Mikis Theodorakis: Greek composer who used music to rebel

Mikis Theodorakis, who died at the age of 96, was a Greek composer of symphonies, cantatas, ballets and operas, but known worldwide for his Zorba the Greek and Serpico film music.

He was also politically active throughout his life after joining the Greek resistance against the Axis Powers during World War II, later becoming a Member of Parliament.

When the dictatorship came following a military coup in 1967, he was imprisoned as a political opponent of the new regime and spent several years in exile before the fascist junta collapsed in 1974 and that he does not return to his native country. Later, the Marxist composer was back in the Hellenic Parliament.

“I have always lived with two sounds – one political, one musical,” he once said.

Zorba the Greek, a 1964 comedy-drama starring Anthony Quinn as the title peasant musician whose thirst for life changes the Greek-born Englishman of Alan Bates, placed Theodorakis firmly on the international map.

The New York Times remarked that his sheet music “rolls and moans obsessively.” Most memorable was “Zorba’s Dance”, played on bouzouki and mandolin, the duo’s soundtrack dancing on a Cretan beach, arms outstretched and hands on each other’s shoulders. Her style, a Greek form of line dancing, became known as sirtaki.

In addition to various versions of the tune appearing in the singles charts – Marcello Minerbi and his orchestra reached No.6 in Britain in 1965 – it has become a staple of background music in Greek taverns around the world. world and Quinn even followed in his footsteps. again in appearances in Theodorakis concerts.

During the composer’s years of incarceration, Franco-Greek director Costa-Gavras approached him to write the score for his satirical thriller. Z, an Oscar-winning fictional tale of the 1963 assassination of an anti-war Greek politician that resonated in the new climate. The screenplay was smuggled to Theodorakis, who suggested that he use his appropriate earlier works.

Then, in 1973, came his soundtrack for Serpico, a film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino as a New York police officer undercover to expose corruption in his own strength.

Michael George Theodorakis was born on the Aegean island of Chios in 1925 to Aspasia (née Poulakis), who nurtured in him and his younger brother a love of Greek folk music, and Georgios Theodorakis, a lawyer.

As a child, he began to compose and, after writing his first choral works, gave his first concert at the age of 17.

“Always, I lived with two sounds – one political, one musical”, explained Theodorakis


At the same time, following the occupation of Greece by German and Italian forces, he joined ELAS, the People’s Liberation Army of Greece, whose guerrillas launched attacks against them.

In less than two years, he was a captain and had met Myrto Altinoglou, medical student and colleague. They finally married in 1953, after he had completed his musical studies at the conservatories of Athens and Paris.

Returning to Greece in the early 1960s, he led a revolution by mixing the country’s traditional folk music with the new language of political rebellion and mistrust. He said his works were the result of European, Greek and Cretan musical influences.

Alongside a dozen symphonies, chamber music and other works, Theodorakis left his mark with hymns of resistance and political persecution.

In 1970, after three years in prison following the military coup in Greece, international pressure – including protests from composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Miller – led to the release of Theodorakis. and his exile in France, although his music is still banned in France. his home country.

Theodorakis (right) arrived in the UK in 1970


A few months later he was conducting the London Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall for a performance of his triumph Walk of the Spirit, with words of poetry by Angelos Sikelianos. It is the start of four years of concerts around the world to raise funds for Greek democracy.

Later, that of Theodorakis Mauthausen Trilogy, a cycle of four tunes, was a haunting elegy for those who died during the Holocaust. With lyrics based on the works of the Greek poet Iakovos Kambanellis, who was imprisoned at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, it received its world premiere there in 1988.

The anthems were another outlet for his political flag: “Anthem for the Socialist Movement in Venezuela”; ” … for students ” ; “… of the French Socialist Party”; “Of the PLO”.

“Between 1950 and 1960, I composed exclusively symphonic music,” he says. “Between 1960 and 1980, only folk music. It was only since 1980 that I renewed my efforts to combine the two.

An example was Zorba, the story of a Greek traveler who loves life and is adored by women, and the latest of more than half a dozen ballet works he has written.

When it premiered in Verona in 1988, he was so upset to see his name on banners alongside other great Italian composers that he resolved to write operas dedicated to Verdi, Puccini and Bellini.

Medea (1991), Electra (1995) and Antigone (1998), which he described as “lyrical tragedies” about three ancient Greek figures, followed.

This body of work coincided with Theodorakis’ last term in the Hellenic Parliament. He was first elected in 1964 as a member of the left-wing EDA and then returned for the KKE, the Greek Communist Party (1981-86).

Then, he moved to the center-right New Democracy Party, first from 1989 to 1990, then was minister from 1990 to 1992 in a coalition government. He insisted that he was still on the left but had opposed the previous corrupt socialist government of Andreas Papandreou, which he described as “intemperate and greedy for power”.

Theodorakis is survived by his wife and their son and daughter, Yorgos and Margarita.

Mikis Theodorakis, composer, born July 29, 1925, died September 2, 2021

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