Theodorakis, Britten, Bob Dylan: Poetry as Song

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personal recollection and tribute by JIM POTTS

I first encountered the music of Mikis Theodorakis in 1965, as an undergraduate at Oxford, when I saw the Michael Cacoyannis film, Zorba the Greek. I had the opportunity to interview Cacoyannis about the film many years later (https://corfublues.blogspot.com/search?q=Cacoyannis)

Cacoyannis wrote, for the sleeve notes of the album Irene Papas: Songs of Theodorakis (RCA Victor, 1968):

“Theodorakis has reshaped and dominated the musical life of his country in a way that has no parallel in the world today…There is no doubt that this is due, in no small measure, to the quality of the lyrics, which express the problems and passions of the Greek people through the vision of our best living poets…It is a startling and stirring experience to see poetry break loose from the printed page and become a living voice in the street, the way it was in ancient times when people sang the verses of Homer”.

I became much more aware of Mikis’ music in 1967, soon after the Colonels’ coup of 21 April 1967.

By the time I reached Greece in August 1967, his music was officially banned. In spite of that, I developed a love of Greek music, but I was not able to buy my first LP record of his songs, interpreted by Maria Farantouri, until a year later, after I had I returned to the UK, in 1968 (to study as a postgraduate in Bristol). My Greek girl-friend (later my wife) had several early LPs by Mikis in her Corfu home, but the recording artists were not always the most compelling, and I had only a rudimentary understanding of Greek at the time.

With my first Farantouri album of Theodoakis songs, I never looked back.

The death of Mikis Theodorakis, aged 96, on 2nd September 2021, was a cause both of worldwide mourning, but also of celebrations of his life and work.

I was reminded of his answer to an interview question posed in Jerusalem, by Asher Wallfish, Newsweek, August 1-4, 1972.

Q. You always write of death. Why?

A. My songs are anti-death, really. But without death, you can’t have resurrection. Death is the supreme shock, the supreme mystery in man’s experience. Especially if it comes before its time. But my songs of death contain hope, not gloom. The words may sound sad, but the music is triumphant, luminous.

Rediscovering that cutting again, inside one of my books, I was reminded of a poem I had written when I heard news of the fall of the Junta in July 1974. I was working in Ethiopia at the time.

Theodorakis 1974 (Seven Years Later).

So the Junta has finally fallen…

The bouzoukis go wild in the streets.

As if expecting the ‘Christos Anesti’

Crowds are gathered in the midnight squares.

The poets light candles with the people,

pass the message to whomsoever they meet.

And each flame is a song of freedom

For so long only glimpsed from afar

flickering on some distant shore.

Cupped hands now keep it burning,

carry it back to the mountains and islands

never again to be extinguished; –

a beacon, brighter than ever before…

All these little gifts of God!

Addis Ababa, July 1974

(from Corfu Blues, Ars Interpres, 2006)

I had been to several rousing and inspiring concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, before and after his release, and I have been to many more since. I must have twenty to thirty long-playing records of his music, and many more CDs. I have more or less the same number of recordings of the works of Britten and Bob Dylan.

The Theodorakis recordings and song cycles I value most include The Ballad of Mauthausen, Romiosyni, March of the Spirit (Arkadia V), Epitaphios, Epiphania, Phaedra, Song of the Dead Brother, To Axion Esti, The Hostage, Songs of Andreas, Songs of Strife, Ballads, Phaedra, Twelve Popular Songs (Ta Laika).

Some of the poets he has set to music include Seferis, Ritsos, Anagnostakis, Eleftheriou, Elytis, Behan, Lorca, Gatsos, Sikelianos, Kalvos, and Ganas, He has also set his own poems and lyrics (Margarita, Aprili mou, To oneiro, Ena deilino, Min zechnas ton Oropo, Eimaste Dio, Ston Agnosto Poiti, for example). I am not persuaded of the coherence of his “Sun and Time” sequence of poems.

Among my favourite songs are Dromoi Palii, To Yelasto Paidi, Rodostomo, To Traino fevgei stis ochto.

His greatest interpreters include the singers Grigoris Bithikotsis, Adonis Kaloyiannis, Maria Farantouri and Aliki Kayialoglou. He has collaborated with so many great artists, that everyone will have their own preferences.

