Born: March 21, 1904; Halkis
Died: September 20, 1949; Athens, Greece
Nikolaos Skalkottas is easily among the most important Greek composers from the first half of the twentieth century. Extremely talented from his early childhood, he mostly wrote serial and atonal music in his mature compositions and remained an almost totally unknown figure in his homeland and abroad throughout his short lifetime. His music eventually attracted some attention after his death, but still remains largely neglected.
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Skalkottas' family moved to Athens when he was two, and at age five the precocious Nikolaos began studies on the violin with his father and uncle, both good amateur musicians. He entered the Athens Conservatory in 1914 and graduated six years later as a virtuoso violinist, but with relatively little knowledge of composition. In 1921, he enrolled on a scholarship at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, where he furthered his studies on the violin with Willy Hess and also began instruction in composition. He befriended Dimitri Mitropoulos, then also a student there, who may have encouraged his interest in the more modern methods of composition. Despite his successes on the violin -- Skalkottas had already given many stunning concerts, not least his rendition of the Beethoven violin concerto at his 1920 graduation from the Athens Conservatory -- he decided to shift his focus to composition in 1925. He began studying that year with Philipp Jarnach, having already written several atonal compositions, including a string quartet and string trio, the scores to which are both lost. Skalkottas did not abandon the violin during this period; indeed, he earned money playing in cafés and small ensembles to support his studies. He also received funds from a Greek patron, Manolis Benakis, until 1931, when a disagreement between the two erupted. In 1926, still under Jarnach's tutelage, Skalkottas also began studying orchestration with Kurt Weill. He concluded his work with both the following year, when he enrolled at the Preussische Akademie der Künsts to commence studies with Arnold Schoenberg, who would have the most profound influence on the young composer. Skalkottas had an affair with a violin student while at the Hochshcule, Matla Temko, who gave birth to a daughter. Finances became an increasing problem for the young composer, and Skalkottas finished his studies with Schoenberg in 1932. He returned to Athens the following year, having written a number of works, both tonal and atonal, including his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1931-1932). Skalkottas suffered from nervous problems after he returned to Greece and increasingly exhibited a withdrawn, melancholic personality. His works were roundly rejected by critics and public alike and in 1934, he had to turn once more to his violin to earn a living. He played in various Athens orchestras, including the Greek Radio Symphony Orchestra. After writing little music for two years, he also returned to composing in 1934, but now did so in private. Skalkottas remained in Athens during the war, once getting arrested by the occupying Nazi forces on suspicion of resistance activity. Skalkottas married in 1946 and his wife gave birth to two children, the second of which was born on the day after the composer's premature death from a strangulated hernia on September 20, 1949. Following his death, Iohannes Papaioannou, Hans Keller, conductors Walter Goehr and Hermann Scherchen, and several other musicians began promoting Skalkottas' compositions, finally bringing recognition and a measure of fame to the neglected composer. Read less