With a Herculean effort from the Ether Game Brain Trust, we presented a show inspired by Greece. Below you'll find stories of Greek performers, mythology and composers, and how they influenced classical music.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43: Overture Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Beethoven was becoming more and more interested in distinguishing himself as a unique, individual compositional voice. Beethoven might have been inspired by the Greek mythological figure of Prometheus, who was punished for gifting humanity with the fire of the Gods. The Promethean myth is often seen as a metaphor for wisdom, enlightenment, and creativity. Beethoven’s first ballet was about Prometheus. Today, the music’s rather un-Promethean qualities have not made it Beethoven’s most popular work, and only the Overture is regularly performed. Still, something about this work apparently stuck with Beethoven. A theme from the finale was reused in several later pieces, including a set of piano variations and the last movement of the Eroica Symphony (No. 3).
Vangelis (b. 1943) Chariots of Fire Vangelis is probably the best Greek synthesizer-based composer from the last half of the 20th century (no hate to the Yanni fans out there). Vangelis wrote the soundtrack to many well-known projects, including Blade Runner, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and Carl Sagan’s famed PBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Director Hugh Hudson was looking for a more modern sound to accompany his period film Chariots of Fire about Olympic runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. Hudson was impressed with Vangelis’s earlier works, in particular the tune “L’Enfant” from his 1977 album Opera Sauvage. He originally used “L’Enfant” in the opening beach running scene for the film, but Vangelis was convinced he could do better. He composed this brand new theme, which not only won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, but also hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1981.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Cinq Mélodies Populaires Greques [Five Popular Greek Songs] Alongside his harmonies and impressionistic style, Ravel gained a reputation for his creative use of folk idioms. He was given the opportunity to arrange three Greek folksongs for a lecture when his Greek musicologist friend Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi asked for his assistance. Ravel completed the music in 36 hours, and later added additional arrangements, completing the collection of five folksongs we have today. The work was the first of Ravel's to be published by Durand, the premiere French publishing house who would release nearly all of Ravel's works for the rest of his professional career.
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) Symphony No. 4 in F 'The Rescue of Andromeda by Perseus' A friend of Mozart, Haydn, and Gluck, the Austrian-born Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf was an extremely popular and prolific composer during the 18th century. In the 1780s, Dittersdorf had planned on setting the fifteen books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into fifteen symphonies, but in the end, he only made six. Ovid’s epic poem concerns how the mythical gods of classical antiquity shaped the world we know. The fourth book (and Dittersdorf’s fourth symphony) tells the story of Perseus and Andromeda. Andromeda’s mother, Queen Cassiopeia, boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than Poseidon’s sea-nymphs. So as punishment, Poseidon chained Andromeda to a rock to be attacked by a sea monster. She was later rescued by the hero Perseus, and the two were married. After their death, Perseus, Andromeda and even Queen Cassiopeia were all transformed into constellations in the night sky.
Christoph W. Gluck (1714-1787) Alceste: 'Divinités du Styx' Composed by Gluck to a libretto by Ranieri Calzabigi, the opera Alceste contained a number of differences from the prevailing opera style of the day. For the most part, the libretto ignored the traditional “exit aria” in favor of large-scale scenes, ballets, and even romance, all features of French opera. The idea behind these reforms was to bring opera as close as possible to the ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides. In the tragedy, when Alceste, the wife of king Adméte, offers herself to Death in the place of her husband, the pair is ultimately reunited through the intercession of Hercules. Like the popular Orfeus myth, the story of Alceste involves a journey through the underworld, which in Greek mythology is where five primordial rivers converge on a great marsh. This performance is sung by Maria Callas, one of the most famous opera divas of the 20th century, who was also Greek-American. Callas was adored by fans for her dramatic, distinctive voice, and adored by journalists for her dramatic personal life. She had a love affair with a Greek shipping tycoon, a public rivalry with another opera diva, and numerous spats with her agents and opera houses.
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) Macedonian Mountain Dance, Op. 144a When Alan Hovhaness visited Greece in the 1950’s, he had already written several Greek-inspired compositions, most of them written for solo piano. His first exposure to Greek music was likely by acquaintance with the Greek painter and former operatic tenor Herman di Giovanno, who he met during his studies at the New England Conservatory. However it is no surprise that a composer who seemed to be uniquely fixated on mystical mountains would also be inspired by the landscapes of Greece and Macedonia. His Macedonian Mountain Dances stylistically resemble his early compositions, which often feature counterpoint and are rhythmically intricate. Other Greek works by Hovhaness include his Greek Rhapsody, his three-movement piano suite on Greek tunes and a collection of seven Greek folk dances arranged for harmonica and orchestra.
Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) Pléïades, for 6 percussionists (1978) After fleeing political persecution in Greece and relocating to Paris in 1947, Xenakis’ first professional occupation was that of an assistant to the famed French architect, Le Corbusier. When Xenakis began to compose, he had little musical training. He considered starting his music education from scratch, but composer Olivier Messiaen dissuaded him by encouraging him to use his knowledge of architecture and mathematics in his music. Xenakis’s approach to composition was entirely novel, and entirely mathematical, as a result. His 4-movement work Pleiades for 6 percussionists is one of the most challenging pieces in the repertoire. Three movements are limited to instruments of a certain type, with the first movement requiring an instrument constructed especially for the piece, which consists of 19 plates of different metals which are struck with metal hammers.
Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) Satiric Dances (for a Comedy by Aristophanes) A student of Paul Hindemith during the 1940s, American musician and composer Norman Dello Joio wrote numerous works for chorus, orchestra, solo voice, chamber groups and piano, as well as scores for television and three operas. His Satiric Dances for wind ensemble was commissioned for a Bicentennial celebration in Concord, Massachusetts, however the piece recycles background music Dello Joio originally wrote for a comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. Many of Aristophanes’ surviving works, which heavily satirized the political and social make-up of Athens in the 5th century, have been reinterpreted by classical composers, including The Wasps by Vaughn-Williams, The Frogs by Stephen Sondheim, and Lysistrata by Mark Adamo.
Monika Christodoulou (b. 1985) Secret in the Dark