As National Poetry Month comes to a close, it is fitting to celebrate poet Constantine Cavafy who was born on April 29, 1863 in Alexandria.
His parents both hailed from Constantinople and Cavafy was proud of his heritage and his illustrious ancestors. According to his biography, his Phanariote great-grandfather Peter Cavafy (1740-1804) was Secretary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while his Phanariote great-great-grandfather John Cavafy (1701-1762) was Governor of Jassium, as was his great-grandfather Michael Scarlato Pantzo (brother of Meletius, Patriarch of Alexandria), while his great-great-great-grandfather Theodosius Photiades (brother of Cyril, Bishop of Caesarea Philippi) was an Official of the Ottoman Government. Cavafy’s cosmopolitan family roots extended from Constantinople to London (via Alexandria, Trebizond, Chios, Trieste, Venice, and Vienna), and he was the youngest of seven brothers (two elder siblings, a boy and the sole girl, died in infancy).
In honor of the poet’s 155th birthday and the 85th anniversary of his death, he died on April 29, 1933, add some of his poems to your reading list. Cavafy brought the history and culture of Greek antiquity to life as no other modern Greek poet of his time. Ithaca is one of his most famous poems, and beautifully captures the essence of the journey and the return home that is so essentially Greek. The Complete Poems of Constantine Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, is a good choice for those interested in reading an excellent English translation of the poet’s works. Many of the poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, are available online on the official Cavafy website www.cavafy.com and on www.kavafis.gr for the Greek originals.
A recent event at the University of Vienna honored Cavafy with lectures on his life and work and a concert of his poems set to music by well-known composer Athanasios Simoglou. The poet’s ability to inspire other artists, 155 years after he was born and 85 years after his death, is a testament to the timeless quality of his work.
Among those in attendance at the tribute, as the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA-MPA) reported, were Austrian public officials, diplomats, and literature and music enthusiasts, as well as members of the Greek community. The event was organized by the Press and Communication Office of the Greek Embassy in Austria and the Austrian magazine Society. First Counsellor for Communication – Head of the Press and Communication Office Konstantinos Prokakis and Gertrud Tauchhammer, publisher of Society Magazine, delivered the welcoming remarks at the event.
In his speech, Giorgos Florentis, General Secretary of the Greek Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Information, noted his joy and emotion at being in Vienna, “where Greek voices never ceased to converse with history” and at a tribute to Cavafy, his fellow Alexandrian. From early in his life, he felt an connection to the poet and studied his works.
Florentis told ANA-MPA how unique and extraordinary the tribute was in such a historical site as the University of Vienna, noting that it was “a very good, bold initiative that had great success with a distinguished audience” promoting Greek culture, “one of the greatest and best ‘products’ of Greece, to the ends of the earth.”
In his speech, Konstantinos Prokakis noted that the aim of the tribute was to show the Austrian public that there is not only Greece of the economic and refugee crisis, with all the negative stereotypes that have dominated the international press over the last decade, but there is also the Greece of culture and high intellectual creativity.
In her lecture, Dr. Lilia Diamantopoulou, university assistant at the University of Vienna, spoke about the life and work of the great Alexandrian poet, with extensive references to the “musical adaptability” of his poetry.
In his lecture on “The musical sigh of the poet,” composer Athanasios Simoglou, noted that he feels pride but also awe and a great sense of responsibility to Cavafy. He referred to the poet’s personality and work and how he was in high school when he first became “acquainted” with the poet.
Simoglou’s first composition based on Cavafy’s poems was in 1983, with the music for Ithaca followed by Polis, Thermopylae, To come, and As much as you can. Since then, he has composed music for a total of 36 poems by the Alexandrian poet.
His main aim is to make the poet more known to the general public through music, something that is achieved with accessible melodies that can be sung by the people, said Simoglou.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of Vienna – composed mainly of young talented Greek musicians – performed under the direction of the orchestra’s founder, Konstantinos Diminakis, who also performed on the piano. They presented a series of works by Simoglou – the poems of Cavafy set to music- with baritone soloist Alexandros Tzovanis and violinist Angelina Georgiades.
Simoglou’s compositions based on Cavafy’s poems are available online.
Material from the ANA-MPA was used in this report.