Greece on Thursday mourns the passing of composer and political activist Mikis Theodorakis at the age of 96. A towering and prolific figure of the Greek and international music scene, in his lifetime he composed some of the world’s most recognizable pieces of music, including the iconic ‘syrtaki’ dance from the film ‘Zorba the Greek’, which came to define Greece and Greek culture in the eyes of the world.
A legend in his own lifetime, Theodorakis was also very influential for his political action in support of democracy and his strong ties to the Left, including his resistance to the 1967-1973 military junta in Greece, which had him imprisoned and banned his music. He was instrumental in raising awareness of Greece’s plight during that time and fuelling the international protest movement for the return of democracy to Greece.
A figure linked to the most important moments of Greece’s contemporary history, Theodorakis left his stamp on an entire era of Greek culture and politics and his legacy and impact spread far beyond Greece’s borders.
Over nearly a century of life, he had written almost every kind of music, from popular songs and film scores to classical symphonies and opera. Originally trained in classical music, during his first artistic period from 1937-1960 he wrote mainly symphonic and chamber music using classical and modern Western techniques. During his second period, from 1960 to 1980, he attempted to meld symphonic music with Greek folk and popular music, including traditional instruments, creating new forms based on vocals, while after 1981 he returned to symphonic works and opera.
A “central pillar of his creativity” according to singer Nena Venetsanou was the setting of works of poetry to music, using works by major Greek and foreign poets, such as Angelos Sikelianos, Andreas Kalvos, George Seferis, Odysseas Elytis, Yiannis Ritsos, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca and Brendan Behan, among others.
As a political prisoner in the Oropos Prison, Theodorakis wrote: “In the beginning was the Word…my greatest ambition is to faithfully serve modern Greek poetry, particularly. To such a degree that, on hearing a song, you cannot imagine the music set to other words, nor yet the poem set to different music.”
In addition to the signature Zorba ‘syrtaki’, Theodorakis also wrote the filmscores to well-known films, such as ‘Z’ in 1969 that won the BAFTA award for original filmscore, ‘Phaedra’ in 1962 with lyrics by Nikos Gatsos and ‘Serpico’ in 1973, for which he had a Grammy nomination in 1975.
Michael or Mikis Theodorakis was born on the island of Chios on July 29, 1925 to a Cretan father and a mother from Asia Minor. His father was a senior civil servant and the family therefore moved to different parts of Greece during his childhood, while his first contact with music were the psalms of the Greek Orthodox Church, where he sang as a chorister.
In 1937-1939 he had his first violin lessons at the Patras Conservatory and wrote his first songs, based on lyrics of Greek poets that he found in school books and his home library. In Tripoli at the age of 17 he performed his first concert, playing his work “Kassiani”, and joined the resistance against the Nazi occupation. In 1943, he was arrested for the first time by the Italians during a great demonstration and tortured.
He escaped to Athens and in 1943 began studying music at the Athens Conservatory, where he started to become familiar with classical European music. Up until then, he had been influenced by Byzantine liturgical music, had formed a choir and had composed songs and pieces for the piano and violin.
At the same time, he continued to be active in the resistance, joining the nationwide youth group EPON and becoming its secretary for culture in 1944, the year he also joined the Athens reserves of the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and took part in battles against the Germans and Security Battalions, as well as the ‘Dekemvriana’.
He was persecuted for his political affiliations in the aftermath of the war, living as an outlaw in Athens without stopping his revolutionary action. In 1947 he was exiled to the island of Ikaria and then held on the island of Makronissos, from which he was released in August 1949.
As a result of his activism and the political persecution, he delayed in getting his diploma from the Athens Conservatory, which he finally got in 1950. Between 1954-57 he studied music in Paris on a scholarship and wrote three ballets (‘Antigone’, ‘Les Amants de Teruel’ and ‘Le Feu aux Poudres’) that were successful in Paris and London. During the same period, he composed the work “Oedipus Tyrannus” and in 1957 received the gold medal in the Moscow Festival for his “First Symphony for Piano and Orchestra”.