When I was working in Stockholm from 2000-2004, I was invited by the Greek Embassy’s Cultural Counsellor to give a talk at the Greek House (the Greek community centre). I addressed the topic Theodorakis, Britten, Dylan: who did most for Poetry?”

This was, in some respects, a follow-up to a talk I had given in April 1982 at the University of Athens Department of English Studies, on “Poetry and Song Lyrics” (or rather on “Poetry and Artistic-Popular Songs”i.e. εντεχνα τραγουδια), under the general title of “Homer liked words aloud”. In that paper I tried to sketch in developments over a much longer period, from medieval minstrel songs to composers and poets of the period of Henry VIII – poems set as lute songs, ayres and madrigals, through to nineteenth century German lieder and settings of Goethe’s poems, and on to twentieth-century Greek, French and British composers.

I first encountered the songs of Bob Dylan, who celebrated his 80th birthday on May 24, 2021, when he appeared in a BBC TV drama broadcast, The Madhouse on Castle Street, broadcast on 13 January 1963, in which he sang Blowin’ in the wind and The ballad of the gliding swans. I was hooked. It’s hard to choose just a few Dylan songs, or to reach consensus about the most poetic songs from his vast repertoire, but my own recommendations include Mr Tambourine Man, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Positively Fourth Street, I Want You and Not Dark Yet. I could probably name another 100 songs I like, and another 100 that I don’t like..

I wonder which songs appealed most to the judges when Dylan was being considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, and was awarded the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” At the Nobel Banquet, his short speech was read on his behalf by the US Ambassador. Dylan wrote:

“It’s my songs that are at the vital centre of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that”.

Thanks to the fact that he sang in the English language, his compositions have probably reached more people around the world than those of Theodorakis, who was committed to the idea of “music for the masses” – but especially to his compatriots and diaspora speakers of Greek. Theodorakis gave many concerts outside Greece, to great acclaim. In spite of the language barrier, I venture to suggest that Theodorakis succeeded in “reaching” and giving comfort and food for thought with his moving song settings to more people (and communities) – including many native English-speakers – than Britten did (we should remember that Britten himself was reaching large audiences through broadcasts on BBC Radio and Television and as a result of frequent commissions), even allowing for the power of the nine Wilfred Owen poems Britten used in his magnificent but harrowing War Requiem. Britten was a pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War II. I note in passing that the premiere of War Requiem in the newly-built Coventry Cathedral occurred at the end of May 1962, close to the time (April-May 1962) that Bob Dylan started performing his anti-war song Blowin’ in the wind in Greenwich Village, New York. It was published for the first time in May 1962, in the sixth issue of Broadside, and a recording was made the same month at the Broadside Show and sessions.

As anti-war compositions of different magnitude, ambition and scope, and with words of very different poetic merit and complexity, which creations have had the longest-lasting impact? It is not a question of Wilfred Owen’s poetry versus Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

Humphrey Carpenter quotes the music critic William Mann, who was writing in December 1963:

“The War Requiem has caught the public imagination to an almost unheard-of degree”.

Carpenter comments that, although widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, “the work has become identified with the peace movements and left-wing intellectualism of the sixties”.

What long-term impact did Britten’s setting of Pacifist March (1937) have, for instance?

“May the strength we’ve misused in violence swing into science

And make more music”

(Ronald Duncan).

It was also in 1962 that Mikis Theodorakis’s song cycle Epiphania was released on record with his setting of the famous George Seferis poem Arnisi (variously translated as Denial/Renunciation/On the Secret Seashore) and the whole of Greece was suddenly singing the words of Greece’s greatest modern poet in the streets and tavernas. In concert, Theodorakis was also conducting fast and thrilling versions of the exciting and energizing bouzouki instrumental which later became incorporated into Zorba’s Dance, the increasingly fast section following the familiar opening bars which came from the song Make the bed for two. Seferis and Theodorakis had some differences of opinion about the setting of Arnisi and the way that Theodorakis changed the meaning of the song by tinkering with Seferis’ clearly indicated punctuation in the line πήραμε τη ζωή μας• λάθος! κι αλλάξαμε ζωή.

