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In his lavishly scored oratorio The Liturgy of Orpheus Yannis Markopoulos combines fragments of Orphic poems with a narrative text by Panos Theodoridis to create a work brimming with melodies, rhythms and instrumental tone colours, including those of guitar, lute, kanonaki, lyre, harp and piano, beside full symphony orchestra, chorus, soloists and narrator. Inspired by “the eloquent silence of ancient texts”, The Liturgy of Orpheus is a remarkable song of the earth that revitalises the myth of the prophet-musician for those who seek the restoration of the natural environment.
By David Denton
During his years in England, as a self-imposed exile from his native Greece, Yannis Markopoulos first made his international presence felt with music for the television series, Who Pays the Ferryman?, its main theme topping UK disc charts for many months. Before arriving in London he had already enjoyed some popularity in the field of commercial music, particularly in the film industry, but on his return to his homeland he spent the 1980s turning his attention to works for the concert hall. He began work on The Liturgy of Orpheus in 1992 and completed the work two years later. It is based on the ancient Orphic poems and tells of the heartfelt aspirations of a sensitive human being. It is scored for bass-baritone, soprano, narrator, chorus and orchestra, and it is in the extensive part for the narrator that the story is related—in English—punctuating the vocal sections—in Greek. It is a melodic work redolent with folk music sounds that has risen from Markopoulos’s commercial work, and though in general style it harks back to tonal music five of six decades before, it is a very personal and easily attractive piece, the orchestral sections perfumed with colourful Greek sounds. In the leading vocal role is the famous Dutch baritone, Jose Van Dam. He is generous in his input, sounding every bit as if he came from Greece as he captures those type of sounds tourists enjoy. Philip Sheffield, better known as a singer, is the excellent narrator, and the orchestra and chorus have obviously been meticulously prepared. The recording has achieved ideal balance. I strongly recommend it.
Yannis Markopoulos (b. 1939)
The Liturgy of Orpheus
The composer Yannis Markopoulos was born in 1939 in Heraklion, Crete. From one of the old families of the island—his father was an attorney and later the Prefect—he spent his childhood in the seaside town of Ierapetra. The Byzantine liturgy heard regularly from the church opposite his family home, Cretan traditional music, with its rapid dances of repeated small motifs, played by local instruments at the town’s weekly festivities, but at the same time the sound of the waves, and the detonation of land-mines in the aftermath of World War II, all these formed part of the accoustic universe of the composer as a child. He took his first lessons in music theory and the violin at the local conservatory and played the clarinet in the municipal band. Meanwhile other musical experiences of decisive importance were classical music as well as the music of the wider Eastern Mediterranean and, most important of all, that of nearby Egypt, which he heard either over the radio or from musicians and travellers passing through his hometown. Thanks to his father’s extensive private library he had the opportunity to deepen his knowledge, beyond school education, in literature, philosophy, history and the arts. He began composing music during his adolescence and two melodies of this time would later become songs that have enjoyed great popularity throughout Greece.
In 1956 Markopoulos moved to Athens to further his music studies at the Athens Conservatory under the composer Yiorgos Sklavos and the violin teacher Joseph Bustidui, while studying philosophy and sociology at the Panteion University. While a student he composed music for the theatre, for the cinema and for dance performances. When he was 24 he was awarded the Music Prize of the Thessaloniki Film Festival for Nikos Koundouros’ film Young Aphrodites and subsequently his works Theseus (dance-drama), Hiroshima(ballet suite) and Three Dance Sketches were performed by avant-garde dance groups. In 1967 a military dictatorship was imposed in Greece. Markopoulos left for London, where he enriched his knowledge under the English composer Elizabeth Lutyens, while his acquaintance with the composers Janis Christou and Iannis Xenakis played an important rôle in the deepening of his contact with the most pioneering musical figures. In London he composed the secular cantata Ilios o Protos (Sun the First) on the poetry of Odysseus Elytis (Nobel Prize 1979) and completed the musical ceremony Idou o Nymphios, a work the composer still wishes to keep unreleased with the exception of one part, the song Zavara-Katra-Nemia, a vocal composition of Dionysian character, that was released in 1966 and became one of his best known pieces. Also in London he composed Chroismoi (Oracles) for symphony orchestra and the Pyrrichioi Dances A, B, C (the first three of the 24 Dances he completed in 2001) that were performed in 1968 by the London Concertante Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. During the same year he was commissioned to write the music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed by the English National Theatre and directed by David Jones. In 1969 Markopoulos returned to Athens with a musical vision that would not only change the course of music in Greece but would also lend immediate moral support to the general demand for restoration of democracy, the struggle being led primarily by university students and intellectuals. He founded a new and highly distinctive musical ensemble which included Greek local instruments. Thus the piano was combined with the lyre for the first time, while he also added instruments of his own invention, particularly among the percussion, with the intention of enriching the variety of sounds. He then selected young musicians, singers and actors, from both the city and the provinces, and collaborating with painters and poets he presented a series of performances with his musical works Ilios o Protos (Sun the First), Chroniko (Chronicle), Ithagenia (Nativeland), Thitia (Lifetime), Stratis Thalassinos Among the Agapanthi (poetry by George Seferis, Nobel Prize 1963), Oropedio (Mountain Plain) at the Lydra venue which he named music-studio. His most fervent supporters were indeed the students and intellectuals who filled the music-studio daily, despite the constant interventions of the regime that would constantly attempt to shut it down. The composer’s vision had materialised and a new musical wave had been born which he termed “Return to the Roots”. He defined it as “a project for the future involving the process of examination, evaluation and selection of the indestructible sources of our living traditions in combination with selected contemporary art forms and elements”: the outcome was an exceptionally original sound emerging from the unique tone colours stemming from the unaccustomed blends of instruments and voices. In 1976 he composed the popular liturgy The Free Besieged, based on the poem by Greece’s national poet Dionysius Solomos, that he conducted in the crowded Panathenean Stadium, and which was presented in London in 1979. In 1977 he composed the music for the BBC television series Who Pays the Ferryman? The musical theme topped the British charts for months and gained the composer international renown. Numerous invitations for concerts abroad followed, in Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Canada, Russia, Australia and the United States. Markopoulos continued composing music for the theatre and for the cinema, collaborating with directors such as Jules Dassin, George Cosmatos, Nikos Koundouros and Spyros Evaggelatos. Through his work Yannis Markopoulos did much to shape the musical landscape of the 1970s.
