Songs by Mikis Theodorakis rearranged for voice and piano by Sebastian Schwab
german adaptation by Ina Kutulas
© SCHOTT MUSIC GmbH & Co. KG
Produced by Asteris Koutoulas
Co-Produced by BR Classic
On 7 August 2012, four musicians were sitting in an Athens apartment. They had met just shortly before. Through the window, one could see the Acropolis. “It’s so beautiful”, the eldest of the four said, but he was not referring to the Parthenon.
I only knew Theodorakis from my mother’s record collection
Mikis Theodorakis held an unlit cigar in his left hand, a present from the Cuban government, and used the Havana to conduct the freshly printed score that had just been placed in front of him: the first of thirteen songs he’d written, recomposed by the then 19-year-old Munich composer and violinist Sebastian Schwab, played by the pianist Markus Zugehör, and sung by Johanna Krumin, a young soprano from Berlin. The project had been her idea. An impossible idea: for Theodorakis’s 90th birthday, a number of his songs were to be reincarnated, retexted, and recomposed by younger artists, by musicians who could be his grandchildren.
For them, everything Theodorakis had fought for was ancient history: the years of war, the partisan battles, the resistance to the military junta, the fight for a free Greece. For Theodorakis, these were defining life experiences; for the younger ones, it was material in history books, as old and musty as the Merovingians. “I only knew Theodorakis from my mother’s record collection”, says Sebastian Schwab. A whole generation separates these musicians; by all rights this should not have functioned. And yet: “After the first song, when Mikis said what he did, all my doubts disappeared. Out of the legend, a contemporary person emerged; someone with whom I could talk about harmonies, voice- leading, and musical transitions. For me, it was again proof that music can transcend time.”
There’s pure sound in those hands
For three days, the four musicians met in Theodorakis’s apartment. For Johanna Krumin, it was like a master class: “Mikis sang for us, conducted, interrupted, corrected. Every detail was important to him.” It was a stroke of luck to meet a conductor “with so much wrist”, who could express legato, sound, and expression without any fear of losing control: “There’s pure sound in those hands.”
Mikis Theodorakis has always understood music to be something transcendent, like a cosmic melody, which every composer takes from the work of others and passes on. For this reason, Theodorakis had no problem with this project.
Johanna Krumin chose the thirteen pieces from Theodorakis’s works. The poet Ina Kutulas had already long been involved with the preparation of singable translations of Theodorakis’s songs and had also written original texts of her own (here for Abschied [Farewell] and Medeas Entsagung [Medea’s Renunciation]). Sebastian Schwab began by improvising at the piano using Theodorakis’s melodies. “I had to make the melodies match the speech rhythms of the German text”, Schwab said. “That began already with the word ‘musiki’, which in Greek has its accent on the last syllable.”
On which the two composers could not agree
In the first two songs, Wildwaches Land [Wild Country] and Nihtoni [Twilight], Schwab surrounds the melodies with a layer of accompaniment that sets up a vibration in the soul like the memory of happy times. With the next three songs – Einsame Reise [Lonely Journey], Medeas Entsagung, and Vergiftete Zeit [Poisoned Time] – the music alternates between outbursts of anger and despair; it finds shelter only in child-like melodies or grotesque dances, which can drive reality from the brain like a drug.
The sixth song – Wie geheimnisvoll schön meine Liebste ist [How Beautiful Is My Beloved] (from the Song of Songs) part of the Mauthausen Cycle – is for Theodorakis an invocation of a deceased lover, in which pathos is given full rein. Schwab, however, wanted his music to be “relentlessly unchanging and harsh in its harmonies”. He reached back to the “passus duriusculus” (a melody or bass line consisting of a chromatic scale covering the interval of a fourth, a figuration drawn from the Baroque doctrine of affects), and let this procession of pain move chromatically through all the parts, “like a traumatic backdrop for the soft and gentle melody; the background finally joins itself with the melody, because the melody provides support – without the emergence of angry outbursts – and finally, resigned, fades away.” Baroque submission instead of secular invocation – it was surely not coincidental that Wie geheimnisvoll schön meine Liebste ist was the only song on which the two composers – one very old and one quite young – could not and cannot agree.
Schwab describes Fortunas Gewässer [Fortune’s Waters] as one of his two favorite pieces. It is not set contrapuntally: the voice provides the accompaniment; the music floats over the melody and weaves itself gently into the melodic fabric. Bright light and sand on a shore provide healing for the grieving spirit. Theodorakis liked it so much that he said he could no longer imagine the original accompaniment.
As a composition, Esmeralda is perhaps the most challenging piece: nightmarish, in short segments with many ornaments, bizarre bird calls, and unexpected outbursts. One never knows what will happen next, the rudder can shift suddenly at any moment.
In Oft sprichst du zu mir [Often you speak to me], the beloved is heard. The music becomes soft and gentle, its movement steady and unchanging. In the following song, Abschied, it distances itself from this world and slowly feels its way into a new one. But the ego remains trapped in this world. The music ends with the deep tolling of bells.
Only music and dance (Betörendes Lied [Beguiling Song]) remain to make life bearable for a lonely and grieving person. The music vanishes with a rising question mark.
Now, at the end of a long life, he can return to his beginnings
“Before beginning this project, I mostly knew Theodorakis’s classical music”, Sebastian Schwab observes. “I knew a little bit about his political engagement from books. Through his songs, however, I begin to feel what he perhaps wanted at the time, what he fought for. I feel there his introspective side.”
This project has become a homecoming. Mikis Theodorakis has had to move through the century in the manner of a political hero, has had to give the Greeks a musical form and voice. Now, at the end of a long life, he can return to his beginnings, to a pure music free from all external constraints.
Alexander Smoltczyk, 2015
English translation by John Patrick Thomas and W. Richard Rieves
Johanna’s voice radiates a very strong personality, an entirely original personality. All the songs on this CD, from beginning to end, are characterized by the duality of a basic, melancholy mood on one side and a blinding brightness on the other. This contrast forms a dynamic unity, like the atmosphere on a summer day in Greece, when the shadows are so much darker as the sun shines ever more intensely.
Johanna’s pathos conveys the element of unpredictability that determines our lives. Interestingly, there is something “Greek” in the wonderful willfulness of this German artist, because again and again things become dramatic; but Johanna also repeatedly surrenders to the serenity which is at the heart of my songs.
As a young and quite extraordinary musician, Sebastian has made marvelous arrangements, in which one can recognize a great richness of ideas. His modesty in not altering my melodies touches me, because he had every possibility to do all sorts of things that might have robbed them of their souls. But it remains my music.
I am quite surprised that I now hear the songs as if they had been composed by me in order for Sebastian to clothe them in atonality. Sebastian has given my songs a magical rebirth. How easily what is modal and tonal tips into what is atonal … that shows a wonderful, lively gift of imagination. Johanna’s performance corresponds to this in an ideal fashion.
I find it astonishing and it makes me very happy that at the age of 90 my music feels so young to me: willing to take risks, and not relying on mere knowledge.
Mikis Theodorakis, 2015
English translation by John Patrick Thomas and W. Richard Rieves