There is a video of the academic Helene Glykatzi-Ahrweiler  discussing the mistake in the setting of the words «Mε τι καρδιά, με τι πνοή, τι πόθους και τι πάθος, πήραμε τη ζωή μας• λάθος! κι αλλάξαμε ζωή»

Apparently Seferis was made quite angry by the change, but there are different accounts, by Professor George Savides and Theodorakis himself, who had composed the song cycle in Paris, after meeting Seferis, then Ambassador in London, in the autumn of 1960, at a performance of Theodorakis’ ballet Antigone in Covent Garden. He returned to London with the completed songs to Seferis’ residence which had an excellent piano, but Theodorakis took with him a cheap portable pick-up and a copy of the Hadjidakis/Nana Mouskouri recording. Mikis was nervous about playing his own demo version with the more demotic, less sophisticated but authentic “voice of the people” of Bithikotsis, which he feared Seferis would not like. After dinner, Mikis played and sang the songs to his own piano accompaniment, and Seferis and George’s wife, Maro, although a little startled when hearing the poem set to music, seemed satisfied. Mikis wanted the songs to reach the widest possible audience. At the recording session, Mikis warned Bithikotsis to take note of the pause and punctuation mark before the word “lathos”. When Seferis heard Theodorakis sing the setting, he shouted, “The ano teleia! The ano teleia!” (the ‘upper full-stop’! – akin to the semi-colon) “otherwise you reverse the meaning”. In practice, it proved impossible to change, so listeners to the recorded version would hear the word “lathos” joined without a pause to the phrase “pirame ti zoi mas”, thus giving the opposite meaning to the line and the poet’s explicit intentions. Theodorakis knew that the public would sympathise with the song’s new implications (Mikis Theodorakis, Melopoiimemi Tragoudia, Volume 1, Songs, 1997, pages 54-55).

Roderick Beaton (George Seferis, Waiting for the Angel, A Biography, 2003, p. 362) quotes Geoge Savides complaining to Seferis on January 1962 about Theodorakis’ poor craftsmanship, the recording and the ‘notorious’ missing semi-colon.

Was this a fuss about nothing? I have abiding admiration for George Savides but I’m not over-enthusiastic about his own rather lugubrious but sensitive readings of Seferis’s poems on record. He wrote to Seferis on 19 January, 1962:

“I don’t much like it… ‘Denial’ seems better than the rest, which seem to me a bit garbled, missing the meaning. But even in ‘Denial’, the lack of a pause before the word ‘wrong’ makes nonsense of the last verse”.

In Britain, when ‘serious composers’ adapted the folk songs they had often collected themselves, they “dressed them up in evening dress’, as noted by Karpeles, Fox Strangways and Reeves, by providing piano arrangements and harmonisations which rendered the songs almost unrecognisable to the people who created and sang the songs originally.

Vaughan Williams wrote at some length about the importance of national (as opposed to nationalistic) music and the folk song tradition. Holst, Delius, Grainger were all interested in folk song and its revival or preservation– as were Dvořák, Bartok and Janáček in Central Europe.

“Every composer cannot expect to have a world-wide message, but he may reasonably expect to have a special message for his own people and many young composer make the mistake of imagining they can be universal without at first having been local…What a composer has to do is to find out the real message he has to convey to the community and say it directly and without equivocation”.

Britten wrote “One of chief aims is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the days of Purcell”.

Following the logic of Vaughan Williams’s argument, Theodorakis was surely the best example, as much of his music cuts across all classes and reached the man and woman in the street. If he was a national composer, he was an internationalist in terms of political ideology.

It might seem perverse for a composer “to do violence to the verbal accent” of a poem. Some famous German composers have been accused of altering the speech rhythm and metre of a poem in order to satisfy the elements of musical time; sometimes they alter the shape and structure of the poem, setting the same stanza twice or ignoring pauses and punctuation makes, as we have seen, The novelist E.M. Forster, writing about Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, with a libretto based on the poem with the same name by George Crabbe, and about the changes that were made to the poem, said:

“They had every right to make them. A composer is under no obligation to stick to the original: his duty is to be original himself”.

