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Corfu Music: Philharmonics in the Streets of Greece

  • Eva Makris
  • 4 July 2011

With influences from Italy, France, Great Britain and mainland Greece, the musical of Corfu is full of surprises.

Walking through the narrow alleys – the candounia – of Corfu Town, you may suddenly stumble across a spontaneous string quartet playing local traditional songs, you will hear through open widows the sounds of children practicing their musical instruments or, when driving in the countryside, you may have to pause while one of the island’s many brass bands crosses the road accompanying a local celebration or funeral.

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In Corfu, Greece, a marching band celebrates a feast day, or panigyri, with a musical procession through the streets. Photo courtesy of Lenka Maggie Janíková

Musical Origins

As prized colonies under Venetian rule for over 400 years, Corfu and the other Ionian Islands experienced a unique set of cultural influences and musical traditions that differed from those of the rest of Greece, which during the same period was occupied by the Ottoman Empire.

On Corfu, music flourished especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, a period of time during which many of the greatest guitar and mandolin songs originated. It was also during this time, after the Corfiots had acquired a taste for opera from the Venetians, that the first Greek opera was composed by Corfiot music-man Spyros Xyndas. In 1720, the local loggia of the Teatro San Giacomo was turned into an opera theatre, although it has operated since 1903 as the island’s Town Hall.

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The philharmonic group from the village of Kapodistrias performs in the street during the village's annual feast day, or panigyri. Children grow up with a tradition of orchestral music and almost everybody is able to play an instrument. Photo courtesy of Sandra Broedner

Other distinguished Corfiot composers were Spyros Samaras, writer of the Olympic Hymn first played at the Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens, and Nikolaos Mantzaros, who set music to poet Dionysios Solomos’ Hymn to Liberty, which became the Greek National Anthem in 1864. Mantzaros was also the founder of the first modern school of music in Greece. Today, there is a music department at the local Ionian University and also a high school for music.

Orchestral Roots

The deep-seated and unique music traditions of this amazing island are seen at their best during the Greek Orthodox Easter. Corfu wouldn’t be the most popular Easter destination in Greece without its philharmonic orchestras, an inseparable part of the celebrations.

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The Liapades Philharmonics play for the traditional Easter Parade in Corfu Town, Greece. Many Corfiot villages have their own philharmonic societies, so currently there are 17, each with its own identifiable colours. Photo courtesy of Lenka Maggie Janíková

The first Philharmonic Society was founded in 1840, followed by the Mantzaros Philharmonic in 1890. The island now has an amazing 17 philharmonic societies, including three in Corfu town, and over 80 orchestras, both professional and amateur. During the summer months you can listen to their open-air concerts all over the island, but especially in Corfu Town.

Music Today

Music still has an important role in Corfiot everyday life. During the summer months, this becomes particularly apparent to every visitor who comes across a panigyri. Nearly every village has a panigyri,  or local feast day honouring a saint. It is an unforgettable experience during which the locals sing and dance to popular Greek songs from early evening until late, while lambs roast on spits and local wine flows.

If you prefer modern Greek or international music, local artists promise phenomenal performances. For many years, July has been a month full of concerts, seminars and discussions organised by the Corfu Festival committee, including the popular Ionian Concert series, which gives visitors the chance to watch performances from various genres. Winds and percussion, global traditions, jazz and classical music are just some of the choices, with performers from Greece, Europe, the U.S. And even Asia.

It’s all part of a top-quality musical experience and the concerts take place within the historic surroundings of Corfu town. The main venue for the festival is the auditorium of the beautiful Ionian Academy, which was the first university in Greece. Open-air performances are mostly held in front of St. George’s Church at the Old Fortress.

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Inside the church of St. George in the Old Fortress of Corfu Town, Greece, a concert is given by the symphonic orchestra and vocal ensemble of the Ionian University. Photo courtesy of Ioannis Tryfonas

Corfu’s rich musical traditions have also had an impact beyond the island’s shores. One of Greece’s most popular actresses and singers, Rena Vlahopoulou, was born on Corfu, as was today’s pop superstar Sakis Rouvas.

Be sure to check in with the whl.travel team at Corfu-hotels.travel for more expert local advice on travel in Corfu.

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Eva Makris

Eva Makris is a Swedish citizen who has lived on the island of Corfu, Greece, for over 20 years. She has two children. As an amateur painter and photographer, she especially enjoys the lush nature, the crystal-blue sea and the incredible light. Since 2011 she has worked as a supervisor at Corfu Sunspots Travel, the whl.travel local connection on Corfu.
Eva Makris
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Europe, festivals & events, fine arts, Greece, islands, local knowledge, music, personal experience, Southern Europe, whl.travel,

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