Modern Greek Poetry set to music: a cultural diplomat?

Historically, poetry and music are fraternal twins, since poetry was initially sung rather than  recited1. The American poet Wyn Cooper reminds us of their relationship: “Poetry began as  something that went with music, words that were read to the accompaniment of the lyre (those  Greeks!), thus the word “lyric”(Wyn Cooper 2000). The lyrical outcome of such an  interaction has been developed and elaborated by great artists from Homer to L.v.Beethoven,G.Malher, A.Schoenberg and P.Boulez. For instance, Goethe’s or Schiller’s poems were set to  music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Wolf, while Gustav Malher transformed  Friedrich’s Rückert words into songs. During the 19th century the vocal setting of poems in  the form of a musical composition gradually ended up to the musical form of “lieds”2.
In 1878, Antonín Dvořák completed his song cycle 3 Modern Greek Poems, Op.50,
through which he set to music three Greek folk poems that were translated in Czech by the
Czech poet Vaclav Bolemir Nebesky in his poetic collection Modern Greek Folk Songs
(published in 1864) and were among the chosen ones to be firstly presented in Dvořák’s first  independent concert in Prague on 17 November 1878, where the composer actually
introduced himself to the Czech audience both as a composer and conductor (Ondrej Supka
2013). Dvořák chose to present such a work on a sensitive, but crucial occurrence and even if  he did not then realize the importance of his movement, he was walking on the later pavement  of cultural diplomacy. By setting the 3 Modern Greek Poems into music, he could be  considered to be among the heralds of the intentions this essay wishes to achieve, giving us an  initiatory example for our viewing angle towards the consciousness of the people (the  ‘cultural literacy’ as we will call it), the interplay of the cultures and the fruitful dialogue among nations.
Conducted in a primary way of approach, the present announcement examines the Modern  Greek Poetry set to music through the spectrum of cultural diplomacy. Being a field of recent  scientific research, the principles of cultural diplomacy are here examined with due regard to  contemporary Greek authors and some eloquent examples of their oeuvre that could advance  the discussion over their practical contiguity, as a presumptive suggestion to the endeavors of  the Greek side.