Mitsakis, in his introduction to his anthology Modern Greek Music and Poetry (English translation of the title), refers to instances where a composer radically changes or rewrites a published poem without the approval or co-operation of the poet, or possibly with the co-operation of the poet. He cites a setting of a poem by George Themelis where the connection between the sung and printed versions is slight (page 34).

Hegel said that the most suitable material for music is “lyrically true, of the utmost simplicity” and that “it is the simple, terse, deeply felt poem which most stimulates the composer’s imagination”, not poems which are “too burdened with thought, too philosophical and deep”.

It is not only the mellifluous verses of Lord Byron and Thomas Moore that make satisfactory songs.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson is reported to have complained “Why do these damned musicians make me say a thing twice when I said it only once?”

In the 5th edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians we read, about Britten:

“Words seem not merely to stimulate but to challenge his ability to absorb intractable verbal stuff into music…For a long time he chose obscure words…He believed that music can be a solvent of all words from the highest poetry to the more colloquial small change of dialogue”.

W.H. Auden offered his own advice about poetry and song. He was opposed to complicated metaphors, didactic messages, mixed or ambiguous feelings. He thought poems intended for songs should be short: “the poet who would make songs is denied many poetic virtues, but he is also guarded from many poetic vices: he cannot be prolix or private or preachy or obscure”.

1962 was also the year of Theodorakis’s The Hostage and The Song of the Dead Brother. It was a seminal year for him, as well as well as for Britten and Dylan. The following year George Seferis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1964, Zorba the Greek reached the cinema screens.

Theodorakis was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize in 1983; the prize was awarded to individuals for “strengthening peace among comrades”.

In his foreword to George Giannaris’ book, Theodorakis writes:

“I believe it would not be an exaggeration to say that the modern movements in symphonic music are more musical-literary than purely musical… I believe that I write music for the people…Personally, I begin with a fundamental principle, which is that Art must at every moment communicate with the masses. Consequently, there never has been, and never can exist, a genuine artistic work only for the few- the connoisseurs, the specialists, or whatever you may call them. The masses, however, are not something abstract but are, on the contrary, totally concrete. For instance, “masses” for me are the Greek people who today live under certain conditions that produce specific problems, expectations, ideologies, ideals.”

Theodorakis goes on to say that the composers of pop music in other parts of Europe “ought to do what we did. That is, they should collaborate with the great modern poets and writers of their countries, so that they could marry their musical sensibility, which is full of life, with the poetic visions and the messages of the living poetry of our era”.

On occasion Theodorakis did write his own song-lyrics and often ventured to perform songs himself, with mixed results. Mikis was no singer, but at least we could be sure how the composer wanted them to be interpreted.

Did Bob Dylan do as much for poetry and literature as Theodorakis or Benjamin Britten did?

Britten succeeds in capturing and complementing the dramatic urgency of John Donne’s sonnet Batter my heart (The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Opus 35) but is it ultimately satisfying to a wider public, to “the masses”, or only to the musically-educated and the elite? Pelham Humfrey might have been a more sympathetic composer for these sonnets, at least for Donne himself.

Batter my heart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWctISk87HY

How much value does the music add to a straightforward reading of the poem? Perhaps the settings of Donne’s Holy Sonnets even alienate some listeners and poetry-lovers. Peter Porter held the opposite view. He explained how the settings had helped him find a way into Donne’s world. I am yet to be convinced by all of Britten’s settings of Donne’s Holy Sonnets or Hardy’s Winter Words. Porter wrote that “‘Before Life and After’ is a great poem, and an even greater song – the greatest single song that Britten ever wrote, in my view”.

I will keep trying, but I find it a struggle, more duty than pleasure. Perhaps I sometimes fall into the category of people alluded to by Boris Ford. “It has even been claimed that great words can prove a hindrance to the composer, because they have too much life of their own and refuse to take a humble second place to the music”.

One could also question whether Vaughan Williams’ settings of Ten Blake Songs (songs like London and Ah! Sunflower) manage to avoid detracting from the naked written or spoken word. Britten’s setting of Blake’s The Sick Rose (Serenade for tenor, horn & strings, Op.31 – Elegy – O Rose, Thou Art Sick) does add a new dimension and an alternative interpretation through its unanticipated stressing of the words. The George Herbert settings in Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs for baritone, chorus and orchestra (1911) are more successful than the Blake settings, although it is hard to improve on an unadorned poem like Love bade me welcome. I am reminded of the reaction of Maro Seferis when first hearing Theodorakis’ setting of her husband’s poem Arnisi (Denial). She was so accustomed to hearing the poem, as a poem, that it took time for her to adjust to the musical arrangement.

