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Yannis Constantinidis

(21 August 1903 – 17 January 1984)

A master of miniature, with studies in Germany but with a "Galatian" sound, laconic but with imagination, with a double name without being divided,

beloved by the Conservatories, Yannis Constantinidis introduces us to the subtlety sensitivity of the neoclassical Impressionism.

Written by Stephanos Katsaros 

   Most of the piano students in Greece get to know the work of  Yannis Constantinidis during their graduate year. That happens due to the Royal Decree of 11.11.1957 - Decree on the ratification of the internal regulations of the Thessaloniki Conservatory, which, strangely enough, is still valid. Since  the Conservatory  of Thessaloniki is still the only State Conservatory, that means that its Intern-Institutional  Regulations apply to every private Conservatory of the Country.
   So somewhere between the articles of the Decree like - 
Conservatory and Departments, School Provisions and Disciplinary Penalties (reprimand,  revocation of the free tuition, expulsion) and Article 14. 2 that -these penalties can also be imposed for misconduct of students outside the Conservatory and during summer holidays, one can also find the curriculum of the piano department, with every single piece of music that one should play till he graduates. In the Article 93 one can find the pieces that are required for the Graduate Recital Program. Among the pieces of Bach Mozart and other major composers, there has to be - a mandatory composition, modern or greek, selected by the commission of the Conservatory.Τherefore, the competent examination committees   undertake to find this obligatory piece, which, as can be seen from the numerous audiovisual material of such examinations provided to us by online search engines, tends to be one of Constantinidis' works. Αnd rightly so.

The piano work of Yannis Constantinidis. It is generously offered  for  procedures such us mentioned above, not only because it is

well-written and mostly pleasant to listen to, which makes it accessible to almost every potential candidate, but it is also widely published and easy to find in the market. Within the small amount of works that Constantinidis leaves behind the  piano has a primary role.Of the total ... works, the ..... works are for piano, or for voice and piano. Constantinidis himself was a pianist which explaines immediately quite a lot. Lambros Liavas writes that "the piano works are known for their deep knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument, its solid structure, the sensitive harmonic language and the  richness and variety in timbre often refer to the sound of old traditional instruments" . The greek pianist Elena Mouzalas emphasizes from the interpretive point of view: "His dense synthetic thought with his rich harmonic imagination was imprinted in his piano work with sonic transparency and skillful purity".

   Yannis Constantinidis was born in 1903 into an upper class family in Smyrna, in a district with many French families .During that time Smyrna was a pole of atraction for many different ethnicities due its developed trade and cultural level.. At the age of five he had his first piano lesson. Later, after having already studied with various well-known piano teachers of Smyrna, and at the age of 12, he began taking theory classes with Demosthenes Milanakis. Milanakis counts as  "one of the most important supporters of the musical life in Smyrna", and brought the young Constantinidis in contact with "European Currents" of that time. He taught him mainly about the musical life in France, and they studied compositions of Debussy, Ravel, Rousseau. (Lambros Liavas, introductory note to 22 Chants et danses du Dodecanese by Giannis Konstantinidis, issue I (Athens: Papagrigoriou-Nakas, 1993), 1.)

The need of Constantinidis for even greater range of musical stimuli is evidenced by the two subscriptions to French magazines of the time. The deep knowledge of the French language that such readings require, was the result of both the education he received from his family and school environment and at the other hand of the interaction with the children of the French families in the neighborhood where he lived (The Information about the French knowledge of Constantinidis comes from an interview-excerpt of the composer to Georgios Leotsakos in September of 1982 and is included in, Georgios Leotsakos, “Reference to the musical life of Smyrna (a first research on its Institutions and People,” in,  Epilogue '93 (Athens: Galaios, 1993), 378-382.) Therefore we could easily assume that this social circle, which was so marked by French culture, later influenced his musical idiom, because although Constantinidis studied in Germany, he did not follow the compositional currents there, but  turned to French Impressionism, with his favorite composer being  Maurice Ravel, as he later claimed himself.

