Cilia Petridou, A Voice of Cypriot Exile
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Written by Martin Anderson   
Thursday, 25 July 2013

Cilia Petridou, A Voice of Cypriot Exile

The first century of recorded music did what it had to do, with major companies providing accounts of the major works of the Western canon, by the men who are household names even when the household has nothing to do with music. The first years of the next century have already seen a substantial revision of that position, with hundreds of smaller labels looking behind the billboards for the music of gentler souls. One such label is Divine Art, which has released a number of recordings of composers new to the microphone—none of them earth-shattering radicals, it is true, but many with their own attractive voice. One such is Cilia Petridou. Much has been made in recent years of the music of exile, almost invariably understood as that of the Jewish composers who fled from Hitlerite Germany and Austria; Petridou’s is the first music I have come across born of a different exile—she is a Greek Cypriot, born in Famagusta on the east coast of Cyprus (a ghost town since the 1974 Turkish invasion) in 1945, and the music on a two-CD set from Divine Art—songs and chamber music, under the title Sounds of the Chionistra (Chionistra being Mt. Olympus, the highest mountain on Cyprus)—speaks eloquently of the world in which she grew up. Petridou made her mark as a pianist, performing her first concerto, the Mozart, K 488, at age 11 and at 15 she won the Mozart Medal, the highest musical award on the island.

Q: Let’s start at the very beginning. Was it obvious from a young age that you were going to be a musician?

A: My mother was practicing for her piano diploma before she got married. She lost her first baby and then she had me, and stopped until I was three. Then she started again, and between the ages of three and four I was with her practically all the time and heard quite a lot of the music she loved (rather on the rhythmical side—she had a completely different personality from myself). She decided on the Easter before my fourth birthday to teach me the Lord’s Prayer and how to cross myself in preparation for the Good Friday service. It’s quite a beautiful service—they decorate the tomb of Christ with flowers. The highlight of the service is a 49-verse lament, with three lines to each verse. She took me to hear that, and I sat there and listened to it. Some of the people said: “It’s amazing that this child didn’t fall asleep or didn’t get irritable,” because it’s a rather long service. I said to my mother: “How could I fall asleep with this beautiful music that God sends?” Apparently when we went home, we went through the music, and I was at this tune all the time. She had had a poor experience with her own music teacher—he was someone who put coins on the back of students’ hands to keep them straight—and so she wasn’t sure about me having music lessons, but she found that this was a good opportunity to start. She asked if I would like her to teach me some notes. I said “Why not?” and she found out I had perfect pitch. After that she started me on simple things, and within three months I was doing about half an hour a day. She soon realized that she had to find a way of making me practice not only music that I liked but also other music that perhaps with practice might grow on me. So, as I now knew how to cross myself, she would say “The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost would like to hear this piece”—once each, to push me! But I refused to play things that I didn’t like: I would say: “The Holy Ghost doesn’t like this tune and doesn’t want to hear it today.” (For the last four years of her life my mother took a flat near me, and so she told me quite a lot of these early stories.) Anything that wasn’t harmonically and melodically interesting, and generally I think that has been my strong point, both as an interpreter of other composers and in my own music.

Q: Was it after you won the Mozart Medal that the Turkish invasion cut across your career?

A: No, the invasion was in 1974; I was already here [in Great Britain] by then. After the Mozart Medal I went to Vienna for a year. In 1964 there was a mini-invasion, and my father didn’t like the political situation very much. He was a businessman and was trading with this country, so he had a business passport and he brought the whole family to London. I was trained at the Royal Academy of Music, and then I had two years with Harold Craxton and two years with Kendall Taylor. Then I came into contact with a very wealthy gentleman who sponsored my first CD, in 1990. That was piano music for children.

Q: How come you didn’t make more recordings?