In a 1968 CBC TV interview, Britten said that an artist should not lock himself in an ivory tower, that he wanted his music to be used and useful (whereas Vaughan Williams wrote, in National Music, that “the great glory of music to my mind is that it is absolutely useless…music subserves no utilitarian purpose; it is the vehicle of emotional expression and nothing else”.)

Britten created some outstanding works for children and young people (like Noye’s Fludde, Op. 59). His music certainly reached a wide, if relatively highbrow or educated audience in the UK, thanks to the BBC television and radio broadcasts of song recitals and operas, and commissions for choirs, films and festivals. Television audiences were transfixed by the productions of his operas, which had an overwhelming impact on many viewers. In the same CBC interview, when asked why anyone would want to write opera, Britten replied that it was a very real question: “Why do we spend so much time writing something which has virtually no appeal or anyway little appeal unless it’s a hundred years old?”.

His pacifist message was clearly expressed in War Requiem and in settings of political poems such as Ronald Duncan’s Pacifist March (1937) and Randall Swinger’s Advance Democracy (1938). Boris Ford writes: “Not all the poems Britten set are great poetry; a few of them, during his earlier years up to the Second World War, are somewhat crude political poetry that appealed to his anti-fascist and pacific beliefs”.

Humphrey Carpenter, in his biography of Britten, writes (p. 134): “His score for the film Peace of Britain…and the writing of the Pacifist March for the Peace Pledge Union, indicate a continuing sympathy for the cause, and certainly his identification of himself as a pacifist in September 1939 was not a radical departure from his stance during the thirties; but it was not inevitable”. The Peace of Britain film score can be found on YouTube and the CD, Britten on Film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpvORwekXG4

Carpenter also says of Advance Democracy (p. 123): “Britten was still willing to lend his name and music to the old left-wing causes; he wrote a motet, Advance Democracy, for the Co-Operative movement, to words by the editor of Left Review, Randall Swingler, and he agreed to provide, for a ‘Festival of Music for the People’ (featuring choirs from the Co-Operative and Labour movements) a cantata for tenor soloist, massed choir and orchestra, entitled Ballad of Heroes.”

Britten’s justification for writing opera was that “we are all human beings, we like studying human beings; music expresses the emotion of a human being”. He is valued by many for his humanity as a composer, but he was concerned about the lack of drawing power of contemporary music and opera.

Theodorakis had no such reservations. He wrote confidently in My Artistic Credo:

“In the beginning was the Word! …From the beginning, I have intentionally declared that I placed my pride in faithfully serving primarily modern Greek poetry, so that when one listens to one of my works, one could not imagine the music with another text nor the poem with different music”.

His answer was to embrace popular singers (some with untrained voices associated with ‘laika tragoudia’) and rebetika-influenced instrumentation (but not always). His more ‘classical’ symphonic or meta-symphonic works and flow-songs (‘song-rivers’) are uneven, although some can be claimed to rival Britten’s works as masterpieces.

Theodorakis’s own political ideology and party politics were often clearly expressed. His political statements on his website left no room for doubt about his views on international affairs. His statement on the war in Iraq, dated Athens, 21.3.2003, for instance, includes these sentiments:

“I see Bush standing shoulder to shoulder with Genghis Khan, Attila and Hitler. I view Americans responsible as detestable, ruthless, cowardly murderers of entire peoples. From this moment on and forever after I will view as my enemy anyone who has anything to do with these barbarians for any reason. The hatred of simple people from the entire world must rise like a great wave to drown them in shame.”

I quote them as an example, not to invite agreement or disagreement, but to show how Mikis never minced his words – although his political allegiances, interventions and opinions changed quite dramatically over the years. I doubt that Benjamin Britten or Bob Dylan would have ever expressed themselves with quite so much direct and passionate hostility. I once attended a meeting between Mikis and a London Cypriot audience which was characterised by what seemed like angry and fundamental disagreements, although Mikis cared deeply about the fate of the Cypriot people.

