the intervals and to “compose like he used to”, and also understood the concept of a set as abstract reference material and as the bearer of the idea (Gedanke) of “multi-dimensional” composition, something that, according to the author, Skalkottas also follows. Quite polemical in presenting her arguments, Alsmeier reaches the conclusion that German theoreticians started from “[twelve-] tone composition” (Komposition mit Tönen) and, analysing Schoenberg’s works, ended up with “composition with series” (Komposition mit Reihen), or, as she pointedly proposes, with a collage of series. The author blames German researchers for bearing great responsibility and for being totally ignorant of the developments in America (Babbitt, Lewin), even during the seventies. In this way, Christian Möllers detected a disparity and controversy between the twelve-tone technique and actual composition, which displayed “masochistic features”. We find that the author’s criticism, especially towards the latter, is too aggressive and somehow unfair, given that Möllers elsewhere takes the position that the prime series is a provider of tones (Tonlieferant) –and not of intervals– for various formations [2].

Alsmeier concurs with Möllers, albeit with a different phrasing, referring to pitch classes (Tonquailitäten) [3], which function as a repository of tones (Tonvorrat) [4] and consequently cannot be transposed. Of course, all the above is valid provided that a distinction has been made between the pitch classes of a set and the succession sequence of the pitches, i.e. the intervals; the author makes this point in good time. Depending on whether this series is followed or not, the set is characterised as ordered or unordered, respectively. In the second case, minimum commitment of the selected tonal pitches to an archetypal repository of tones allows for maximum freedom in “composing with tones”. This is how the author understands Schoenberg’s “method”, or rather way of composition. In fact, in contrast with Möllers, her approach stems from a desire to vindicate the composition method used by the Viennese composer, a vindication achieved only through an expanded version of his “theory”. What is somewhat irksome in Alsmeier’s point of view is the rejection of the systematic, or even normative, character of the “composition with twelve tones” method; after all, Schoenberg announced it as such to his students, in February 1923. One could raise the stereotyped objection –even taking into consideration the evolution of Schoenberg’s thinking, but mainly the diversity of the formal design and texture of his works– that composers, when expressing themselves theoretically about their work, create the impression that that their actions betray their words. We must stress, however, that the terms / qualities “repository of tones”, “region” [5], “unordered set” and “multi-dimension” used by the author are rather fine and assume a fair knowledge of Schoenberg’s work in its entirety. In conclusion, Alsmeier’s point of view combines the knowledge of the German-speaking theoretical tradition, which, leaving aside some exaggerations, allows her to appreciate the evolution and structure/ of the Viennese composer’s work, using the theory of sets as an analytical tool.

In the second part of the book, the author focuses on Skalkottas’ work. Based on the material compiled by G. G. Papaioannou, in the first chapter she attempts to examine the works written in Berlin, while Skalkottas was a student [6] of Schoenberg (1928-32). Few documents are available, however: String Quartet No. 1, two Sonatinas for Violin and Piano, the Piano Concerto No. 1, the Octet, and a citation of Adorno [7]. During the time the aforementioned works were composed, the composer moves from composing with twelve-tone themes, on which he elaborates more or less freely (using the developing variation (entwickelnde Variation) technique), to composing with ordered and unordered sets, and eventually arrives at composition with twelve tones in the Octet and in Piano Concerto No. 1. Alsmeier’s analyses are complemented by Appendix 1 of the book, in which we find a presentation of “the material”, i.e. the sets of the works analysed. Although she bases her observations greatly on the set theory, she does not use their naming (using numbers), and although she pinpoints ordered sets in many compositions, she does not use an octave transposition to bring them to normal order. Her presentation (including the appendices) is motivic (and thematic, where necessary), a fact that, in my view, helps her understand (unlike Mantzourani) the relation between twelve-tone music and formal design, and reach correct conclusions.