A: Well, I should have taken up his offer, but I had set myself the target of finding a way of eliminating all percussiveness of touch from piano playing in general. That proved to be a little bit more difficult than I had anticipated! To reach that you need power, and have to train your body mentally and physically to obtain that power. Once you start making progress, you say to yourself: “Next month it is going to be nicer,” and then: “Next month is going to be nicer,” and so I left it—and then that horrific thing happened. For half an hour at the end of the day I used to jot things down, the skeleton of pieces, and then I would file them away. My idea was that I would retire at the age of 65, go to the Mount of Troodos and sort out all my compositions and record them. I wanted to do about 20 records of music.

Q: The booklet refers to “major surgery” and now you talk of “that horrific thing”—are you prepared to say what went wrong?

A: Yes: I had fibroids. I think that because I was very highly trained, they were a very large size but they weren’t actually showing and they were not disturbing me very much. I had a very rigid routine in the morning, starting with limbering-up exercises, weight-lifting, yoga, Alexander technique, and then I would finish with meditation. I had been doing that since 1977; it increases your mental power as well. Because of that, it wasn’t really showing very much.

Q: When did your playing career come to an end, then?

A: 2002.

Q: But you already had a body of composition to your credit by then?

A: Oh, yes; in fact, I already recorded some of them—a CD of songs that appeal to European audiences. But I had a copyright problem with a lot of the songs, and so I had to abandon that one. I decided to use songs that referred to my childhood to match the atmosphere of the chamber-music CD. But I started with the style of The Grocer, What Love Is , and Mirrors —the type of music that appeals more to Western audiences. The politics of a nation is crucial to the people that experience it. I hope the songs on this CD will open a small window of awareness to people from other nations.

Q: What span of time is covered by the music on these two CDs?

A: The earliest one is 1975; that’s the year after the invasion. The invasion happened on July 20, 1974, but I didn’t really realize until I put together the CD that it triggered a sort of creative output around the politics. From the time I was very young, we had not very nice politics. From 1955 to ’59, we had the struggle for independence from the British, and then in 1960 we became a very young democracy. In 1964 we had a mini-invasion; I was there and it was absolutely horrifying. And then in ’74 they invaded and this time it was successful.

Q: Many of the poems you have chosen to set are political.

A: Yes, they are political.

Q: The text of one song, indeed, The Siege , opens with the phrase “Θρηνησατε, Χριστιανοι”—Lament, Christians—and tells of the destruction of Constantinople by the Turks. Is this protest music?

A: Oh, no, no, it’s not protest music, but my memories and the sound were shaped by the political situation.

Q: But the text talks about the Turks crushing the cross, killing the priest, assaulting the virgins….

A: Yes, but The Siege is a traditional poem that every Greek child learns in his teenage years. It’s in two verses. It tells of the Siege of Constantinople, which for the Greeks is a very powerful thing. But no, I’m not protesting. The Siege and Kyrenia are laments on the loss of two much-loved places: Constantinople (in the distant past) and Kyrenia (in living memory, as a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion). The words used in Kyrenia are mine. They are distilled from my reading of poems, and articles in magazines and newspapers. After the 1974 Turkish Invasion, 35 percent of Cyprus’s territory came under Turkish occupation. As of May 2001, only 421 Greek Orthodox Cypriots and 155 Maronites remain in the North of Cyprus.

Q: Having the two voices in declamatory exchange gives The Siege a ritual quality.

A: Yes, you could take it that way. But I did it that way because it is a long one. In fact, Lesley-Jane [Rogers] and Alison [Smart] did all of it themselves but I think in a public performance it should be for four female voices. The words are very powerful, alerting the people to look after their fate and then move on, and learn their history. “The Siege of Constantinople” is only in two verses, but if you go to the history books, you learn and learn and learn. Evtho , on the other hand, is a human drama that, like The Siege , is set in the distant past. Greece was in a terrible state, almost like a third-world country in 1821, and it probably still hasn’t recovered. The Grocer is quite a cheeky one. The Sirens bothered me quite a bit because it’s a very strong myth. Normally my music is very quick—the whole thing comes to me very quickly and then I have to work at it and change things that I want to improve. The Sirens caused me a lot of trouble. I wanted the sounds to express the allure of the Sirens without using words—a human characteristic.

