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44 Children's Pieces on Greek Melodies by Yannis Constantinidis: a Masterpiece of Mikrokosmic proportions.

Yannis Constantinidis composed the 44 Children's Pieces on Greek Melodies in 1950 with the intention of providing Greek conservatory students with compositions that have a distinctly folk flavor, gradually increasing in technical difficulty and artistic breadth. This three-volume collection of piano miniatures, akin to Bartok's Mikrokosmos and Children's Pieces, possesses a genuine sense of structural grace and melodic imagination, while vividly portraying the luscious lyricism and rhythmic vitality inherent in Greek folk music. However, despite its unmistakable musical and pedagogical value, this splendid masterwork of mikrokosmic proportions has been largely neglected by performers, scholars and pedagogues alike.

Constantinidis was born in 1903 in Smyrna, Minor Asia, which was then part of the decaying Ottoman Empire and was largely populated by Greeks. When the Greek-Turkish war broke out in 1920, his family fled to Athens, Greece, to escape the anticipated repercussions of the negative turn that the war was taking for the Greeks. In 1923, he moved to Berlin, where he studied harmony, counterpoint and fugue with Paul Juon; orchestration with Kurt Weill; and conducting with Carl Ehrenberg. He also was introduced to twelve-tone composition by Josef Ruler. In 1931, he moved back to Athens, where he turned to writing popular music under the pseudonym Costas Yannidis, which he adopted to distinguish himself from Grigoris Constantinidis, a famous operetta composer of the time. After thirty successful years in the field, he retired in 1962 to concentrate on composing and revising earlier works, as well as on his work as a producer of classical music programs at the Second Program of Hellenic Radio and Television. He died in Athens on January 17, 1984.

Constantinidis's output consists of some 200 works, including 50 stage works, 5 song cycles, approximately 50 individual songs, choral works, film scores and several orchestral and chamber works--the most renowned being his two Dodecanisian Suites (1948 and 1949) and the Minor Asia Rhapsody (completed in 1965). Constantinidis considerably enriched the piano repertoire with numerous works: Sonatina (1927); 22 Songs and Dances from the Dodecanese (1943-1946); 44 Children's Pieces on Greek Melodies (Greek Miniatures) (1950-1951); First Sonatina (on folk melodies from the island of Crete) (1952); Second Sonatina (on folk melodies from Epirus) (1952); Third Sonatina (on folk melodies from the Dodecanese) (1953); 8 Dances from Greek Islands (1954) (arranged for two pianos in 1971); and 6 Studies in Greek Rhythms (1956-1958).

Inspired By Folk Music

Constantinidis belonged to the so-called Greek National School that practically dominated the musical world in Greece at the beginning of the twentieth century. Composers of the Greek National School developed a musical idiom that reflected the cultural dualism inherent in the conception of the modern Greek state. Specifically, they confirmed their cultural status as Europeans by utilizing the predominant stylistic tendencies of European art music while, at the same time, they reinforced their Hellenic identity by incorporating elements from Greek folk music, which served as the vital link between antiquity and the present. The construction of the Greek National School was part of a larger complex of historical, political, sociological and artistic developments and was promoted through the study of folk songs, dissemination of "national" dances and establishment of scholarly disciplines that supported the claim of cultural continuity with the past. (1)

Aligning himself with the ideas and principles of the Greek National School, Constantinidis turned to Greek folk music to find the source of his inspiration. Nearly all his works are based on carefully selected melodies from oral tradition, as well as from publications of Greek folk dances and demotic songs. (2) His compositions reveal a deep understanding and respect for folk music, which was undoubtedly strengthened by his acquaintance with the work of Swiss musicologist and conductor Samuel Baud-Bovy (1840-1910). Constantinidis rarely moves away from the written transcription of each folk song or dance, making minor rhythmic changes or elaborating the melody slightly, as a folk musician might do in performance. Moreover, he adjusts tempos and transposes melodies to suit his formal needs. Although Constantinidis generally adheres to the phrase structure of the original folk melodies, he occasionally extends phrases, borrows from various versions of a song or chooses selectively from different sections of a larger-scale folk dance. (3)

