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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.