     In 1922, shortly before the Greco-Turkish War, he left to study in Germany. Ιnitialy  he took theory and composition classes with the composer Joseph Gustav Mraczek in Dresden. Germany, and particulary the city of Dresden, was chosen by Constantinidis because of some distand relatives that were living there. In 1923 he moved to Berlin because he believed that he would benefit more from the music life there. That decision was made easier after encouragment of friends of him that they were already leaving there, including Nikos Skalkottas, with whom he later had a close friendship. He is studying at the  Berlin State Academy of Music, piano with Karl Rössler and conductor with Karl Ehremberg. He also takes classes with Paul Juon, wanting to expand his knowledge of advanced theory of music. At the same time, he is studying orchestration with the famous composer Kurt Weil, with whom he later began composision lessons. Excited by the young musician's talent, Kurt Weil writes in a  recommendation letter, 1926,  that he considers Constantinidis to be and:

"Important hope in the field of Greek music" .

In 1931 Konstantinidis visited his parents in Athens and  explored working prospects there. His return to Berlin is postponed and after meeting D. Giannoukakis, it was is permanently postponed. In any case, the political and social pandemonium in Germany had already begun due to the rise of National Socialism. The decision to stay in Athens was made hastily, leaving all the material he had collected during his studies in Berlin. "Constantinidis lost a lot of handwritten material (works, scetches, student essays) which, if they existed, would give a clearer picture of him as a composer and student" notes George Sakallieros. Due to  financial difficulties  he starts composing light chanson music and film music. He served this kind of music consistently  for 30 consecutive years (until 1962) and he becomes really famous under the pseudonym Costas Yannidis (reversal of his name). Costas Mylonas writes: "He was a musician who lived from his job and had the honesty to admit that he wrote light chanson music only due to financial reasons, without perhaps reallising  that he left behind a great musical heritage and the magnitude of his offer". And indeed, Yannidis leaves behind a great work in the genre of light music. About fifty operettas, more than 130 songs that became popular either through records or through musical theater, he gaind numerous prizes in international competitions, he served as "Director of the light music department"  for the National Radio Foundation during the period 1946-1952 and was Music Director at the YENED, beetwen1952 and 1960.

   The popularity of Yannidis seemed to have left Constantinidis in the shaddows, but he quietly continued his work in the field of greek classical music. The small-scale work of greek classical music by Yannis Constantinidis is now considered part of the National School of Music. Following the the periodization of Olympia Frangou Psychopedis it is classified among the works of Kalomiris and Petridis. Although stylistically Constantinidis is completely different from Kalomiris, Constantinidis embraces French Impressionism, and Kalomiris tends towards Late German Romanticism, the two composers meet in this periodization due to wider stylistic features, e.g. harmonization of authentic traditional melodies using a variety of harmonic systems and idioms.
   As a composer, he was never divided, he did not face problems of choice, or conflict between the two genres of "light and classical music". Constantinidis "served both with the same consistency, knowledge and inspiration, and became a top composer in both genres"
   In the last years of his life he was surrounded by close relatives. He never made a family of his own.

In 1984, January 17, he passed away silently, defeated by cancer.


for piano

Performed by Domna Eunouchidou

The Eight Greek Island Dances were written in 1954. Through a detailed harmonic process of authentic traditional melodies, Constantinidis creates a dance suite that is characterized not only by colorful ingenuity but also dramatic flow. The dances follow each other in such a way as to create points of tension and release. Placing  two slow and at the same time melancholic dances in the middle of the suite (Dances IV and V), or of the extroverted Pentozalis Dance as the finale of the entire work, cannot be seen as a random incident.

Constantinidis decorates the simple melodies of the Greek islands with thousands of appagioturas, trills, arpeggios, of almost improvisational character, thus imitating  folk music instrumentalists. All the playfull ornaments are extremely accurately noted on the score. Almost every note and phrase is enriched with its own musical punctuation. He is not afraid to create strong disonances (see III, 24 meter, variation using parallel chords and minor second intervals) as he frames the melodic material with the harmonies of Impressionism, thus creating a consonant sound effect. Similar practices are followed by Maurice Ravel, e.g. in the work Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, where despite the accumulation of dissonances, a tonal sound effect is created. At the same time, the use of dissonances can be seen as a reminiscent of music scales and practices beyond the European musical idiom. Let's not forget that these folk songs are based on music traditions that the Western music notation has not found a way to depict  (eg there is no notation for hard or soft tetrachords, or for semitones of 6/12 or semitones of 8/12 ). Since he cannot capture the harmonic background itself, he chooses to capture the style.