Perpetual Variation

As Greek musicologist Minos Dounias has pointed out, Constantinidis did not undertake thematic development in his compositions, a process that would include "variation, regeneration, and eventual transformation of the original melody." Instead, the folk material in his music remains "constant, steadfast, as a rule, the sacred law of the ancients." (4) In doing so, Constantinidis remained faithful to the spirit of Greek traditional music, which maintains a careful balance between repetition and variation of material in such a way that an original idea is "perpetually" varied without ever losing its recognizability. Constantinidis employed this technique of "perpetual variation" constructively by allowing not only traditional melodies and rhythms, but also timbres and performance practices, to create the stylistic parameters of his compositions. Accurately, hence, Byron Fidetzis states that this technique is "nothing less than a substitute of the artistry of a folk musician or rather a transference of his 'way of thinking' to another domain." (5)

Attempting to preserve the strophic structure of Greek folk music that is essentially based upon the "perpetual variation" technique, Constantinidis favored miniature forms, such as songs, sonatinas and suites. His apparent affinity for short forms found fertile ground in the intimate style of vocal, piano and chamber music. This exact intimacy and terseness characterize his 44 Children's Pieces on Greek Melodies.

The Collection

Constantinidis wrote his 44 Children's Pieces on Greek Melodies over a span of four years (from 1948 to 1951). The composer chose well-known tunes from the oral tradition, as well as written transcriptions of folk music by Baud-Bovy. Pachtikos and Pernot. One of Constantinidis's most beloved works, 44 Children's Pieces on Greek Melodies, was quickly adopted by the Greek conservatories, which considered it an excellent teaching piece and model for Greek folk-song setting.

The collection is organized in three volumes. The pieces themselves appear in the collection either individually or in groups of two, three or even four pieces. Pieces that belong to the same group are played attacca and form distinct musical entities based on their relation to each other. Pairs generally include pieces of contrasting mood and agogic character, while larger groups offer more intricate narratives.

Formal Clarity and Coherence

As in most of Constantinidis's compositions, the forty-four pieces of the collection tend to have simple forms with readily discernable sections. He maintains clarity of form in the very nuclei of his compositions, namely the melodies that he derives from folk songs and dances, and transfers this to a larger scale. Most of these melodies have a simple binary structure (for example, aabb, each segment having the same length, like two or four measures) that may be repeated several times, more than often "perpetually varied," in a strophic form (as in aabb-a'a'b'b).

There are many instances, however, in which these melodies do not follow' a binary formal plan. Instead, the melodic phrases owe their unity and continuity to the juxtaposition of short segments with obvious motivic connections. The flowing, sinuous melodic lines now give way to a series of interrupted fragments that usually contain a recurring motivic element. In addition, these narrow-ranged fragments customarily hover around one note, lacking the strong sense of direction that the fluid binary-formed melodies possess. This phrase construction does not interfere with the overall strophic form of the piece. As a matter of fact, it intensifies its cyclic character thanks to the constant presence of the recurring motivic element. As a result, a sense of mellifluent monotony is achieved and paired with an unmistakable improvisatory quality that characterizes most Greek folk music.

Whatever the phrase structure might be, Constantinidis employs a variety of means to manipulate his phrases according to the effect he wishes to educe. Elisions, stretti, contractions, prolongations and antiphonal presentations are only some of the devices the composer frequently employs to achieve a pacing that clarifies the overall direction of the melodic trajectory of a piece. In doing so, he intensifies the unmistakable sense of formal continuity and coherence that characterizes all the pieces within the collection.

As mentioned before, this formal coherence is achieved not through thematic development, but through the varied repetition of clearly discernible musical ideas. This technique, previously identified as the element of "perpetual variation" inherent in Greek folk music itself, owes much to the innovative treatment of such parameters as harmony, rhythm and ornamentation.

Original Harmonic Idiom

Harmony, in particular, is one of the most intriguing elements in Constantinidis's music, not only because it is a uniquely idiomatic stylistic element, but also because it offers a compelling resolution to one of the most tantalizing controversies within the circles of the Greek National School: how does one harmonize a melody of undisputed monophonic ancestry, whose pitch structure, more than often, eschews interpretations of tonal functionality? Early attempts to address this thorny issue inevitably led composers and theorists to take a closer look at these folk tunes and formulate a theory that could account for their pitch content.

Analytical investigations of Greek folk melodies started with the nineteenth-century composer L. A. Bourgault-Ducoudray (1840-1910) and continued later with the founders of the Greek National School, Georgios Lambelet and Manolis Kalomiris. Aspiring to demonstrate the continuity between the ancient and the modern Greek musical culture, these investigations used musical theoretical writings of classical antiquity as their starting point and eventually led to the identification of the tetrachord as the basis for the melodic construction of Greek folk tunes. In an attempt to reconcile their findings with contemporary practices of equal temperament, two genera of tetrachords were identified: diatonic and chromatic (Examples 1 and 2).


