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The Athens Conservatory and the National School

In the late 1880s Andreas Syngros, a multi-millionaire from Constantinople, offered to erect a new theatre in Athens, the “Demotikon Theatron”, and to finance the Athens Conservatory, on the condition that Georgios Nazos (1862–1934), a musical mediocrity trained in Munich, was appointed musical director. Syngros, through Nazos, systematically championed French and, especially, German music at the expense of native composers.  Although Carrer wrote his opera “Marathon-Salamis” for the inauguration of the Demotikon in 1888, apparently at Syngros' behest the work was set aside in favor of another by Thomas Mignon. Nazos' appointment at the conservatory in 1891 led to an abrupt Germanization of the curriculum. He declared his fierce opposition to Italian-trained Greek composers, and as a result, several leading composers, including Spinellis, Lavrangas and Camilieris, were ignored, dismissed or forced to resign. Until Nazos' death in 1934, over 60 foreign guest teachers, mostly pianists, were invited to the conservatory, while the Conservatory SO, founded in 1894, was directed successively by Franck Choisy (1899–1907), Armand Marsick (1908–22) and Jean Boutnikoff (1923–9).

However, the standards of instrumental teaching, mainly by local musicians, remained low and performance standards steadily deteriorated, partly because the orchestral musicians also played for opera and operetta companies and lacked adequate rehearsal time. In 1899, a few professors led by the pianist Lina von Lottner, a former pupil of Bülow, founded a second German-orientated conservatory, which lasted until 1919. They also formed the first Greek mixed chorus to perform German oratorios and published the “Apollo”, one of the earliest Greek musical periodicals (1904–9).

On June 11th, 1908, Manolis Kalomiris (1883–1962) gave the first concert of his works at the Athens Conservatory. The concert's program book included the ‘manifesto’ of the Greek National School according to Kalomiris. Defining its purpose as ‘the building of a palace in which to enthrone the national soul’ by combining folksong and folk rhythms with techniques invented by ‘musically advanced peoples’, initiated a civil war against earlier Greek (mostly Ionian) composers, who were rejected as ‘italianate’. With his attacks in the “Noumas” periodical, Kalomiris sided with Nazos in the persecution of Ionian composers, although his main target was Samaras, acclaimed internationally and regarded as a potential successor to Nazos at the conservatory. Kalomiris instigated the division of Greek music into three schools:

Recent research, however, has shown the uninterrupted presence of national elements in the works of composers after Mantzaros through Liveralis, Domeneghinis, Xyndas, Carrer and Samaras to the Lambelet brothers and Lavrangas.

Appointed professor at the conservatory in 1911, Kalomiris fell out with Nazos in 1919 and founded two other private conservatories, the Hellenic (1919) and the National (1926). Kalomiris, rather than Lottner, paved the way to private Greek conservatories (officially acknowledged as secondary schools). After 1966 they proliferated, with 500 schools throughout Greece by 1994. Departments of musical studies in the universities of Athens, Thessaloniki and Corfu appeared in the 1980s and 90s, but the project for a state musical academy never materialized. Already in the 1920s, Kalomiris, promoting his own music and that of his followers, soon made his peace with the Athens Conservatory. From 1923 Mitropoulos conducted the Hellenic Conservatory's concerts until the amalgamation of the two organizations' orchestras into a concert society (1925). This was dissolved in 1927, and Mitropoulos returned to the Athens Conservatory. The prestige Mitropoulos brought to the orchestra helped attract such international celebrities as Saint-Saëns, Dohnányi, Cortot, Brailowsky, Huberman, Thibaud, Kreisler, Milstein, Casals, Martinon, Walter, Jochum and Scherchen. Mitropoulos was succeeded by Philoctetes Ekonomidis, who directed the Athens Conservatory SO from 1927 to 1939.

The folk-based nationalism of Kalomiris and his followers embraced an eclectic range of styles, including neo-classicism, late Romanticism and Impressionism. French or Impressionist influence is found in the works of Riadis, Levidis, Theodoros Spathis (?1883–1943), Koundouroff (educated in the USSR), Loris Margaritis (1895–1953), Lila Lalauni (1910–96), Constantinidis, Varvoglis, Michaelides, Zoras and the early works of Georgios Poniridis (1887–1982) and Papaioannou. Late Romantic elements appear in the works of the German-orientated Kalomiris and Evangelatos, and in the music of Sklavos and Nezeritis and the early works of Karyotakis and Pallandios. Byzantine chant and modality have inspired Petridis, Poniridis and Alekos Contis (1899–1965), while Vassilis Papadimitriou (1905–75) and Alekos Xenos (1912–95) were influenced by folksong, late Romanticism and the music of Shostakovich. Ideologically akin to them, Nikiforos Rotas (b 1929) remains a solitary figure. Less easily identifiable with any group are Dimitrios Lialios (1869–1940) and Harilaos Perpessas, adhering to German Post-Romanticism. Mitropoulos and Skalkottas (1904–49) stood at the furthest remove from Kalomiris and the National School and were the only significant Greek composers of their era to adopt atonality and 12-note techniques.

[Based on a text written by G. Leotsakos.  Editing by Kostas Moschos. Translation-Editing: Natalia Tsakmakidou]