Friday, December 22, 2023

How Great Spiritual Figures of Greece Helped Form the Renowned Conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos

Dimitri Mitropoulos (center) with St. Nektarios (left) and Alexandros Papadiamantis (right) and the Metochion of the Ascension in Vyronas of Athens in the background.

Perhaps the best known relationship of the renowned composer and pianist Dimitri Mitropoulos was his constant betrayer and eventual successor: Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein first heard and saw Mitropoulos as a recent émigré from Greece when he had given a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert in 1938 which electrified the Harvard graduate student. Mitropoulos took Bernstein under his wing, though the ambitious Bernstein later repaid his kindness by angling to replace him as the head of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was Mitropoulos, after all, who is primarily responsible for inspiring Bernstein to become a conductor. Another friend of Mitropoulos, Herbert von Karajan, also was entranced by the way in which music seemed to flow through the Greek conductor and communicate itself to both players and audiences. At Karajan's behest, Mitropoulos became a welcome return guest at the Salzburg Festival in the last years of his life. Mitropoulos exercised a formative influence on the two most dominant conducting egos in the second half of the 20th century.

By contrast, their mentor was humble to a fault. Mitropoulos gave away most of his earnings, leaving what he had left to catch an occasional double feature, he lived simply as a celibate gay man and relied on the kindness of friends when ill health forced him on hard times. He saw orchestral musicians as his colleagues in search of higher spiritual truth rather than underlings, and his hands-on technique resisted the traditional hierarchy which placed ultimate power at the tip of a baton like a military general. "Conducting with a baton is a bit like playing the piano with gloves," he claimed. Mitropoulos was an Orthodox Christian ascetic in the world in many ways by his lifestyle, but he also saw himself as a missionary conveying a profound spiritual appreciation of music. He suffered for his saintliness as well. When conducting for the Philharmonic in Minneapolis, where he chose to live in a dorm room, the players took advantage of his financial generosity or publicly threw their parts of a Webern work at his feet. Snide remarks about his private sexuality were common, and Bernstein gossiped conspiratorially that it was wrong for a bachelor to hold such a post. Mitropoulos was reduced to tears before the orchestra’s hostility.

Below I will translate a brief article that explores the relationships that formed Mitropoulos as an Orthodox Christian, which inspired him to stand out from the rest of his time in a difficult environment. This is newly uncovered information which has yet to be published in English.

What Brought Dimitri Mitropoulos and Saint Nektarios Together?

By Pavlos Elias Agiannidis
June 26, 2022

There was a chapel in Vyronas, with a well and a garden. The Ascension. We are at the beginning of the 20th century. The man who "has the keys" and signs all the documents is an owner of a small store with leather goods, at 15-17 Agios Markos Street, named John Mitropoulos. With a leap in time, we are back to the present. In the precious archive of the Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos, where a monk, Father Elissaios (known in the world as Goulas), who studied at the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, enters every historical document about the Ascension into the monastery's computer. The name John Mitropoulos and the name Mitropoulos in general comes and goes before his eyes. He challenges himself to look for it. At the time there came into his hands, at the suggestion of Dimitri Mitropoulos' devoted record collector and composer of his discography, the voluminous biography of the maestro by William R. Trotter, under the title "Hierophant of Music" (published by Potamos). Identifying common points of Mitropoulos in his recordings with the great maestro, Father Elissaios decides to do a full (scientific) research and then a Master's degree, supervised by the Professor of Dogmatics at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, musician and theologian Chrysostomos Stamoulis. The first - now documented - connection that emerged from the research is with the ascetic of the international music scene, Dimitri Mitropoulos. John is his father. And next to him, in all the documents, his brother, Nicholas Mitropoulos (the Simonopetritan monk Father Neilos), uncle of Dimitri Mitropoulos.

The uncle of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Monk Neilos of Simonopetra