Section 1: Cultural diplomacy

1.1. An approach to its very substance
Cultural diplomacy reflects the way we implement diplomatic approaches through
miscellaneous cultural activities by any means of cultural exchange and/or co-operation.
According to Richard T. Arndt (2005) as cited by Jessica C.E. Gienow-Hecht (2009)3,
diplomacy in general is the ability and dexterity to conduct relationships aiming to a success,while avoiding conflict. However, as he admits, diplomacy does not constitute an exclusive  state-to-state possibility, where commissioned officials try to promote their government’s  plan with a view to achieve a certain political effect. The non-governmental factors share the  crucial role of ambassadors and agents of their country as well, since they form an integral  part of cultural and emotional relations of the international arena. In other words, missioners,teachers, artists, scientists or scholars, absolved of any kind of political expedience, are also  representatives of their country abroad, perhaps diplomats in their own way.
Cultural diplomacy constitutes a field of recent scientific interest, both theoretical and
practical, which, apart from the practice of International Relations4 , combines mainly
disciplines coming from Humanities, such as Cultural Studies, History and, generally
speaking, studies dealing with the ideological preservation of the Memory of a nation, the
so-called Management of Culture (another new recently appearing scientific field). These
interdisciplinary ramifications come as an obvious emanation from the multifold notion of
Culture, which encompasses all human activities. In an effort to approach the definition of the  versatile nature of the notion of cultural diplomacy, it seems incumbent at this point to clarify  the turbid lines that differentiate cultural diplomacy from foreign cultural policy, public diplomacy, international cultural relations and propaganda.
To begin with, cultural diplomacy and foreign cultural policy, due to their being an
integral part of the foreign policy of a country, are often used interchangeably, regardless of  their very substance: the foreign cultural policy tends to determine the goals each time are set  and the proper guidelines that should be followed in order for the international relations of a  country to take place on a solid basis, while cultural diplomacy provides the means and  methods for such achievements. Secondly, as Simon Mark accentuates5, cultural diplomacy  and international cultural relations, although used synonymously, do not typify the same term,since not all international cultural relations necessitate governmental support, nor are they  necessarily part of the foreign policy or diplomacy. By the same token, public diplomacy does  not always imply involvement of the state’s culture, while its fundamental purposes and  audiences addressed to may also differ from the respective ones of cultural diplomacy,depending on the goals to be achieved6. Furthermore, cultural diplomacy and propaganda  abstain from each other, due to their indented targets. Propaganda is usually used to depict  practices negatively charged and often relates to manipulation, while cultural diplomacy aims  to show a country’s cultural achievements in all their brilliance and vitality7.
Given, thus, the high profile of cultural diplomacy, we could support that, in a more
strictly defined way, cultural diplomacy represents the methodical and hierarchical use of the  Culture of a country, while exercising its foreign policy8, which, on the one hand, aims to  promote and propagate its cultural ideals, values and achievements abroad, whilst, on the  other hand, the tightening of its relations with the other Cultures constitutes one of its
principal goals in an effort of mutual understanding, reciprocal respect and democratic
Each of these aforementioned suggestions makes an important contribution to our
understanding of the width cultural diplomacy has, which has led Joseph Nye to characterize  it as “soft power”9. Countries, noting the compelling nature of their foreign cultural policy,have already designated persons and institutions to commit themselves to the promotion of  their Culture, but the content and extent of their mission is subject to several important  prerequisites, such as their national regime, the international and domestic cultural policy they follow, the willingness or participation by their non-governmental agents and, without doubt,the latitude of acting into the host countries. Emmanuel Megalokonomos (ambassador  emeritus of Greece) also underscores the principle of cultural relativity, which demonstrates  how crucial is to respect any particularities of the host places without any superficial    estimation, since the cultural image of a state mirrors its own performance, its interests and  reflexes to be directly adaptable on the new conditions10; thus the exercise of cultural  diplomacy is rendered the most eloquent way to express the priorities of the foreign policy of  a state and reflect, positively or negatively, to a great extent the national behavior11.
On the other hand, in consideration of the non-governmental coefficients exercising
cultural diplomacy through their oeuvre, we could howsoever mention the contribution of
widely known and appreciated authors and intellectuals, who come forward with individual
intentions and potent actions via which cultural diplomacy is exercised outside political
expediency. Having as their sole purpose to disseminate their culture and contrary to political  achievements, the efforts of the non-governmental interference could be considered to be a  totally alternative, not to mention subversive, “political” proposal. Being aware of its limits  and potential, this kind of cultural diplomacy could compose an excellent example of cultural  promotion, since it will propound a new type of positively fighting globalization, having as its  compass the intercultural dialogue across the globe rather than the impersonal jargon of  political promises12. Private initiatives have a broader autonomy than the authorized service,rendering the efforts even more persuasive for their neutral and selfless intentions, while they  encompass the ability to challenge political statements and comportment. Of course, it goes  without saying that the ideal lies in between the two aforementioned sides, where a  counterbalance of public and private participation and/or funding exists and the efforts  converge on the targets set by foreign cultural policy, as already noted.
For the purposes of the present essay, cultural diplomacy will be examined in the light
of the last category with due regard to the Greek case, since, albeit France holds the primacy  in cultural diplomatic practices, Greece was the first to introduce the ideal of cultural  diplomacy through the Pan-Hellenic tradition of Olympic Games13. However, in order to be  honest, Greece cannot anymore hide itself behind its glorious past; what counts most is its  contemporary presence in the international arena, where, the insufficient and ineffective  management of the Greek State towards its cultural infrastructure has been embarrassing  throughout the years and set the principal causation to deal with such an issue hereto. Greece,although it does not represent a competitive political and/or financial player, still remains  quite powerful to the field of culture and civilization, through which multiple benefits can  arise14.
In Greece, well before the current financial crisis, state funds for its cultural sector had
been in total discordance with its significance, with an almost everlasting tendency to be
inversely proportional, making us wonder if it ever was (and still exists) a fervent longing to  sap its cultural strength. However, notwithstanding what neglectfulness it suffers, it is firmly  believed that cultural diplomacy has the potential to break down persistent national
stereotypes and bring people together, given that cultural diplomacy can be exercised only by  people that are able to distinguish what renders them special into the international arena and  conduce hence to in their own way with a view of cultural interactions in the light of  functional cultural proposals of universal repercussions15; besides, Greece due to its historical  and geographical-geopolitical attributes can by right claim the role of a global cultural power  and it is crucial, and of central concern therefore to establish and promote its long-standing  cultural presence through the ‘intellectual’ and ‘humanistic’ aspects of cultural diplomacy.
The ever memorable former Minister of Hellenic Culture, Melina Merkouri, asserted that   ‘Culture is the heavy artillery of the Greek Politics’16; in the final analysis, according to
Yannaras17, the international relations of a country, even its own historical survival of
sovereign autonomy, depends to a great extent on its image outwards rather its impermanent  activation (not to mention its passive rhetoric over its cultural particularity). Modern Greek  ambassadors commit themselves towards this operative direction; what is missing is a  tactically established planning by the decision makers and a conscious cultural literacy by  Greeks in their entirety.


Μaria Athanassiou

M.A. in Art, Law and Economy, International Hellenic University. Ph.D. candidate,
International Center for Music Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.



1 (Andrea Loselle 1993, 3)
2 (Ibid, 5-6).
3 (Jessica C.E. Gienow-Hecht 2009, 4)

4 (Simon Mark 2009, 2-5)
5 (Ibid, 8)
6 (E.Tzoumaka 2005, 12-17)
7 (Simon Mark 2009, 20-22 and George Christoyannis 2006, 45-47)
8 (Christos Yannaras 2001, 13-14)
9 Simon Mark 2009, 15)

10 (Eleni Tzoumaka 2005, 114)
11 (Simon Mark 2009, 29)
12 (Eleni Tzoumaka 2005, 57 and Simon Mark 2009, 33-34)
13 (Patrick Hunt 2010, 3)
14 (Eleni Tzoumaka 2005, 70 and George Christoyannis 2006, 186-187)
15 (Christos Yannaras 2001, 32-33

16 (George Christoyannis 2006, 108)
17( Christos Yannaras 2001, 10, 114)

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