Combinations of these tetrachords, either in conjunction or disjunction, resulted in the formulation of a system of scales or tropoi, which can be purely diatonic, purely chromatic or mixed (Example 3) (6)


Subsequent attempts to associate different tropoi with different regions have been quite successful. For example, music from Minor Asia could be considered to be based on purely chromatic or mixed tropoi; whereas, music from the islands could be considered mostly diatonic. On the other hand, attempts to associate the system of tropoi with the eight-mode system of Byzantine chant, known as Octaechos, have been feeble and haphazard. Although demotic songs and liturgical chants share common features of musical grammar, such as cadential figures, melodic gestures and so forth, the question of finding historically justifiable associations between the two remains open.

In any case, late nineteenth-century Greek composers turned to the newly established system of tropoi to account for the pitch content of the melodic material chosen as the basis of their compositions. Realizing the lack of tonal tendencies that this melodic material frequently displayed, they used the tropoi to devise folk-like melodies suitable for use as thematic material in compositions whose forms were defined by functional tonality. These melodies were harmonized accordingly and subsequently subjected to extensive thematic development in the paradigm of Western-European nineteenth-century compositional procedures.

Constantinidis's approach, on the other hand, is based on a completely different aesthetic orientation. He does not limit himself to the melodic material of Greek folk tunes as the thematic source of his music, but allows the actual form of folk songs and dances to serve as the model for the form of his own compositions. This form does not rely on thematic development and tonal interpretations of a thematic idea, but on the varied repetition of a distinct and ever-present melodic idea whose tonal tendencies are immaterial to the definition of the form. Harmonization thus becomes not a means in itself, bur another aspect of the "perpetual variation" process of an essentially monophonic melody. In other words, just as a folk musician would trope on a melodic idea in a linear fashion to generate the musical form of his piece, Constantinidis does so in a vertical one.

Constantinidis's harmonic practice is highly inventive and original. He generally stays close to the character of the melody by using vertical sonorities derived from the respective tropos. Sometimes, sonorities more remotely related to the tropos are incorporated to produce a sense of harmonic instability and cadential delay. In some instances, these sonorities can be interpreted as an alteration of a scale degree, such as the lowered second or raised sixth (Example 4).


Despite the frequent use of parallel harmonies, often moving chromatically, expanded sonorities (seventh and ninth chords), persistent pedals and drones and short passages of bitonality, created by the frequent discrepancy between the tropos of the folk melody and the accompaniment, the cadences of each movement clearly are linked to the underlying tropos. The absence of a leading tone in most tropoi results in the demotion of the fifth chord to a secondary chord, with other chords now assuming a "dominant" role. As a result, such idiomatic cadences as iv-i, vii-i, v-i and III-I now may conclude a whole piece (Example 5).


Metric and Rhythmic Flexibility

In terms of rhythm, Constantinidis takes advantage of the metric and rhythmic flexibility that characterizes Greek folk music. In the 44 Children's Pieces, he exploits the metric diversity of Greek folk songs that employ a variety of common and additive meters, such as 7/8 and 5/8. On the other hand, the very common practice of changing meters in Greek folk music is daringly employed to delineate sections, establish hypermeters or introduce phrase-length irregularities, such as contractions or written-in fermatas.

A very frequent rhythmic event in the 44 Children's Pieces, and in Constantinidis's music in general, is the application of cross-rhythmic processes that introduce an unambiguous sense of rhythmic instability. Not only does this instability, influence the melodic flow--sometimes hindering it, other times propelling it--but also interferes with the harmonic framework of the piece, establishing syncopated harmonic pace, which, in turn, often results in bitonal effects. These cross-rhythmic events are achieved with various means: through reinterpretation or displacement of meter, through syncopation of the left-hand-part accompanimental ostinato or through hypermetric friction (Examples 6 to 9).


Texture and Interpretation

Apart from the imaginative manipulation of harmony and rhythm, Constantinidis utilized melodic embellishments and subtle variations of texture and register to counter the repetition of his melodic material, thus emulating the artistry of any accomplished folk musician who would improvise on his melodic material with marvelous creativity and imagination. Constantinidis's piano works also reveal his deep understanding of the instrument's technical potential and his skill at replicating the sound of folk instruments, such as the violin and the santouri--a kind of a hammered dulcimer. In his effort to successfully attain variation of material, as well as timbre imitation, he employs a wide variety of ornaments such as mordents, trills, broken chords and appoggiaturas. He also incorporates more intricate melodic embellishments that progressively become more elaborate.