The next chapters constitute the main body of the book and, with a few exceptions, are original scientific work. The author examines Skalkottas’ independent development as a composer in Athens, focusing on the concepts of “linearity”, “musical space” and “unity and cohesion”. She is right to point out, in the beginning of the first chapter, that the composer, in trying to overcome the limits of linearity, used more than one set, and that, most importantly, he perceived the set as a collection of tonal pitches and not of intervals, just like Schoenberg did. This also explains why the composer was not in the habit of noting beforehand the series he would use. Furthermore, with this observation (and unlike Papaioannou who suffices himself to a simple remark) Alsmeier manages to explain the paradoxical fact that the composer avoided the transposition and inversion of series, but instead out of the different transformation techniques he favoured only the retrograde form, which ensures that the series remains recognisable [9].

Nevertheless, as the author notes, this approach did not completely prevent vagueness when using more than one set. Thus, in the first pieces composed in Athens (namely Sonatinas No. 3 and 4 for Violin and Piano, String Trio No. 2 and String Quartet No. 3) the composer identified the set with the voices or the voicing, but also with musical phrases. Stretching linearity to its limits, the composer applied various techniques, including interchange, rotation and permutation of tones.

In the next chapter, titled The Musical Space, the author draws an analogy between Skalkottas’ development, regarding the administration and presentation of his material, and that of Schoenberg: the limits of linearity, the use of classical forms (especially the sonata form) and consequently the need to process the material using the developing variation technique, initially led to the use of additional, overlapping sets, culminating in the Violin Concerto (1938) and the String Quartet No. 4 (1940) , and eventually to their diffusion and projection (horizontally and vertically, in all directions).

Elements of this technique were already detectable in the introduction of the First Symphonic Suite and in some of the 32 Piano Pieces. During this composition period, though, the author believes that the technique is used to expose the material of extensive or complete parts. With her model, Alsmeier generally manages to explain convincingly the construction of Skalkottas’ complex twelve-tone pieces. One could raise two objections: 1. The linear set exposition does not disappear completely in Skalkottas’ late works, and even if it is not a technique used for their presentation, it is definitely a way to state themes, similar to the way he used in his early works. 2. The examples chosen by the author in order to support her analysis are not always representative of the entire piece studied, but rather “happy coincidences”; the most characteristic example would be her analysis of the Return of Ulysses. The view that there is a “multi-dimensional presentation of unlimited material” is supported only by the work’s coda, where it is evident; certainly, though, this is not the basic set presentation technique used in the entire piece.

In the last chapter, Alsmeier seeks “unity and cohesion” at various levels of the Greek composer’s works. Starting with microstructures, i.e. the set, and going up to the organisation of entire parts, she proves the interaction between the twelve-tone technique and the form. She correctly regards the transposition of sets as a part of formal design and not as a technique for their transformation, a remark that tends to become commonplace [10]. Schoenberg and Skalkottas both tried to find substitutes to tonality, or better yet, tonal organisation. Reshaping Alsmeier’s statement we would say that he (and the Viennese composer) did not seek a substitute to tonality (which would suggest a controversy to his “theory”) but tried to substitute, or better yet to restore the relation between the form and whatever harmonic language is used [11], given that conventional forms were employed. It is actually a manifestation of Schoenberg’s appeal for “unity and cohesion”. Furthermore, under this prism we can explain why sets were turned into themes, why some parts were introduced using one or more sets, why sets were identified with some parts etc.

In the short conclusion chapter which follows, the author effectively repeats what has already been said, i.e. the demonstration of Schoenberg’s and Skalkottas’ “composition with tones”. The frequent repetitions are a little disappointing (even inside this short chapter), as is the fact that once again the author, somehow exaggerating, refuses to accept that the “method” had a normative character. In any case, she concludes her paper very nicely, by noting that Schoenberg’s teaching was not focused on the method as a sort of a “technical vehicle”, but on its essence. Both composers used “composition with tones” striving to demonstrate “all aspects of musical thinking”.

