Xenakis’s 1975 return to Greece: Politics, aesthetics and ideology in the reception of his work

From Unearthing The Music

This previously unpublished essay, by Greek musicologist Katy Romanou, explores the Greek society's reaction to Iannis Xenakis' return to Greece after the fall of the Junta in 1974.

Xenakis’s 1975 return to Greece: Politics, aesthetics and ideology in the reception of his work To begin with, I wish to express my satisfaction that a very common Greek expression has been finally understood and adopted by non Greeks. The following quotation is from a letter published in The Financial Times (March 9, 2010) on the occasion of the recent crisis in Greece. It is written by the British historian Marc Mazower, who has specialized in recent history of Greece and the Balkans.

"The real constant in modern Greek history is the extraordinary degree of foreign interference in its domestic life. Greece's first king (a Bavarian) was imposed upon it, and its first political parties were named simply for the three powers most involved in its affairs.1 The severity of the Nazi occupation - with tens of thousands dying of famine in a single winter, and hundreds of villages burned - was a wartime extreme. More routine but less well known is the extent to which first the British and then the Americans sought to control Greece's government ministries, intelligence agencies, military and royal court through diplomats, missions and advisers. The touch of what Greeks call the "foreign finger" [ΡΡ.1] was felt right up to the dictatorship of 1967."

PP.1 - "The foreign Finger".

Foreign historians, as long as they realize the manipulating role of the foreign finger, are more trustworthy than Greek historians. Because the suspicion of partiality hangs over annoyingly when facts related to this period are described by Greeks. Neither the suspicion nor the partiality, when present, are groundless, because they feed each other continuously; also, because many sacrifices to the foreign finger have remained for long covered or distorted in history. It is understandable, that when the situation changed, at the fall of the junta in 1974, many cases were inflated and many were invented, spreading much fiction in history and many heroes in the society.

It is primarily in order to convince myself and not you, that I rely on Mazower in order to give the background information of the events I will recount.

When the Germans left in 1 October 1944, the Communists were the most important political and social force in the country. An agreement, behind the back of the Greek communists, between the “western finger” and the eastern one, on the distribution of the Balkan states, resulted to the Greek Civil War,2 [PP.2] that Mark Mazower characterized as the bloodiest conflict in Europe between 1945 and the break-up of Yugoslavia.3

PP.2 - Greek Civil War by Nikos Engonopoulos.

In 1949 the civil war ended with the defeat of the communists. In 1950 the country was at peace. It was peace where poverty, hatred, fear and pain reigned. Communists and leftists were persecuted. Many artists and intellectuals influential after the war, had been members of communist organisations. Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) and Mikis Theodorakis (1925), were two among them In 1944 Xenakis was wounded at the left side of the face, in Athens. In February 1946 he finished the Polytechnic School. On September 1947 he deserted the army (where he would be fighting against his comrades) and left Greece. In 1951 Xenakis met Messiaen, [PP.3] whose advice and encouragement propelled his lonely but extremely successful international career.

PP.3 - Iannis Xenakis and Olivier Messiaen

After the completion of the Marshal Plan, that fed thousands of hungry Greeks, the economic stabilization of Greece relied on the country that had obliterated its economy, in Mazower’s words.4 Diplomatic relations with Western Germany were resumed in 1950. In much less than a decade after the war’s end, the defeated Germans came to Greece (a winner in war), as one of the leading western forces that had undertaken the cultural revitalization in Greece. The Goethe Institute established in Munich in 1951 in order to spread German language and culture, opened its first branch abroad in Athens, in 1952.

Permit me here a parenthesis that I cannot help myself from introducing. [PP.4]5

PP.4. Excerpt from "The Opera House in The Third Reich" by Erik Levi.

What you see is written by an expert in Nazi cultural politics [PP.5] It shows the futility of all the struggles and the losses of the feeble and the remains of imperialism in international politics.

PP.5 - Cover of "Music in the Third Reich" by Erik Levi. Taken from "Xenakis’s 1975 return to Greece: Politics, aesthetics and ideology in the reception of his work" by Katy Romanou

Gradually in the 1960s the “Western finger” was fattened up with the participation of the United States Information Service (USIS, 1952), the Instituto Italiano di Cultura (founded in 1951), the Ford foundation and few more. They all promoted to Athens avant-garde music, little after its creation in Germany’s Darmstadt, Donnaueschingen, etc.

Created in the context of the Cold War, this new culture was projecting risk, daring and originality as supreme values, that were opposing socialist realism (traditional tonality, comprehensibility) but were also annulling the importance attributed so far to deep rooted traditions, turning a short history to cultural advantage, and reversing thus the scale of values in profit of the USA.

Xenakis was much favored by his shallow roots in Western music tradition and was fast acclaimed as a great representative of this tradition. In 1977 he received the Beethoven price of Bonn, culminating his status as a leading figure in Western music.