In 1980 Markopoulos married the singer Vassiliki Lavina, his long-time associate, and in 1981 his daughter Eleni was born. For a period he sought a more private life with his family while preparing for the opening of a new chapter in his music, compositions that would display melodic outbursts sustained by polytonic quality and dazzling rhythms of an inexhaustible exuberance. In 1987 he founded the Palintonos Armonia Orchestra (the name deriving from Heraclitus) with which he would give concerts in Greece and abroad and record many of his works. The works of this period include the Concerto-Rhapsody for Lyre and Symphony Orchestra, Mitroa for string orchestra, the Healing Symphony, two oratorios, two song cycles, chamber music works, four quartets, two sonatas, and five pieces for violin and piano. In 1994 he composed one of his most important works The Liturgy of Orpheus. There followed Re-Naissance: Crete between Venice and Constantinople, a musical journey in four units that strikes a balance between the opera form and that of the oratorio, and the opera Erotokritos and Areti. In 1999 he composed Shapes in Motion, a piano concerto inspired by Pythagoras and dedicated to his daughter Eleni. Some of his latest works are Evilia Topia (Sunlit Landscapes), fantasy for solo flute; O Nomos tis Thalporis, oratorio-musical spectacle for voices, choir, wind orchestra, ballet and video projection, dedicated to the environment; and Triptych for Flute, Strings and Harp.
The Liturgy of Orpheus
Markopoulos began the composition of The Liturgy of Orpheus, based on ancient Orphic poems, in 1992, aiming in his new work to meet the deep aspirations of the sensitive human being who fervently seeks the restoration of the natural environment. For the text he selected sentences, phrases and even single words from the surviving fragments and, “inspired by the eloquent silence of ancient texts”, as the composer has expressed it, he worked assiduously at the composition of the work, completing first the six parts Orpheus on Olympus, Paean – Ode to Apollo, Gaia, Mother Earth, Hyperion, Oh Physis – Hymn to Nature, Curetes – Corybants, and some time later Eurydice Awaits and Love Has Come, the latter two on verses of his own, as well as the Bacchic Dance. He then added the narrative sections, written by Panos Theodoridis, and in 1993 he completed the Liturgy with the addition of Hymn to the Sky, Hymn to the Sea, The Muses of Pieria, and In the Manner of Love.
In the Liturgy, a work whose contours are rich in melodies, rhythms and tone colours, the orchestration establishes a superb balance between the voices, the choir, the orchestra and the narrator. Its intellectual content remains far removed from the religious themes of conventional oratorios while venturing beyond with the enrichment of multiple elements that revitalise the myth of the prophet musician, Orpheus, and also hint at Plato’s dictum “just as we have exercise for the body, so for the soul we have music”. The form is structured upon the hymns, the chorales, the instrumental parts, the duets, the songs, and the narration that has the rôle of an intermedio. The symphony orchestra is made up of strings, wind (without horns and bassoons), harp, piano and percussion, while including in certain parts a guitar, a lute, a kanonaki and a lyre. The narrative sections are mainly accompanied by a harp, the composer’s intention here being the creation of a rhapsodic mood, while occasionally two flutes also play, perhaps as an allusion to the diaulos, extending their participation into the Hymn to the Sea. The polyphony of the chorales conveys the composer’s personal style and appears in most parts of the work repeating the melodic lines of the soloists, and independently as, for example, in Gaia, Mother Earth.
The Liturgy of Orpheus had its première in 1994 at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Belgium. On 7 July 2005 the world-renowned bass-baritone José Van Dam sang the work in ancient Greek at the Hellenic Festival in the Herod Atticus Theatre. The concert was one of the season’s most outstanding events and led to this new recording of the Liturgy.
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MARKOPOULOS, Y.: Liturgy of Orpheus (The)