Q: The chamber music on the second CD is much more conciliatory and warm.

A: That’s more memories, whereas The Siege and Kyrenia are actually history. The chamber music will probably appeal more to Western audiences, because it’s nearer to a classical language, whereas the others have rather more strident harmonies to express our emotions.

Q: I’m not familiar with your sources—is it the influence of Cypriot folk music I can hear in some of the chamber works?

A: Yes. The last movement of the Piano Quartet is folky, and the third movement of Black July [a piano trio] is folky, too, but I wouldn’t say that of the other pieces. The third movement of Black July is in the irregular rhythm of 9/8, and the last movement of the quartet is again in the irregular rhythm of 7/8.

Q: But they do touch on an Eastern-European tradition that most listeners will be familiar with from composers like Bartók.

A: Yes, you’re absolutely right.

Q: Was that simply how the music emerged or was it a deliberate act of identification?

A: No, no—as I told you, I wasn’t really working on composition; I was a pianist. This was my hobby. Until I was 18, apart from the piano, I didn’t really hear much classical music. These days you seem to be full of it all the time, but in those days you didn’t really hear very much; it was mainly my piano music. I only heard the “Eroica” Symphony once before I left Cyprus, and I heard my first opera in the Opera House in Vienna— The Bartered Bride by Smetana. So it was only when I came out of Cyprus that I began to become familiar with the classical harmonic system.

Q: Is the music recorded on these two CDs the tip of the iceberg—is there a lot more music waiting to emerge?

A: Oh, yes! But I don’t know what to do. It took me a long time, because I can’t really work—I can only use my head about eight hours a week. The way these things have come about is that my husband is a very good amateur musician; he plays the organ very well. I basically decide what to do, type it into the computer, and hand it to him; I tell him what to do and he does it! I’ve got an editor who is helping me as well. And Jane and Alison helped with editing the songs. So I’m wondering how to do the next lot. I’ve got a doxology and Christmas carols that I want to do (I’ve typed them already). I have four concertos—piano, violin, cello, and clarinet. I wouldn’t mind some help to do the work because I find it a little bit too much, to be honest. There’s a company I might approach and if they take them on, it would be a blessing, since I don’t think I can do them myself. I type them in and after that people can take over and give them life. If I find a company that will undertake the whole thing, it would move very fast. The Piano Concerto is 55 minutes in computer time, so it would take over an hour to play; that’s a CD in itself. The Christmas carols and doxology take another hour and 20 minutes, so that’s another CD. The violin and cello concertos will make another CD. And then I’ve got preludes and fugues—not only for the piano but for various instruments. I’ve got quite a lot of music! The trouble is, I want them to be so perfect that perhaps they won’t happen. I worry about them as if they were my babies; of course, they are my babies.

Q: Perhaps someone reading this interview might gallop to the rescue.

A: I hope so; otherwise they might perish.

PETRIDOU Songs. 1 Piano Quartet: Memories. 2 String Quartet: The Collar. 3 Piano Trio: Black July 1974. 4 Crocus on the Chionistra. 5 First Applause. 6 Catch Me if You Can. 7 Into Exile 8 1 Alison Smart (sop); 1 Lesley-Jane Rogers (sop); 1 Lukas Kargl (bar); 1 Jennie-Helen Moston (pn); 2,3,4 Martin Smith (vn); 1,2,3,4 Jessica Burroughs (vc); 2,4-8 Sarah Down (pn); 3,5-8 Susan Collier (vn); 2,3 Steven Burnard (va); 1 Fenella Humphreys (vn); 1 Richard Russell (cl) DIVINE ART 21224 (2 CDs: 144:47 Text and Translation)

