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Nikos Skalkottas

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Nikos Skalkottas


Nikos Skalkottas (8 March 1904, Halkis, Greece – 19 September 1949) was a Greek composer and violinist.

A child prodigy as a violinist, Nikos pursued his studies at the Athens Conservatory, graduating with the First Prize Gold Medal in 1920. In 1921, on a series of scholarships he left for Berlin where he stayed until 1933, first taking violin master courses with Willy Hess, then in the winter of 1923-24 turning definitely to composition, for which his main teachers were Philip Jarnach (1925-27) and Arnold Schoenberg (1927-31).

In March 1933 he was forced by poverty and debt to return to Athens. Among the various possessions he left behind were a large number of manuscripts; many of these were then lost or destroyed (although some were found in a secondhand bookshop in 1954). According to another account, his manuscripts were sold by his German landlady shortly after he left Berlin. In Athens Skalkottas sought other means of funding through scholarships or paid work as an orchestral player, but he was quickly disillusioned with the state of musical affairs in Athens at the time. Until his death he earned a living as a back-desk violinist in the Athens Conservatory, Radio and Opera orchestras. In the mid-1930s he worked at the Folk Music Archive in Athens, and did transcriptions of Greek folk songs into Western-music scores for the musicologist Melpo Merlier. He died at age 45.

As a composer he worked alone, but wrote prolifically, mainly in his very personal post-Schoenbergian idiom that had little chance of being comprehended by the Greek musical establishment. He did secure some performances, especially of some of the Greek Dances and a few of his more tonal works, but the vast bulk of his music went unheard.

Throughout his career Skalkottas remained faithful to the neo-classical ideals of Neue Sachlichkeit and 'absolute music' proclaimed in Europe in the 1925. Already in Berlin he was taking an interest in jazz and at the same time developing a very personal form of the twelve-note method. Like Schoenberg, he persistently cultivated classical forms (such as sonata, variations, suite), but his worklist is divided between atonal, twelve-tone and tonal works, all three categories spanning his entire composing career. Such apparent heterogeneity could have been intensified by a love of Greek folk music. The most striking example of his commitment to Greek folk music is the series of 36 Greek Dances composed for orchestra between 1931 and 1936, arranged for various different ensembles in the ensuing years and in part radically reorchestrated in 1948–49. About two-thirds of these dances are based on genuine Greek folk themes from different parts of the Greek mainland and islands, but the other third use material of Skalkottas's own composition in folk style.

It was only after his death that Skalkottas' music began to be played, published or critically estimated to a great extent, partly due to the efforts of friends and disciples such as John G. Papaioannou and George Hadjinikos.

Works for Winds