Such passionate disputes make arguments about the position of pauses and semi-colons in a song-setting seem rather trivial. But this article is concerned with songs, not politics. Allow me to return to more peaceful pastures.

Which interpretations of the poems of Thomas Hardy and William Barnes work best for Dorset audiences – Britten’s, Finzi’s or Ireland’s settings of Hardy, or folksingers’ versions of Barnes and Hardy by The Yetties and Tim Laycock? Take Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of Barnes’ Linden Lea. The composer’s arrangements for choir or piano accompaniment are wonderful, but Dorset folk-singers can offer another, deeper, dimension when they sing in the local dialect with simplified folk accompaniments ‘without evening dress’ (but they do tend to stick to the outlines of the well-loved Vaughan Williams’ melody).

I imagine that the casual listener might be attracted by Britten’s arrangement (of Herbert Hughes’ arrangement) of W. B. Yeats’ Down by the Salley Gardens (which the poet reconstructed from three lines of a folk song he remembered an old peasant woman singing in the village of Ballisodare, County Sligo).

The popularity of this song might suggest that the most successful works are made of poems and lyrics which stay closer to ballads and other folk song forms.

Benjamin Britten’s settings of a selection of passages from Rimbaud’s difficult poem, Les Illuminations is a triumphantly successful song-cycle, to my mind, although Peter Pears thought the cycle “a trifle too pat”, with two of the settings “almost mechanical” (‘The Vocal Music’ in Benjamin Britten, a Commentary on his works by a group of specialists, ed. Donald Mitchell and Hans Keller,1952. Peter Porter profoundly disagreed with Pears. I side with Porter, although I don’t agree that Being Beauteous needed music to make its greatest impact. Boris Ford writes that “it seems to me that he transformed the poems for the better”. The cycle is certainly much more than an exercise in style. I have half a dozen recordings of the same work. I tend to prefer the recordings with female singers.

Mikis Theodorakis also composed oratorios and cantatas, “flow-songs” or long “river songs”, by selecting whole poems or sections of poems by Sikelianos, Neruda and Seferis (Raven),

Raven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHwiAlakSjU

Britten’s works may not appeal to the widest popular audience, but there is no doubt that he made a vitally important contribution to twentieth century serious music and to the art of setting poetry to music (in about five languages apart from English). He did a great service to the poets whose work he selected (see Benjamin Britten’s Poets, edited by Boris Ford, which contains over 350 poems that Britten set to music between 1922 and 1976). Peter Pears was a fine singer and interpreter, but his voice is not to all tastes. He can come across as cold, distant and somewhat haughty. I prefer the expressive and communicative qualities that Theodorakis discovered in the voices of singers like Grigoris Bithikotsis, Maria Farantouri, Adonis Kaloyannis and in the sensitive interpretations of Aliki Kayialoglou.

Bithikotsis, in particular, was selected for his γνησια λαικη φωνη (‘gnisia laiki foni’, ‘authentic voice of the people’), for his tone quality, demotic vocal colour and timbre.

I will not attempt to compare Peter Pears with Bob Dylan. Who might Theodorakis have categorised, if asked, as “an authentic voice of the people” in the UK and Ireland? Perhaps Dick Gaughan (Scotland) or Dominic Behan (Ireland)?

My two most recent volumes of poetry, Reading the signs and Words on the table, and the earlier Corfu Blues, all contain some songs intended to be set to music and sung. I used to sing them to a simple guitar accompaniment, but I was delighted when Raul Scacchi, a talented Italian composer, rearranged them and set my simple compositions to music with more varied ornamentation and diverse instrumentation. I didn’t always agree with changes he made to the poems, but I understand why he did it, and the original poems are available in print form for anyone who is interested.

Curiously, a satirical song called Martial Law which I wrote many years ago and later posted as a video on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXpn_Fv3XZM) has recently been declared “an age-restricted video” for not following “community guidelines”. I haven’t bothered to contest the decision. The musical arrangement is Raul Scacchi’s. It was only a demo. It seems that satire of this sort is unacceptable.

