Nikos Skalkottas, a genious Greek composer

”In modern Greece Orpheus tunes his lyre atonally. This scordatura was initiated by Nikos Skalkottas”
N. Slonimsky


It has been 72 years since Nikos Skalkottas last saw sunlight, but his passion for music and his unique and wonderful work leaves an indelible imprint in our memories. Undoubtedly, he was the most important Greek composer of the 20th century, who left behind world-renowned musical works with references to European and Greek tradition. It is an invaluable treasure. However, the path of the genius composer wasn’t paved with rose petals, he had to face many difficulties.

The early years and his music studies

Nikos Skalkottas was born in Chalkis. Coming from a musical family (his father and uncle were musicians) he started violin lessons with his uncle, at the age of five and his talent was immediately apparent. Due to his great progress, his family moved to Athens (1910) to offer him the opportunity for better musical education. He started studying violin at the Athens Conservatory and at the age of sixteen graduated with the highest distinction (Gold Medal) and honors. One year later, Nikos Skalkottas received a scholarship from the Averoff Foundation to continue his violin studies with Willy Hess at the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. However, Skalkottas chose to turn composition with teachers of the highest rank, such as Robert Kahn (his first teacher), Kurt Weill (1924-1925), Philipp Jarnach (1926-1927) and Arnold Schöenberg. In fact, with Arnold Schöenberg, he immersed himself in the composition, as he apprenticed next to him from 1927 until 1931, thanks to a new scholarship offered to him by Emmanuel Benakis. His love for composition also became apparent through a letter he sent to his close friend Nelly Askitopoulou in which he wrote: ”{…} I find I have greater aptitude for composition and a greater future. Composition is my only ideal and my only ideal is learning how to compose”. Through Schöenberg, Nikos Skalkottas explored the atony and the 12-tone system of composition, but at the same time, he respected tradition as a source for the radical renewal of music. During his stay in Berlin, Skalkottas wrote more than 70 music pieces. Although he respected and greatly appreciated his teacher Arnold Schöenberg, Skalkottas didn’t follow Schöenberg’s compositional method, but developed his own original technique which Schöenberg urged him to do. He led him to discover his own expression, his personality. He admired Skalkottas’s compositional skills and made some laudatory comments about his talent: ”One can understand from the structure of the composition, from its development and its motivic working what I allow my students to do and what I do not. He (Skalkottas) evidently excels” (Demertzis, 2004:32).

In 1928, Nikos Skalkottas gave his musical present to Athens, where he presented his orchestration of the Dimitris Mitropoulos’ ”Cretan Fest” and the reviews he received were enthusiastic. However, situations changed. On 23 and 27 November, 1930, Skalkottas performed two concerts, which presented some of his compositions. Unfortunately, this time the talented musician received disapproval and bad reviews instead of enthusiasm. In fact, his music was innovative and his talent unique and the other musicians and composers couldn’t accept that. After that, Skalkottas returned to Berlin, remaining in contact with his teacher Arnold Schöenberg, until he obtained his diploma in composition (1931).

The return of Nikos Skalkottas to Greece

In 1933, Skalkottas returned to Athens and hoping that a better fortune awaited him in his homeland. However, he immediately had to deal with a very conservative musical status. He had to face the envy and marginalization of other prominent composers and musicians (Manolis Kalomoiris, Philoktitis Oiconomidis, Spyros Farantatos, Dimitris Mitropoulos), who were dominating the musical scene of Greece. His conservative opponents claimed that Skalkottas was writing incomprehensible music, which was against the rules taught in conservatories. Although, according to musicologist Gianni Papaioannou ”He (Skalkottas) could compose at the highest level, adapt and orchestrate, conduct an orchestra(and other ensembles), play the violin in an excellent way, play also the piano, teach, etc..)”. It was his extraordinary talent that made his opponents marginalize him. He faced many difficulties because of the contempt he experienced every day from the artistic environment. His financial problems forced him to play the violin at the last music stand of the Athens State Orchestra, National Opera of Greece and Greek Radio Symphony Orchestra, despite his exuberant talent. As an antidote, he devoted himself to composition and he composed more than 100 music pieces in a short time. These pieces were written in different music languages and were influenced by Greek folk tradition. Some of his compositions that have stood out and are world famous are: ”36 Greek Dances”, ”3rd Piano Concerto” and ”The Return of Ulysses”.

After the storm and the injustice he faced, a quiet and creative period followed. He composed new music pieces and orchestrated older musical compositions. However, during this calm and while waiting for the arrival of his second child, he breathed his last breath on September 19, 1949, from complications caused by a strangulated hernia.


Nikos Skalkottas left behind a treasure trove of global radiation but felt disapointed and wronged, because this valuable treasure, his talent and his hard work, were never recognized while he was alive. He was unknown. He was only recognized as a composer after his death, thanks to the initiative of his friends and admitters (such as Giannis, G. Papaioannou). Skalkottas didn’t want to just utilize the national heritage of Greece, but he wanted to show its essence. Apart from being a great musician, he was also a man with morals and humility. Many of his colleagues may have tried to belittle him, but this star shone on the world stage and continues to shine. Today, no one denies his talent, which has been internationally recognized and his music has been performed by the most important orchestras in the world. In conclusion, I would like to reiterate a phrase of Daniel Barenboim, who calls him ”a major exponent of European culture”.

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