Mikis Theodorakis obituary: Classical composer and political symbol

Gifted composer’s memorable film scores include Zorba the Greek and Serpico

Mikis Theodorakis in Paris in 1970: Theodorakis was always conspicuous in Greece. He stood a head taller than most of his compatriots, and his political and artistic decisions were almost always controversial. Photograph: Bertrand Laforet/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Mikis Theodorakis in Paris in 1970: Theodorakis was always conspicuous in Greece. He stood a head taller than most of his compatriots, and his political and artistic decisions were almost always controversial. Photograph: Bertrand Laforet/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

 

Born: July 29th, 1925 
Died: September 2nd, 2021

For those with only a nodding acquaintance with Greece and Greek music, the name of Mikis Theodorakis, who has died aged 96, still conjures up Zorba the Greek and that moment on a Cretan beach when Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates break into an ecstatic dance. It was often hard for the classically trained composer to live down his image as a writer of memorable film scores. Despite the performance of his operas, symphonies and songs in some of the major concert halls of Europe, Theodorakis remained, for many, the man who wrote the catchy bouzouki music of Zorba and the Costa-Gavras film Z.

For those who remember the 1967-74 military dictatorship in Greece, he was also a symbol of resistance to that regime. But Theodorakis was much more than a political symbol and a writer of film scores. He was a composer of great melodic gifts: he composed more songs than Schubert and the best of them – his setting of Brendan Behan’s The Laughing Boy as well as works by Lorca, Seferis, Kambanellis, Elytis and Ritsos – do not suffer by the comparison. It may be that his other works will one day occupy a place in the repertoire of 20th-century classical composition, but his songs will undoubtedly remain the most enduring legacy of the man known to his friends simply as opsilos – the tall one.

Like many of his fellow artists and intellectuals in Greece, Theodorakis was inspired by Marxist ideals. He dreamed of writing music that would attract and at the same time elevate a working-class audience, and for a decade or so he succeeded

Theodorakis was always conspicuous in Greece. He stood a head taller than most of his compatriots, and his political and artistic decisions were almost always controversial. For a composer who trained under Olivier Messiaen and began a promising career as a “serious” composer with a commission for a ballet from Covent Garden in 1958, it was a fateful and unexpected step to turn to the low-class bouzouki music of his country and use it as the basis for his songs.

Like many of his fellow artists and intellectuals in Greece, Theodorakis was inspired by Marxist ideals. He dreamed of writing music that would attract and at the same time elevate a working-class audience, and for a decade or so he succeeded.

Theodorakis’s decision to combine high art with low caught the public imagination and ushered in a new age of Greek music. Other Greek composers such as Manos Hadjidakis, Yannis Markopoulos and Dionysis Savvopoulos were also writing fine popular songs. Theodorakis was not only the most gifted of these composers, but the one whose music was always linked to the left-wing cause. His concerts were political events, often closed down by the police. The murder of his friend Grigoris Lambrakis, the politician and anti-fascist, by two men found to be on the police payroll (the events dramatised in the film Z), inspired Theodorakis to form a new left-wing organisation, the Lambrakis Youth Movement.

When the 1967 coup d’etat put a stop to the brief spring of Greek democracy, one of the first ordinances passed by the military rulers was a complete ban on the composer’s music. Theodorakis went into hiding, but was soon arrested, imprisoned and eventually exiled from Greece.

Imprisonment was something the composer was used to: his life was marked by a series of clashes with authority. Theodorakis was the son of a Cretan civil servant, Giorgios Theodorakis, a lifelong supporter of the anti-monarchist leader Eleftherios Venizelos. Theodorakis senior was serving in a government post in Smyrna when the Greek-Turkish War of 1919 broke out. He and his young fiancée, Aspasia Poulakis, escaped the burning city in a small boat and settled on the nearby island of Chios, where their first child, Mikis, was born.

The young Theodorakis spent his childhood moving from town to town in Greece according to where his father was stationed. When the Germans occupied Greece during the second World War, he was already composing his first choral works and had joined a youth group allied to the partisan resistance. By 1944 he was a captain in the partisan army ELAS. It was then he fell in love with a young medical student and fellow member of the resistance, Myrto Altinoglou.

Theodorakis began to study composition at the Athens conservatory, but continued his underground political activities. He escaped arrest in the December street battles when British troops attacked the left-wing forces that had led the resistance against the Germans, but was captured and tortured first in 1945, and again in 1946, when he was so severely beaten that he was presumed dead.

During the Greek civil war he spent months in the prison camps established on Aegean islands, including two periods in the notorious Makronisos camp, where prisoners were tortured or shot unless they signed statements renouncing communism.

He was released at the end of the war, and graduated from the Athens conservatory in 1950. He began composing ballets and film scores, and working on his first symphony. In 1952 he married Myrto and both won French government scholarships: she to study radiology at the Curie foundation, he, composition at the Paris conservatoire.

The young couple were not destined to pursue traditional careers. Their first child, Margarita, was born in 1958, putting an end to Myrto’s career as a scientist. And in 1959, despite his youthful success, Theodorakis found himself dissatisfied with the esoteric world of contemporary classical music and decided to return home to play an active part in Greece’s cultural and political development.

Much of his later career was devoted to the dream of revitalising the music of his own country. He began with an attack on the musical establishment of Athens, and followed it up with his provocative setting of a poem by Yannis Ritsos, Epitaphios. His use of a bouzouki and a popular nightclub singer to record the music created a storm in Greek intellectual circles.

With the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, Theodorakis returned to Greece a hero, but he soon found himself under attack in his own country

In the years that followed Theodorakis produced an astounding volume of music. The international fame brought by the 1964 film score for Zorba probably ensured that he was imprisoned for only a brief period during the dictatorship, after which he was placed under house arrest in a remote village in the mountains of Arcadia. Even from there he managed to smuggle tapes and messages attacking the regime to the outside world. When Costa-Gavras sent him the scenario for the film Z (1969), it was confiscated by the authorities, but Theodorakis was able to get a message to the director indicating which of his songs should be used in the soundtrack.

After his release Theodorakis and his family left for Paris and he began touring the world giving concerts with his band. It was during these years, 1970-74, that international audiences became familiar with his work. There continued to be film and TV scores, notably Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), starring Al Pacino as a whistleblower cop.

With the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, Theodorakis returned to Greece a hero, but he soon found himself under attack in his own country. Although an avowed Marxist, he had condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops. He was seen to have lent support to the new conservative prime minister by saying that the people faced a choice between “Karamanlis or the tanks”. The Greek Communist party attacked him as a traitor, an accusation that would be repeated when he collaborated with the Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli and when he joined the conservative government of Konstantinos Mitsotakis during the early 1990s. Theodorakis’s politics may have been naive, but they were generally inspired by idealism, and by a belief that he could act as a go-between and bring peace to his troubled country.

In later years, Theodorakis suffered from health problems that forced him to cancel most of his conducting engagements, but he continued to compose occasional new works, including the 2006 song-cycle Odysseia. He gave extensive interviews on Greek television and made regular statements to the Greek press on political events, often taking a stance that made him unpopular with his former supporters.

Theodorakis is survived by Myrto, his daughter, Margarita, his son, Yorgos, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

– Guardian