Hold on, though, because this is only the first of many connections with figures of Orthodoxy, but also of literature and cinema. A series of relationships all centered on the great conductor, whom the American music world has only recently recalled and honored with the release of 69 CDs of his recordings in America (with the Minneapolis Orchestra and the famous New York Philharmonic) for Columbia and CBS, released worldwide by Sony. In the midst of a pandemic, the research of Father Elissaios was able to be printed on paper, by En Plo Publications, under the title Επίγευση αγιότητας. Δημήτρης Μητρόπουλος, η σχέση του μεγάλου μαέστρου με πνευματικές μορφές της Ορθοδοξίας (Aftertaste of Holiness: Dimitri Mitropoulos, the Relationship of the Great Conductor with Spiritual Figures of Orthodoxy). Thanks to the valuable contribution of Father Elissaios and, of course, thanks to his own extensive research, we can now dive into an unknown part of History, with Dimitri Mitropoulos as the central figure. He pieces together, now illuminated for the first time, for all worldwide, and explains and outlines his beginnings, the ascetic life of the great conductor and many of his habits. But also many of his – vague, until today – words, at the time of his maturity (shortly before his death from a heart attack, on the podium, at La Scala in Milan, in 1960), when he had now achieved a high level of spirituality. Beyond the musical peaks.

"Instead of  a missionary of Christ, I became a missionary for the art of music," said Mitropoulos.

He had his favorite crucifix, which he wore all the time – including in the Life magazine photoshoot in 1946, wearing a bathing suit (which cost him the position of principal musician in the Boston Symphony Orchestra).

He always had with him a prayer rope, and on one occasion, when he forgot it in the dressing room, he left the podium at a concert in the famous Carnegie Hall in New York for a few minutes to retrieve it.

He also had an icon of the Virgin Mary, before which he would light an oil lamp in his dressing room.

One can also see a cross on his table in his photos for the American magazine Time.

Dimitri Mitropoulos writing music while wearing his beloved crucifix in his bathing suit (Life, 1946)
Everything finds its place and explanation in this research, documented with historical documents, letters, records, names and hitherto unknown facts. It demonstrates the meeting and relationship of Dimitri Mitropoulos - and, of course, his family - with not one, not two, but four (!) Saints of the Greek Orthodox Church. First, Saint Nektarios of Aegina (remember the movie Man of God?), known as Anastasios Kephalas. Then, Saint Hieronymos Simonopetritis from Asia Minor (a monk who was known in the world as John Diakogiorgis). He was the primary confessor at Ascension, the chapel in Vyronas (point zero in this narrative) when he was slandered and exiled from the Monastery of Simonopetra of the Holy Mountain, which is also the basic, common, landmark in this multi-faceted, hitherto unknown history.

In the same "saintly" choir was Saint Nicholas Planas, who officiated at the Church of the Holy Prophet Elissaios, in Monastiraki. This is where the monk Neilos, the uncle of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Nicholas Mitropoulos, chanted, together with the world-famous Skiathite prose writer Alexandros Papadiamantis and the short story writer Alexandros Moraitidis (who died as a monk named Andronikos). But also Saint Savvas the New in Kalymnos, beloved disciple and companion in the illness of Saint Nektarios. Father Neilos, Nicholas Mitropoulos,  was also a spiritual child of Saint Nektarios. Saint Savvas of Kalymnos is also associated with Ascension. John Mitropoulos' uncle was also the Archbishop of Patras and Ilia, Hierotheos (Mitropoulos), who became acquainted as an archimandrite with Saint Nektarios, when he was exiled to Paros. This is a whole other story: The "Scandal of the Simonians", in 1875, which involved the financing of ministers by three Metropolitans. The politicians were condemned, but the clergy who revealed it were exiled. The exiled Father Hierotheos became a preacher. This is how he was heard, in Messolonghi, by Harilaos Trikoupis, who proposed to him to become Archbishop of Patras and Ilia (let's remember that at that time the present-day Metropolises were Archbishoprics and the current Archbishop of Athens and all Greece was a Metropolitan).

Archbishop Hierotheos (Mitropoulos) of Patras and Ilia

When Archbishop Hierotheos reposed in 1903, his body, which was transported by train from Athens to Patras, was accompanied by the Mitropoulos family and Saint Nektarios, then director of Rizarios Ecclesiastical School. Spyros P. Skouras, once a shepherd in Skourochori, Ilia, experienced the pioneering works and days of the Archbishop of Patras and Ilia Hierotheos. This was the Greek who was about to shake up the cinematic waters in Hollywood, as the president of the profitable production company 20th Century Fox. Skouras met later (in the 1950s) in New York with Dimitri Mitropoulos. Where the maestro, as Father Elissaios puts it, referring to the spirituality and asceticism of the maestro, "was a lit candle in the center of Manhattan". The two also met with the famous journalist and director of the Royal Theatre, the National Opera and the National Radio Foundation, Kostis Bastias. Bastias had gone to Mount Athos in his youth, then became a Catholic, then declared himself an atheist. After the meeting in New York, the author of "Aftertaste of Holiness" tells me, he returned to Orthodoxy.