   Morphologically the Dances follow a very simple structure. Constantinidis does not allow himself any other kind of development rather than a harmonic one. So each dance has the form of  Theme and Variations. The theme usually consists of two phrases A and B, which are later presented in variations. Each dance closes with a Codetta based on preexisting material.

As for as interpretention goes, it worths to mention part of the introductory note of the score, as published by Papagrigoriou-Nakas. Lambros Liavas writes:

As the composer himself pointed out, (the works) are literally on the razors edge and can become completely superficial constructions, if the melodies are sung in an overly lyrical and folkloric mood and the parallel levels where the harmonies move are not clearly and delicately adressed. The melodies and harmonies of the songs, he said, should breathe freely, as if they were at sea, with the grace and sensitivity of an old engraving and not the coarseness of a touristic advertising poster.

The work is dedicated to pianist Nellie Semitecolo.

six etudes on GREEK folk rhythms 

for piano

Performed by Domna Eunouchidou

   Constantinidis' Piano Etudes were written in 1958. It is one of the composer's only two works (the other one is the "Five Songs of Longing", poetry by the Indian Rabindranad Dagor) that do not make use melodic material of the Greek musical tradition. The work, however, still classifies as work of the National School of Music because it uses another musical component besides the melody, that of rhythm.

Based on complex asymmetric folk rhythms, he composes great technical studies, but not just finger exercises. One could say that Constantinidis uses the term Etudes here, like Debussy uses it. On the one hand, he creates pieces with obvious technical difficulties for the performers, but on the other hand, he also treats them as challenging composion excercises. Constantinidis pushes his harmoniC language, for the only time in his work, far beyond Impressionism. All studies have a strong chromatic nature, some have obvious tonal centers, some flirt with wholetone and pentatonic scales, others do move towards free atonality.

   The Etude form a suite which consists of 6 Etudes, based on dance rhythms, connected by a dramatic flow. The dramaturgy can be evidenced by the titles of each Etude. The first movement, like in many suites, is a Prelude. With fast chromatic passages of sixteenthnotes and an obsessive rotation around the note E, which functions as a tonal center, Constantinidis creates an introduction, which directly sets the style and tone of the whole work. Choosing the  rhythm  7/8 - Syrtos -Kalamatianos Rhythm , cannot be seen as an random incident either. 7/8 and Syrtos is the most popular greek rhythm and dance. With this Etude Constantinidis introduces us, not only to his Six Etudes, but also to the greek rhythms.

   Lambros Liavas writes, Constantinidis exudes a clarity and perfectionism reminiscent of Ravel, whom he admired and loved so much . In this work we see several parallelisms with the suite of the French composer "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (The Tomb of Couperan). Examining Ravel's suite in relation to the Six Etudes, we notice the following similarities:

  • both works use musical traditions of the past as a point of reference and inspiration. Ravel is inspired by renaissance dances and creates a portrait for François Couperin, an emblematic figure of the French Baroque, Constantinides creates a postmodern portrait for the traditional greek Rhythms inspired by the rhythm as a concept.

  • both works consist of six parts

  • both works start with a Prelude, in perpetuum mobile style, with tonal center the note E 

  • both works end with a virtouosic Tokkata, again with tonal center the note E.

   Observing these similarities and at the same time the composer's manuscripts (he was ay calligrapher) we see his devotion to detail. We can therefore conclude that the choice of specific rhythms for the movements of the work in combination with the titles is not accidental and that indeed the studies have been written to be performed together, as a whole with a dramaturgy.

   The second Etude is entitled "Basso Ostinato" with a rhythm of 9/8 divised in 3/8 + 3/4. The structure is already described by the title. In the first measure we are presented with a stable rhythmic-melodic base, which runs through the entire movement. Upon this base, Constantinidis leaves the melody free to move in chromatic and with lots of decorative ornaments (he also noted, with grace, con grazia ). It is noteworthy that while the basso ostinato is constantly returning, he manages to create through variations, structures of tension and release that are desirable in every composition.

   The third Eude has a light character, testified by the the title from the very beginning, Capriccio . With a rhythm of 5/8  and  marked,

not too fast and with humor (Allegro Ma Non Troppo Ma Con Umore) the third movement serves as a easy-going, tension free piece  in the overall dark picture.

