Many Greek-Americans still speak of the Greek War Relief programs of World War II. One often hears how famous Hollywood stars of the day such as Jack Benny, Judy Garland, and Bob Hope served as radio hosts on special Greek War Relief marathon programs. Throughout the war years, newsreels were shown in movie theaters all across the country – many owned by Greek immigrants – featuring Hollywood stars, American political notables, and Greek-American leaders marching with the Royal Evzones down New York City’s Times Square.
What only a handful of the most dedicated of scholars recall is the first nationwide Greek War Relief drive in the United States of America. So thunderous was this response that it was called in the national press, “the Grecian Fever!” When the Greeks raised the flag of freedom or death against the Ottoman Turks in 1821, the entire world reeled from the sound of their battle cry. In the clamor to aid the outnumbered Greeks a new genre of Western music was born, the Greek aire.
No one, today, really knows how many Greek aires were ever written. No comprehensive study exists of the Greek aires composed from 1821 until at least 1840. Few of the original composers, many of whom were recognized musicians of the day, have had their Greek aires seriously examined by music historians. Added to this problem is the fact that the original sheet music is now much prized as collectors’ items which makes access to a wide selection of these songs extremely difficult. Unexpectedly the beauty of the lithography apparent on virtually any of the Grecian aire song sheets also sets them apart for the musical scholar. Again, this fact not only increases their monetary and historical value but once more adds to the difficulty of the most serious researcher from having direct access to original aires even at public institutions.
It must be understood that these aires were composed by Americans and later Northern Europeans, musicians who in all likelihood had never heard authentic traditional Greek music. Whether these musicians even considered this point is for the moment unknown. What is certain, without a doubt, is that t Greek aires were an immediate popular success.
Written and performed to honor the Greek War of 1821 these Greek aires are predominately dance compositions. Based on the English “air,” a term used to mean a song or melody (taken it seems originally from the Italian aria) the Greek aires soon took on a life of their own. The Greek aires were used as both dance songs and to provide interludes between passages of accompanying recitation. The rhythmic freedom and fluid word setting characteristic of this genre allowed for this flexibility.
After March 25, 1821, these aires served as the theme music for the Greek Committee meetings that spread across North America. In spontaneous town hall meetings in Vermont, Michigan, Boston, New York, and elsewhere, these Greek Committees formed independent of each other, at first, as aid societies to help in the Greek Cause. Lectures and speeches at rallies composed of prominent local citizens rang out on behalf of the besieged Hellenes. And like the Second Greek War Relief of the 1940s these 1821 to 1839 meetings were also the occasions for public entertainment in the forms of musical events, poetry recitals, dances and even the presentation of Greek plays.
For those occasions when the tone of the event was more solemn the incorporation of a march theme into the aire was common. Two examples of this version of aire are The Greek March: In Which Is Introduced An Original Greek Air (New York, Published by Hewitt & Jaques, 239 Broadway (Copyright 1840) composed by William Cumming Peters and The Greek March of Liberty by French pianist and composer Charles Thibault. Elements of romance and the romantic are ever present in these Greek aires. We can note this even in Peters’ march by virtue of the fact that it was composed and dedicated to a Miss Elizabeth Lucket.
Clearly musicians of the day were more than willing to compose Greek aires to suit the nature of the gathering be it festive or serious. The Greek Ball: A Dance was a popular dance composition of R.L. Williams (dated on the published sheet music as February 14, 1824) and the far more formal Beauties of the Ballet: The Greek Romaika written for the stage by French musician A. Fleche. This last aire quickly became associated with the French dancer Mademoiselle Celeste.
It must be stressed that these Greek airs could also be elaborate lithographic historical works of art as well as music. One example from the William and Mary University sheet music collection is by Severin Leoni. The music is subtitled in French “Souvenirs de la Liberte de la Grece 1821” or “Memories Souvenirs of the Freedom of Greece.” The inscription at the top of the cover translates to “Dedicated to the great patriot and benefactor of Greece G. Averof. The heroes listed clockwise on the cover include G. Averof, philanthropist; Patriarch Gregory V; Markos Botsaris, general; Konstantinos Kanaris, admiral; Theodoros Kolokotronis, general; and Rigas Feraios, writer, poet, and intellectual.”
The romance in these songs focuses on the virtue of war and Greek women. During this era American and Northern European artists frequently depicted the plight of the embattled Greeks in the form of a young woman. French painter Eugène Delacroix’s 1826, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi is one such example. American sculpture Hiram Powers’ internationally famous statue The Greek Slave another with various other notable European artwork of the 1820 to 1830 era all presenting the Greek Cause through the feminine form.
The American composers tended to present Greek women as either harem girls or warriors. In Songs of the Captive Greek Girl we hear of those young women who suffered a fate worse than death. Based on the poetry from the Romance of the Harem by English authoress and traveler Julia Pardoe (1806-1862) at least four different aires were composed and issued together in one folio edition. Song of the Greek Amazon, composed by E. Ives, Jr. merges the various classical and modern themes in a more military depiction of Greek womanhood. In the lyrics this is what we learn of this young girl’s betrothed:
“But they slew him unaware, of coward murderers lurking nigh-
And left him to the fowls of the air, Are yet alive and they must die!
I buckle to my slender side, the pistol, and the scimitar
And in my maiden flow’r and pride, Am come to share the tasks of war.”
These songs provide a wide array of largely still unexamined information on 19th century American attitudes towards Modern Greeks. But why should we consider this nearly lost musical genre? Of what real world purpose can such historical musings possibly serve? At a time when the very economic existence of Greece is under assault it is critical for us to understand other times in American and world history when Greeks commanded unqualified respect and wide public admiration. With so many speaking out against Greece we must stop and reflect on what has so fundamentally changed. Perhaps it is time for Greek-Americans to listen anew to those Greek aires that first stirred the souls and imagination of the West – before it is too late.