Kostis Bastias (1938)

A few years before this meeting, the great composer Igor Stravinsky stated that he had spoken with Dimitri Mitropoulos "about the Orthodox Church and he showed great interest in my collection of icons".

But where were we? At the funeral of Hierotheos. This sparks a side story. Having studied law and French, highly educated in his time, Nicholas Mitropoulos decided to turn to the monastic life. He lived together with Konstantinos Zervakos, with whom he moved to Mount Athos, was arrested by the Ottomans in Thessaloniki and escaped. However, as Saint Nektarios had predicted before their departure, only Nicholas Mitropoulos - Father Neilos - reached the Holy Mountain. The second was renamed Philotheos (Zervakos) and ended up a hieromonk at the Monastery of Zoodochos Pege in Longovarda of Paros, where he reposed as its abbot. He was also Kostis Bastias' spiritual father. The older uncle of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Christos, who took the name Hierotheos, in honor of his brother, the Archbishop of Patras and Ilia, also became a monk there. Let's not forget one more important person in this multi-faceted history, who shared with the Mitropoulos family, not only kinship, but also the house at 15-17 Agios Markos, where the store of John Mitropoulos was located - before the maestro's father built their house in Faliro, where after 1922 it hosted refugees from Asia Minor. We are talking about the archimandrite and preacher Eusebios Matthopoulos, founder of the Brotherhood of Theologians "Zoe".

Fr. Eusebius Matthopoulos, founder of "Zoe"

So, let's go back to the beginning of the 20th century at Ascension, which today is located inside the Model Park of the Municipality of Vyronas, in front of G. Genimata Street. The chapel, overseen by the families (with common roots in Arcadia) Mitropoulos and Matthopoulos, passed it on to the Simonopetra Monastery of the Holy Mountain, as a metochion. With the "administrator" being John Mitropoulos and the commitment from the monastery that its monks will liturgize there and do confessions according to the typikon of Mount Athos. It was the "wonderful monastery" which conductor and pianist Dimitri Mitropoulos mentioned without ever naming. There where his uncle Father Neilos became a monk, as secretary of the monastery first and of the Holy Community of Mount Athos in the end, and reposed (suffering from tuberculosis for years) at the age of 40. He was also the man who contributed, as a lawyer, to the creation of the charter of the Holy Mountain, and whose precious library Dimitri Mitropoulos inherited. When the latter was living in a small house, in Othonos, Syntagma, which had been granted to him by Constantine and Helen Ouranis, after the death of Father Neilos, the abbot of the Monastery of Simonopetra, Ioannikios, sent via Saint Hieronynmos the small cross – with a portion of the True Cross – to Dimitri Mitropoulos. This was the same little cross that was later photographed by the American magazine Life.

The first Chapel of the Ascension in Vyronas

"I come from a family of clergy. When I was a child and I had school holidays, I went to Mount Athos. I was so excited by the environment and this whole hermit idea really touched my heart. So in those years I was sure that one day I too would become a monk," confessed Dimitri Mitropoulos to Hamburg's NDR radio station in 1959. This was a year before his tired heart "gave up" on him. "My father was a businessman and at the end of his life he became a monk. Of course, I was not entirely in agreement with this ascetic idea. Basically I wanted to be a missionary. This was indeed my ideal. And I don't know how fate managed it, but instead of a missionary of Christ, I became a missionary of the art of music." It was as if he himself was trying to button up the unknown, spiritual, mosaics of his life and bequeath them to the international music world, which eventually he won over. From the abundance of new information brought to light by the research of Father Elissaios, I will save for the finale a lively conversation, with the friend of the Mitropoulos family, Saint Nektarios. This, perhaps, explains to us more why, after all, he did not become a missionary, but a hierophant of music.

St. Nektarios of Aegina

Saint Nektarios was then the confessor of his uncle, Father Neilos and the director of Rizarios. It was also the time when the Saint wrote one of his well-known poems, "Agni Parthene Despoina" (which has even been translated into African Swahili). His relatives, therefore, motivated the young Dimitri Mitropoulos to go and talk to him about what was troubling him. About his wanting to become a monk. As well as for his love of music. Let's recreate the dialogue: "I also can't have music in my cell?" – asked Mitropoulos. "Orthodoxy does not allow the use of instrumental music" - the priest replied. "I can't even have a small organ in my cell?" "No," was the answer. The rest is now written in world music history.