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The musical expression of an unknown “crypto-philhellenism”: European operatic works during the period of the Greek Revolution (1821–1827)



The musical expression of an unknown “crypto-philhellenism”: European operatic works during the period of the Greek Revolution (1821–1827)


4 February 2021


"This paper attempts to shed light on a little-known –but very important– aspect of the artistic creation of European philhellenism: the musical dramas/melodramas, mainly by Italian and French composers, staged on European theatres during the period of the Greek Revolution, i.e. from the Liberation of Kalamata (23 March 1821) to the Battle of Navarino (20 October 1827). The reason why these works have not been studied in the context of philhellenism is that they do not refer directly to the historical events of the Greek Revolution, but draw their subject matter either from Greek mythology/history or from the Byzantine period and the crusades. The operatic works referring to the 1821 Revolution would start to appear from the 1830s and would reach their climax in the 1860s, when the creation of almost all European nation-states was completed (the speaker has already published a study on the musical works of the latter category, in the collective volume Philhellenism: The Interest in Greece and the Greeks from 1821 to the present day, 2015). However, a closer study of the operatic works of the revolutionary period proves that the choice of their subject matter is often based on its correspondence with contemporary historical events. For example, two months after the break-out of the revolution in Messenia, the musical drama “The Sacrifice of Aepytus” (Il sacrifizio d’Epito) by the Italian composer Michele Carafa was staged in Naples (30 May 1821), having as its main character the Messenian hero Aristodemus and his struggles against the Spartans. In 1827, when the strong Egyptian army led by Ibrahim Pasha plundered the Peloponnese before its final defeat in Navarino, the most popular musical drama in European scenes was the work “The Crusader in Egypt” (Il Crociato in Egitto) by the German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, which narrates the story of a Christian crusader who attracts and converts to Christianity the daughter of the sultan of Egypt. This choice on behalf of the composers was mainly due to the fact that, at least until 1825, Europe was dominated by conservative governments, under the control of the strict Austrian chancellor Metternich, while Italy was largely under Austro-Hungarian rule. Since most composers and librettists were employed or invited by local rulers/emperors, they functioned in a way as “crypto-Philhellenes”, expressing in this covert way their solidarity with the Greek struggle, and “conversing” with the “declared” philhellene writers of the time, such as Byron and Hugo."

From the book of abstracts of the conference, as it was published on Intiative's 1821-2021 website.

[Abstract edited for clarity]

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