Perhaps the reader will be impressed by the second “appendix of errors”, which contains some sort of critical notes. In this appendix the author corrects mistakes found in scores of Skalkottas’ pieces. We must stress that her corrections are not arbitrary; they are based on comparisons between corresponding (e.g. exposition – recapitulation) or repeating parts. Among other considerations, her objective is to complete the sets. In the case of the Return of Ulysses, though, her corrections are identical with the annotations found in the provisional edition published in the 1950s.

In conclusion, Alsmeier’s dissertation covers a gap in the German scientific literature about Schoenberg, and at the same time is extremely interesting for Greek readers (who can read German). It dispels some myths that still prevail, about the work of the Viennese composer, and is essentially the first comprehensive study of Skalkottas’ work to reach us. As mentioned above, one can argue against the author overstressing of the lack of a normative character in Schoenberg’s composition method, and later on in Skalkottas’ method; or even point out that the “composition with tones” (with the proposed meaning that the two composers eventually used all tones in all directions) is an overly broad solution, to which we can resort in an effort to “explain” the inexplicable in the pieces by both composers. The same approach, however, reminds us that both composers used their material with artistic freedom, and were not enslaved by it in an effort to compose “like in the past”.


Evangelia Mantzourani, “Nikos Skalkottas: sets and styles in the Octet”, The Musical Times 145, 3/2004, pp. 73-86.

Evangelia Mantzourani has already published several papers about the Greek composer. Unfortunately we do not have at our disposal her PhD dissertation, which would help us assess more accurately some of her remarks which are, in my opinion, quiet brief and generalising.

Her paper is divided in two parts. The first one examines the “twelve-note technique” and the second one the “musical forms” prompted by the Octet . Since her readers may not be familiar with the Greek composer, she deems it necessary to summarise in the beginning the “structural and technical features of Skalkottas’ dodecaphonic music”. Her observations are very informative and prove that she has extensive knowledge of the set theory. Moreover, Mantzourani uses terminology with great precision and prudence (a lot better than Alsmeier), something that should definitely not be taken for granted in papers of this kind. It becomes apparent, right from the first part of her article, that she has adopted a functional analytical approach to the work of the Greek composer. Yet one could argue that some techniques (e.g. the use of fractions of a set) are not exclusively Skalkottas’ inventions. Furthermore, in the paragraph where she refers to the “frequent use of the twelve-note operation and the occasional use of inversion and retrograde”, the correlation between the “developing variation” technique and the set transposition technique remains unclear. Still, the author could, as a matter of deontology, cite previous papers examining the relation between the use of transposition and the morphological organisation of a piece (something that, as we’ve noted, tends to become a commonplace observation), instead of presenting it as her own conclusion reached after “careful study”. I believe that there is a contradiction in presenting this technique (since the author talks about the forms of sets) as a technique for set transformation.

The author rightly detects in Skalkottas’ works sets that have some remnants of tonality (with major and minor three-chords). We could add that this technique is combined with symmetrical thematic constructions, the most characteristic example being the second theme in the Return of Ulysses. It is striking that the harmonisation of example 5b contains errors, hopefully typographical: the tetrachord Eb-C-Ab-Gb indicates a “tonality” of Db and not of Ab, as printed; even more so since in the score (in the first system) Gb is indeed resolved (!) to F. In the next measure (of example 5b) it is impossible to understand the relation of F and Gb with the “tonality” of G that the author proposes and which is also detectable in the score.

In the chapter titled “Musical Forms” the author states that Skalkottas tried to mimic traditional forms adapting them to a “dodecaphonic context”. She concludes that the “idiomatic and unique way” in which he attempted this is what set him apart from other “twelve-note composers”. We would prefer that the writer was a little more precise here, given that her observations about morphology and harmony do not point towards a uniqueness or exclusiveness of Skalkottas’ style – on the contrary, they remind us of Schoenberg’s practices (especially the use of traditional forms). We do not question Skalkottas’ individuality here, but we believe that it should be sought in other aspects of his work. Lastly, the thought that there is a “compositional disjunction between these traditional forms and the new harmonic language” is fairly familiar to the author of this article [12].