Despite the transparent texture and simple style, the 44 Children's Pieces present their own particular interpretive difficulties. Although there are no such technical fits as scales, arpeggios or octaves, the pieces require a high level of refinement of touch; for the sake of clarity, the touch must frequently be light and the attack immediate and crisp. In other instances, the need for smooth, supple legato is apparent; subtle variations of touches need to be used to ensure effective voicing and projection of the main line over relatively thick or busy accompanimental textures. Excellent hand coordination also is needed, especially since there are numerous instances in which a melodic line or an accompanimental pattern is shared between the two hands; whereas, hand-over-hand action is habitually encountered. Pedaling must have been of capital importance to Constantinidis because he makes explicit pedaling markings himself; such sophisticated pedaling techniques as syncopated, shallow or flooding pedal often are required. Finally, the composer's wish for students to appreciate and convey the musical and expressive content of these pieces is apparent through the abundant expressive markings and performative suggestions that he has provided--some of which are quite uncommon, for instance, scintillante, sonoro, cantando, afflito.

Pedagogical Merits

This sensitivity to issues of texture and musical expression is not the only pedagogical value of Constantinidis's 44 Children's Pieces; their limited scope allows intermediate-level students to overcome their modest formal intricacies and concentrate on other musical issues. On the other hand, the seemingly simple forms of the pieces possess a certain level of subtle sophistication that can help students learning how to conceive formal processes and address larger forms.

In terms of harmony and counterpoint, students are introduced to nonfunctional tonality in a way that enriches their harmonic vocabulary without invalidating their musical intuition. Furthermore, they are exposed to the use of free dissonance that does not jeopardize, but reconciles, with lyricism. This gradually ushers students into the world of twentieth-century compositional and performance practices, building the cognition and open-mindedness that is necessary to appreciate it.

Finally, the sophisticated rhythmic vocabulary, with its flexible metrical organization and wide variety of rhythmic cadences, has an immense pedagogical weight. Students are asked to tackle numerous rhythmic intricacies, thus practicing their skills in negotiating complex rhythmic structures. Moreover, they are helped to acquire a high level of rhythmic fluency, flexibility and precision, qualities that constitute the basis of any solid piano technique. Finally, they are introduced to the uniqueness of an essential stylistic aspect of twentieth-century music--the originality and individualism of its rhythmic procedures.

Regardless of its pedagogical importance, the collection of Constantinidis surely is neither a piano method nor is it intended for beginners. It is a work of art offering musical merits of our greatest regard to both the advanced student and mature artist. Moreover, it offers a unique opportunity to escape a restrictively myopic view of and stubbornly antiquarian approach to Greek culture and explore the idiosyncratic aesthetic ideals and compositional traits of Greek folk music. The capital importance of these musical aspects that virtually shaped the music of Constantinidis is apparent in the composer's warning that his music would become superficial if performers did not observe and respect them. It is the integrity of these traits and ideals that he had in mind when he suggested that "the melodies and harmonies of the pieces must breathe freely, as they are found in the sea.

They are the charm and sensitivity of the old engraving, not the crude tourist promotion poster."


(1.) Little, Bliss S., "Folk Song and the Construction of Greek National Music." (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park, 2001): 245.

(2.) The term demotic is a derivative of the word demos, which means "populace," and reveals the unmistakable connection of these songs with the vernacular language as well as the secular musical tradition.

(3.) Little, "Folk Song," 214.

(4.) Dounias, Minos, Mousikokritika. Eklogi ago to kritiko ergo tou (Music Criticism. Selections from His Critical Work). (Athens: Estia, 1963): 153.

(5.) Fidetzis, Byron, "The Orchestral Compositions of Yannis Constantinidis," notes to the recording Yannis Constantinidis: The Works for Orchestra. (Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Byron Fidetzis, Lyra LP0277).

(6.) The term tropos (pl. tropoi) is actually nothing more than the Greek equivalent of the Latin term modus. However, I avoid using the term mode when I refer to the afore-described system of scales in order to clarify a frequent terminological confusion. In the current article, the term tropos will be used to refer to any scale that is defined by a characteristic intervallic configuration; whereas, the term mode will be used to refer to any of the eight members of the Byzantine modal system, known as Octaechos, that is defined by its ambitus and final.

(7.) Liavas, Lambros, "Yannis Constantinidis (1903-1984)," notes to the recording Yannis Constantinidis: The Works for Orchestra. (Bulgarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Byron Fidetzis, Lyra CD0169).
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Author:Vouvaris, Petros
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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