The first CD in this double album of Cilia Petridou’s music is given over to vocal music, most of it for two sopranos and piano—a highly effective combination that more composers ought to explore. The flirtatious opening song, The Grocer , is sung by Alison Smart and Lesley-Jane Rogers with evident enjoyment, almost like a latter-day version of the “Cat Duet” misattributed to Rossini. Sirens is something I don’t think I’ve heard before—a free-standing vocalise-duet (there are some in opera, sure, but I don’t know of one conceived as such from the start); though the title may suggest allure, in effect it’s a wordless lament. Petridou’s own text makes the next lament—for her lost homeland—specific in intent, with the two overlapping voices suggesting some kind of intensely felt funeral ceremony. What Love Is , the first solo song here, is bluesy and teasing; Mirrors likewise has a jazzy, smoky quality. The dark tone of Optimism belies its title, though it is briefly relieved as the music proceeds. The Siege is an extended scena, 24 minutes in length, two extended panels hinged on a brief central section, the voices keening movingly in their sense of loss; the music takes on a hieratic quality in its closing pages, and the coda is a representation of bells. The piano parts in some of these compositions are sparse, oddly from a pianist-composer (perhaps because of the working conditions she explained to me); in The Siege it sounds almost like the reduction of an orchestral texture—and, indeed, The Siege might respond very well to orchestration, at least for string, and perhaps for full orchestra, not least since it comes close to stalling at times, and long lines in the accompaniment would maintain the momentum. Evtho , another extended setting, 20 minutes in duration, adds a baritone to the two soprano voices and a violin, cello, and clarinet to the piano, though the hesitancy of the other pieces endures; The Grocer apart, not one of these works develops its own momentum, which is part of what gives The Siege and Evtho their ritual quality—it’s as if you are waiting for some ceremony to unfold. She did say that she was unfamiliar with classical harmonic procedures until late in her adolescence; perhaps this formal, deliberate manner is an echo of the music she heard around her in her younger days.

Turning to the CD of Petridou’s chamber music, I realize with hindsight what she meant when she said it “will probably appeal more to Western audiences” than the songs—although Petridou’s oddly diffident writing style takes some getting used to. There is a degree of amateurishness to it, for reasons that her interview makes clear, but once you settle down to its rather stop-and-start way of unfolding, its essential honesty begins to make its mark—and the very want of fluency gives it an innocent charm, not least since it is often very lovely. The piano quartet Memories dates from 1979 and, as the title suggests, evokes the Cyprus of Petridou’s childhood. It opens with a bashful exchange of phrases between the participants that grows slightly more confident but never quite settles into its stride; the second movement is another lament, the more effective for its understatement; and an attractive folk tune launches the finale Attacca and provides the material for its gently evolving development. Like Memories , the single-movement string quartet The Collar (the composer’s booklet note explains the point of the title but doesn’t date the piece) feels its way forward through a moving haze of folk-flavored recollections. The piano trio Black July 1974 (1979) makes its intentions clear in its title: It is a three-movement elegy for the life in northern Cyprus that the Turkish invasion was to rob from its Greek inhabitants. Perhaps anger serves Petridou well, since the first movement at last generates a degree of momentum—initially, indeed, the music occasionally recalls Beethoven—but the impulse is soon dissipated. The second movement is a haunting “Lament for Famagusta” and the third supposedly “recalls happy times during the first months of Independence” (in 1960)—but it is hardly less sorrow-laden than the rest of the music here; the same applies to the finale, which opens in bright-eyed innocence and soon turns to sadness. The remaining four works on the CD are character-pieces for violin and piano (none of them dated in Petridou’s booklet notes), two either side of two minutes, the other two flanking five; the mood is the one already firmly established.

The performances on both CDs are sensitive and thoughtful; I wondered whether a more assertive approach might have got the chamber works out of second gear—but it might also have bullied these tender plants beyond their carrying capacity. Anyway, the uniformity of the idiom doesn’t serve the music well when you line it all up in a row; in a concert, coming between two other composers, Petridou’s atmospheric and thoughtful idiom would offer an attractive contrast. The recorded sound is entirely natural, and the booklet offers the full Greek text of the songs and English translations. Martin Anderson

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 24 July 2013 )