As stated above, the basic objection one could raise is that the author does not draw a link between the two chapters, tying the theory of sets, which she seems to know better than Alsmeier, with morphological observations. For this reason, in the second chapter she sometimes resorts to controversial observations made by others. And thus, unlike Alsmeier, she fails to demonstrate the interaction between the twelve-note technique and form.

I would dare to support the view that the theory of sets itself leads, by eliminating affinities of a different type, to the isolation of the motivic features from the morphological development of a piece, and this happens because this theory is an abstract tool. For example, how can this theory be combined with elements of tonality? It is not by accident, however, that some theoreticians (Adorno, Dahlhaus) managed to demonstrate similar affinities, without using the theory of sets, based on aesthetic observations, which flow from a holistic view of a work [13]. Let us not forget that affinities and cohesion, that any theory or analytical approach can uncover, are expressions of a pre-existing teleology.


Ilias Giannopoulos

 Athens, 28 January 2005

Translated by George Christodoulides


The musical examples of the article

First String Quartet, Nikos Skalkottas, Chamber Music, New Hellenic Quartet, BIS-CD-1124

Fourth String Quartet, Nikos Skalkottas, String Quartets No.3 & No. 4, New Hellenic Quartet, BIS-CD-1074

Octet, Nikos Skalkottas, Chamber Music, New Hellenic Quartet, BIS-CD-1124

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, “Komponisten und Kompositionen”, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 18, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 1997, pp. 358-62, extract from Alsmeier, pp. 30-31.

[2] Cf. Christian Möllers, “Reihentechnik und musikalische Gestalt bei Arnold Schönberg”, Beihefte zum Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, Vol. 17, Steiner, Wiesbaden 1977, p. 72.

[3] This is how she translates the term “pitch class” in German.

[4] It is unclear whether a “provider” of pitches is different from a “repository” of pitches.

[5] A region is the macro-structural transposition of an entire excerpt / part by a specific interval (usually a fifth) in relation to the previous parts, which is something different from the micro-structural transposition of series.

[6] All the photographs come from the book by Giannis G. Papaioannou, Nikos Skalkottas, Volume B–Supplement, Papagrigoriou-Nakas, Athens 1997.

[7] Theodor W. Adorno, “Zum Rundfunkkonzert vom 22 Januar 1931”, in: Musikalische Schriften V, Gesammelte Schriften Vol. 18, Suhrkamp, Fraknfurt 2001, pp. 567, 569, Cf. also comments on this passage in: Ilias Giannopoulos, “The Return of Ulysses by Nikos Skalkottas. On the Interaction between Dodecaphonism and Conventional Form”, Mousikologia, 18, 03, pp. 156-157.

[8] Cf. Giannopoulos, op. cit., pp. 155-156.

[9] At this point the appeal to the need for the series to be recognisable (Wiedererkennbarkeit), as an explanation for the use of the retrograde transformation technique, is somehow disappointing and perhaps the author has been influenced by Papaioannou. Like Mantzourani, Alsmeier here adopts a remark, which let us hope is just general, without supporting it with a personal experience in twelve-note analysis. The reason the composer makes this choice is not because he wants the reversely presented material to be recognisable, a feature that can be contested (and definitely is not understood by the average listener!), but in order to compose with twelve or even more pitch classes, something that the author stresses repeatedly in other parts of her book.

[10] This view has been supported by the undersigned in the Magister thesis Die Heimkehr des Odysseus, Freiburg, 1996 and in the article in Mousikologia, p. 161.

[11] Schoenberg had stressed the morphoplastic power of harmony.

[12] Cf. Giannopoulos, Mousikologia, p. 161.

[13] E.g. according to the theory of sets, two complementary intervals are in the same pitch class, whereas Dahlhaus regards them as an abstract “expression gesture” of an organic unit (an “interval outline”) which is manifested in various ways.

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