PP.6 - Tanks before the Greek parliament in 1967.

Back in Greece: Especially since 1955 leftists were gradually multiplied again and then, in 1967, a junta of colonels prevented their further growth with a new round of persecutions. [PP.6, PP.7]. The situation did change at the fall of the junta, in 1974. Then, thousands returned from the islands of seclusion and from abroad. Many, for a second or third time in their lives.

PP.7 - The Junta's celebrations.
PP.8 - Mikis Theodorakis upon his return.

A spirit of unbelievable and unfounded optimism spread, then, among Greeks in general and Greek artists in particular. Many musicians returned from abroad, some having studied by leading figures of the avant-garde, who were the academicians of the period. Mikis Theodorakis also returned and was welcomed as a hero. [PP. 8] While in exile, Mikis Theoodorakis had given close to a thousand concerts all over the world, in support of the Greek case. Recordings of those concerts were secretly circulating in Greece, or transmitted from radio stations abroad. His music became a symbol of resistance and communication among anti-junta citizens. His music inspired the will to fight, heroic intent and hope. It accompanied all resistant upheavals that became massive since 1973. [PP. 9, PP. 10]

PP.9 - 1973: at the polytechnic school of Athens.
PP.10 - 1973: at the polytechnic school of Athens.

At the junta’s fall the country reverberated his music. He gave a number of concerts in stadiums and other open-air places to celebrate the return to democracy. [PP. 11] The atmosphere of those concerts was unique. The audience was electrified, its participation absolute, its enthusiasm sincere, its emotions moved to their extreme; thousands of strangers feeling like brothers. This was music ripe with meanings.

PP. 11 - Myriads of people sing with Mikis for Cyprus, for democracy.

Politicians of the recently liberated parties soon realized with dread the consequences in the coming elections, of Theodorakis’ powerful performances. (since Theodorakis was a candidate of a leftwing union of parties). They reacted by manufacturing their own "Theodorakis". Music turned out to be more important than speeches during the campaign of those and many following elections. Accordingly, feeling and emotion was more decisive than speech and rationalism. Therefore, composers were not simply searched for and supported, but also fabricated, in a collaboration of newspapers and especially, Greek Television, that was in essence enjoying its first free emissions. TV began to operate in Greece in 1966, one year before the junta. Its growth was, therefore, more than elsewhere tied to political propaganda and cheap artistic products.

James H. Johnson in his original study about the transformation of the Parisian audience’s behavior between 1750 and 1850 describes the imprisonment and death of an actor in 1794 who was arrested because he had recited on stage the phrase “Long live our noble King!”.6 He went to the scaffold desperately repeating “But it was in my part”.

Well, I will not support that something similar happened in Athens of 1974. But I find the episode useful in order to demonstrate how tightly art might be connected to politics in periods of critical change. It is an exaggeration that will hopefully facilitate the perception of the issues connected to Xenakis’ return in Greece: the conflicting currents between his heroic past and his cosmopolitan present,between the romantic, fictitious element of Greek politics (amplified in those postdictatorship years) and the quest for pure, “pre-objective” (to use Adorno’s term)contents of avant-garde music.

In 1967, Indiana University in Bloomington, offered Xenakis a professorship and a commitment to establish a research center for mathematics and music. The latter was cancelled because of financial problems and Xenakis retired in 1972.

In Xenakis' long lessons on Mathematical and Automated Music, that I attended, he was mainly speaking about his ST compositions. But often the conversation developed to unanticipated directions. The students attending his class were few and therefore the lessons had a seminar like character. Xenakis was feeling strongly tied to Western European culture and was not well at ease in that country. He was often critical and ironic to both the culture and the politics of the United States, at that time involved in the Vietnam war. He was though very close and sincere to certain among his American students, whom he admired for their fast thinking and musical talent. Besides, they were also ironic about many aspects of their own culture.

He was often speaking to me about Greece in a manner that disturbed me, initially. I remember him saying: “What has Greece to demonstrate today? It is not differing from a mass of other nations that follow whatever is ahead of them.” To my suggestion that Greece has to demonstrate a Xenakis, he answered that he was a citizen of the world. That he was only tied to music. That for the sake of spiritual freedom which he valued as the highest good in life, he was careful not to get trapped to established codes.

PP.12 - Xenakis Week promotional material.
PP.13 - Iannis Xenakis concert.

Xenakis came to Greece for a very short period at the end of 1974. But he visited the country in a well organised series of concerts, lectures, and expositions of his life’s and work’s documents, starting in 1975 and yearly thereafter. PP.12, 13 A highlight was the Mycenae Polytope on 2 to 5 September 1978. [PP.14]

PP. 14 - Mycenae Polytope promotional material.

A curiosity was the transmission of his music from loudspeakers in the leftist newspaper Avgi popular festival of 1981, among cries of souvlaki sellers and other picturesque sounds.