Poetry read or performed out loud is not always effective – nor is every folk or protest song rendition. Bob Dylan’s early New York coffee-house concerts were very hit-and-miss (and so are some of his stadium appearances when on tour).

Nikos Kazantzakis made the following observation in his diary during his British Council-sponsored tour of England, the day after the Council had arranged for him to attend a poetry evening. The 1946 entry is from Nikos Kazantzakis, A biography based on his letters, Helen Kazantzakis, tr. Amy Mims, 1968.

“Yesterday evening, I went to a poetic evening, where three Harpylike magpies with huge jawbones made in England shook themselves from their lethargy and began reciting verses with pathos. And then they fell back into their lethargy. I believe there is nothing more ridiculous than mediocre poetry”.

If that is so, it must be equally true that mediocre composers can murder good poetry.

Kazantzakis’comments should make any aspiring poet think twice before standing up to read or recite at an Open Mic event!

I will list some key English and Irish songs and contrasting settings which interest me. The first three are settings of poems by Lawrence Durrell.

Wilfred Brown and Margaret McNamee (piano), Nemea (Lawrence Durrell)

T.W. Southam, Songs of a Sunday Composer, Nemea (Wilfred Brown with Margaret McNamee)

The song Nothing is lost, sweet self can be heard on the same YouTube video and on the LP, Songs Of A Sunday Composer (Turret Records 101), It is a setting of Durrell’s poem ECHO.

Lesbos (Lennox Berkeley setting; Maureen Morelle with Diana Wright, piano. Songs about Greece. Jupiter EP, jep 0C36)

The version by Belle /Bella Gonzalez and Ensemble is the best, to my mind.

Belle also appears on a recording which can be found on the Durrell Library of Corfu Audio Gallery, rehearsals for the musical Ulysses Come Back

“Durrell himself sang the recitative, Belle Gonzalez sang the female parts, with Pat Smythe (who wrote the music for “Lesbos” – published in 1967 by OUP) on piano and Jeff Clyne on bass)”. With thanks to Richard Pine for this information.

On the rare 1969 Turret LP. Songs of a Sunday Composer, TRT 101, the artists include Wallace Southam, Belle Gonzalez, Noel Barker, John Barrow, Wilfred Brown and Bryan Drake. The recordings are also on YouTube.

In Arcadia (a more challenging and demanding Wallace Southam setting).

T. W. Southam: Songs of a Sunday Composer.

This version by Bryan Drake with Diana Wright (piano) was first released on Songs about Greece, Jupiter EP jep 0C36

This poem might have lent itself to being set by Manos Hadjidakis. or Peggy Glanville-Hicks, the Australian who composed the music for the opera of Durrell’s play Sappho on Mykonos in 1963

Sappho, opera libretto and notes:

Although Wallace Southam was a good friend of Durrell, one feels that the poet, as a jazz enthusiast and player, might have preferred the Belle Gonzalez interpretations. It would be interesting to learn whether he ever attended any of her concerts or jazz and poetry evenings, such as the one in the late sixties at the Wigmore Hall when she sang poems by Christina Rosetti, Lawrence Durrell, Byron and Auden.

https://www.sandybrownjazz.co.uk/profilebellegonzalez.html

Wallace (T. W.) Southam lived in Greece for 10 years; he also worked for the British Council for a while.

Back to Greece!

I still have a reel-to-reel tape recording and a CD transfer of Maria Farantouri’s concert on 11 June 1971, at the British Council Overseas Students Centre, Portland Place, London, when I requested her to sing “To Yelasto Paidi” and “Rodostomo”, at the end. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Txzg9hzU_oM

Here is the link to her singing in English “The trees they do grow so high”

I sent her a copy last year and she expressed her gratitude and delight that I had saved a copy of the tape, and had it transferred to digital format, before being able to post the song on YouTube.

Dromoi Palii, Aliki Kayaloglou at The British Council Thessaloniki (audience recording, 16. 1.1985) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67QFJPtm3Ic

This is the original recording (remastered) by Margarita Zorbala:

I am still walking those old roads…

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Χωρίς να γνώριζω κανένα
Κι ούτε κανένας, κι ούτε κανένας
Με γνώριζε, με γνώριζε

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