He returned to Greece in 1960 having already made some major decisions over his musical direction while in Paris. Disagreeing with new trends, he returned to his Greek roots and in 1958 composed the song cycle “Epitaphios” based on the poetry of Yiannis Ritsos, embarking on a period that would have a profound influence on the evolution of Greek popular music.
The work “Axion Esti” based on the poetry of Odysseas Elytis would become his first major choral work, which the composer called a “metasymphonic popular oratorio”. He said this indicated “not so much the distance in time but the qualitative difference between western and modern Greek musical art,” with both the poetry of Elytis and Greek folk music as his inspiration and many new elements, such as the simultaneous presence of a narrator/chanter and popular singer, as well as classical and popular music orchestras.
In 1963, together with Manos Hatzidakis, he founded the Little Orchestra of Athens that gave a number of concerts and continued his political activism, becoming a founding member of the Lambrakis Democratic Youth, of which he was president in 1964-1967, while he was arrested for participating in the 1st Marathon March for Peace in the same year.
In 1964 he was elected to Parliament with the left-wing EDA party, becoming a member of its Executive Committee a year later.
The military coup in 1967 led to a new period of political persecution, in which his music was banned, while in the same year he became a founding member of the Patriot Antidictatorship Front (PAM) and was arrested for his action in August of that year. He was held under house arrest, then at the Averoff prison where he started a hunger strike and had to be admitted to hospital, from which he was released and again placed under house arrest. The entire family was then banished to Zatouna in Arkadia and he was sent to the Oropos concentration camp.
Throughout this period, he continued to compose music, much of which he managed to smuggle abroad, where it was performed by Maria Farantouri and Melina Mercouri. While imprisoned in Oropos, his health deteriorated dangerously, prompting a storm of protest on an international level. Major cultural figures, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, Yves Montand, among others, formed a international solidarity movement demanding his release. He was finally set free in 1970, through the intervention of French politician and author Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and allowed to go to Paris.
He was made president of PAM and spent the next four years until the fall of the junta giving concerts and raising awareness of the dictatorship throughout the world, while his works became a symbol of the resistance in Greece.
Returning to Greece in 1974, he continued his involvement in politics and stood for election in general and local elections, standing as the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) candidate for Athens mayor.
During this period and up until 1980 he composed some of his best-known works, such as the song cycles, Canto General and others.
He was elected to parliament as MP for Piraeus with the Communist Party in 1981 and in 1985 as a state deputy, while in 1987 he was a founding member of the Greek-Turkish Friendship Committee. In October 1989 he was included in the state deputy ticket of New Democracy and elected on November 5, then re-elected in April 1990. In both cases he stood as an independent in collaboration with ND.
In April 1990 he received his first governmental post, becoming a minister without portfolio in the Mitsotakis government until August 1991, after which he was made a minister of state. He resigned on March 30, 1992 to devote himself to his music and composed the Hymn for the Barcelona Olympic Games. On October 12 in the same year he ended his collaboration with ND’s parliamentary group and on March 9, 1993 resigned as an MP and took over as general director of the musical programme at the state broadcaster ERT.
He resigned the position on June 16, 1994 in protest at the policy of the Papandreou government and his resignation was accepted on October 5, while in 1996 he was appointed as a member of the National Tourism Council.
During the Greek crisis he was a vocal opponent of the austerity measures imposed on Greece and formed an independent citizens’ movement called “Spitha” in 2010, and later the political movement ELADA in 2012 with veteran leftist Manolis Glezos that aimed to form a broad anti-memorandum front. In 2013 he announced his “retirement” from political life though he continued to voice his opposition to the austerity measures.
In addition to his work as a composer, Theodorakis was also the author of a number of books and poetry, including his own autobiography.
Throughout his long life, he was the recipient of many awards, among them the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1983, medals awarded by the Greek state and the medal of an Officer of the Legion of Honour awarded by France in March 1996. He was given an honorary doctorate of Musical Studies by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the 2002 Erich Wolfgang Korngold Award in Germany and the International Music Council-UNESCO International Music Prize of 2005. In March 2007 he was awarded the medal of Commander of the Legion of Honour by France, while in May 2013, he was named an honorary member of the Athens Academy.