   Constantinidis divides the suite into two acts with the intervention of an Intermezzo, the 4th Etude. The division is also clear through the lenght of the Etudes. The last two Etudes, after the Intermezzo, have almost the same and slightly longer duration from the first three, before the Intermezzo. In the Intermezzo, rhythm changes almost every measure, between 5/8, 6/8 or 7/8. Historically, the Intermezzo was an independent, usually instrumentall piece that was performed between acts of large-scaled music works (opera, ballet, oratorio) and were used in order to change the mood. Of the sixmovements, it is the only one with a slow tempo and without a dancing mood, but with a lyrical and melancholic character (Andante Cantabile). A slightly rhythmic pedal-point (on B-flat) runs through almost the entire piece and is creating this  static melancholy mood. Whole-tone scales along with chromatic passages  give to the piece a sense of levitation. The same pedal-point, on the same note, is found in the work of Ravel Le Gibet (second movement of  "Gaspard de la Nuit"). Although Le Gibet  in Ravel's work does not bring any description as an interlude, it has the same melancholic mood and separates the first from the third movement, the dreamy Ondine from the nightmarish Scarbo. And indeed what follows the Interlude is very different from the first three Etudes, which  had  modern harmonies but were  moving within tonal contexts.

   In his fifth Etude, Balabile, Constantinidis has already prepared the ground for the most progressive of the six Etudes. In Balabile, he uses 9/8 by divided in  2/4 + 2/8 + 3/8, which creates an instability. He delimits the unequal distribution of the 9/8 with dashed lines in every meassure. Reading vertically the chords that are created on every eighthnote, one sees that he constantly creates mainly multifunctional augmented chords that are not solved, making it impossible to find a tonal center. Balabile was used in ballet to describe a part in which the entire company danced with or without the soloists. Everyone was dancing. The 9/8 rhythm with this particular division refers to the dance Syggathistos. In different parts of Greece, the dance was also named: Sygistase or Sygasta 'or Scorpia, which is the most descriptive name meaning "Spread". It is a series of dances in which the dancers do not dance in a circle holding hands, as customary in most traditional dances, nor in pairs, but scattered, all the dancers are spread. Using a title that means the place where everyone dances, a rhythm on which everyone dances but "spread", and a harmonic language that can't find a tonal center, Constantinidis, makes a reference to the democratization of harmonic language and to the modern composition schools of the beginning of the century that so longed for it.



* Lambros Liavas, introductory note to 22 Chants et danses du Dodecanese by Giannis Konstantinidis, issue I (Athens: Papagrigoriou-Nakas, 1993), 1.8

** Unsigned text, in the insert of a small ray entitled Greek Music for piano, 1982.

*** The information about the learning of Giannis Konstantinidis comes from an interview of the composer in Georgios Leotsakos in September 1982 and is contained in Georgios Leotsakos, "Report on the musical life of Smyrna (a first research on its institutions and persons)" in Epilogue '93 (Athens: Galaios, 1993), 378-382.)

**** This letter is dated June 3, 1926. Part of the letter is listed on page 90 of Sheryl Bliss Little's doctoral dissertation (see Subc. 3).

5 * George Sakallieros, Giannis Konstantinidis (1903-1984) ..., ibid., P. 30.

6 * “This was done from the first moment (the name change). During our collaboration with Giannoukakis that we were preparing the operetta (Our Cuba), he insisted so much, less me ... (...) So during this time he tells me (Giannoukakis): “You know you can't to go out with the name Konstantinidis. A new composer who just came from Germany with your first work being called Konstantinidis. People will think that it is Grigoris Konstantinidis. G. Konstantinidis you, G. Konstantinidis and the other. And the other one is an accomplished composer, he also has a music store and he also wrote reviews of averta and operettas and everything. We need to change that. " I didn't want to at first. He says: "Let's find a name that doesn't seem to be a pseudonym. Let me think about it and I'll tell you. " But I thought about it too, drinking my morning coffee. And when we saw each other at night, he said, "I found your name." I say: “I found it too. Let's see which will be the most beautiful. What's your name? ” He says: “Costas Giannidis. And yours;" "Costas Giannidis." And we both found the same nickname by chance. This is the story of Costas Giannidis. Of course, Costas Giannidis does not apply in the field of serious music. That's why all the tracks that have been released - not a few - have my real name, Giannis Konstantinidis. "

7 * Costas Mylonas, Musical Issues and Portraits of Greek Song, Kedros, Athens 2001, p. 126.


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