All the events gathered large numbers of people. They were attracted by the world famous composer, the famous architect, the philosopher, the mathematician, the hero, the Communist... the old comrade. The audience of those events was varied concerning musical experience and political ideology. Its reaction was transmitted to the press by journalists of similarly varied education, political ideology and orientation.

Disapproval for the money spent for his Polytopon appeared quite often in part of the Athenian press, together with accusations for his previous Polytope, the Persepolis, presented before the Shah of Iran in Chiraz, in 26 August of 1971. Related questions were often put to him after his long lectures. [PP.17] His ideology was questioned, often, in a provocative manner.

PP. 15 - Iannis Xenakis at his first visit in Athens.

I have recorded his answer in one case:

"There is a tendency to submit research in general and the arts to certain actions, social, political and ideological. I think that this assimilation should not happen because we then fall into the tragedy experienced in Soviet Russia from 1930 on under Stalin and Zdanov and their socialist realism. This is a great danger. On the other side, all the struggle I went through with my friends [...] has been integrated in my music, in my sorrow for leaving so many dead behind. When I went to France, where I stayed exiled for eighteen years, I had no other hope than that my work would be worthy of the comrades' sacrifices. But this was done in a new expression because the war was over and the situation was new. Revolution might occur in many ways. The role of Greece today is to stand up in creation in all fields: in the arts, in science, even in politics, where we ruminate a pile of slogans that come from elsewhere. [...] Education is indeed elemental. But it is a daily personal issue; it may not be solved by the government. When everybody acquires the independence of thought, the creative independence, the critical thinking, [...] then a state might find the resultant and offer a civilization to itself and to the world, and enter history again. [...] Every one should guard his own freedom personally; otherwise we build stockyards."

The absence of empathy in his music is best revealed in his own, often quoted, description of what inspired Metastaseis. He read this passage in some of his lectures in Athens. I think he was enjoying the disappointment produced by its close to some listeners. I quote:

"Metastaseis, that starting point of my life as a composer, was inspired not by music but rather by the impressions gained during the Nazi occupation of Greece. The Germans tried to take Greek workers to the Third Reich – and we staged huge demonstrations against this and managed to prevent it. I listened to the sound of the masses marching towards the centre of Athens, the shouting of slogans and then, when they came upon Nazi tanks, the intermittent shooting of the machine guns, the chaos. I shall never forget the transformation of the regular, rhythmic noise of a hundred thousand people into some fantastic disorder. [...] I would never have thought that one day all that would surface again and become music: Metastaesis. I composed it in 1953-4 and called it starting point because that was when I introduced into music the notion of mass. [...] Almost everybody in the orchestra is a soloist. I used complete divisi in the strings, which play large masses pizzicato and glissando.7"

A dramatic personal experience is drained of all empathizing, to be observed as a natural phenomenon.

Even Hermann Scherchen, one of the first to recognize the originality of his music and to work for its propagation, found his work excessively “dry”. Xenakis’s response was that, to him, his music was “the most sincere, most efficient, most concise, and therefore, most elegant way to express his ideas”.8


  1. French, English, Russian (1833-1863).
  2. The British, in whose sphere of influence Greece was entrusted (in an agreement between Churchill and Stalin of which Greek communists were not aware) had supported and collaborated with EAM/ELAS because of their effectiveness in military operations. British politicians, however, anxious to prepare the situation after the war, formed EDES [ΕΔΕΣ = Εθνικός Δηµοκρατικός Ελληνικός Σύνδεσµος = National Democratic Greek League] – a counterbalancing anticommunist resistance group –, collaborated for some time with both and finally watched the two groups fighting each other. Concurrently, the British were building connections with the gendarmerie and other nationalist units and were paving the way to the return on power of Nazi collaborators.
  3. Mark Mazower, ‘Introduction’, After the War was over. Reconstructing the family, nation and state in Greece, 1943-1960, edited by Mark Mazower, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford 2000, 7.
  4. The ‘seizure of the financial wealth of Greece’ already during the first weeks of the occupation, is described in: Mark Mazower, ‘Ο Λιµός’, Στην Ελλάδα του Χίτλερ. Η Εµπειρία της Κατοχής, translated by Κώστας Κουρεµένος, Αλεξάνδρεια, Athens
  5. 1994, 49-78.
  6. 'The sporadic performance of folk operas by Greeks, Croats, Spaniards and Romanians was probably an act of courtesy in view of these countries’ alliances with Germany.'
  7. James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris. A Cultural History, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1995, p. 116.
  8. Bálint András Varga, Conversations wit Iannis Xenakis, faber and faber, London 1996, p. 52.
  9. Nouritza Matossian, Iannis Xenakis, Fayard, Fondation SACEM, Paris 1981, p. 98.