Voice of dissent a remote echo after death of heroic Greek artist

Greece Letter: Mikis Theodorakis considerably more than a citizen who did ‘his duty’

The best example of Theodorakis’s combination of music and politics is that of a policeman during the military dictatorship humming a Theodorakis melody within earshot of a passerby, whom he then arrested for listening to the outlawed music of the exiled composer. Photograph: Getty

The best example of Theodorakis’s combination of music and politics is that of a policeman during the military dictatorship humming a Theodorakis melody within earshot of a passerby, whom he then arrested for listening to the outlawed music of the exiled composer. Photograph: Getty

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The death last month of composer and politician Mikis Theodorakis at the age of 96 has highlighted the way we live by the power of a myth. When told of the death, prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis quipped: “We did not know you were mortal.”

Certainly Theodorakis was a living legend whose contribution to Greek and international culture and socialist thought was profound and pervasive. Yet it has been suggested that his mythological life is now outdated.

Although probably best known in the west for the film music of Zorba the Greek, Theodorakis was equally distinguished for the score for Z, Costas-Gavras’s film of the assassination of Theodorakis’s friend, the MP Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. It put Theodorakis into parliament, precipitated a political crisis and in many aspects foreshadowed the military coup of 1967, which sent Theodorakis into exile.

It was Theodorakis’s setting of Brendan Behan’s The Smiling Boy as a tribute to Lambrakis that motivated President Michael D Higgins to salute Theodorakis’s memory in his message to the Greek government and people immediately following the composer’s death.

Where Zorba celebrated the Greek spirit of freedom, Z challenged anything that threatened that freedom. His defiance of the unacceptable was already evident in his activity as a teenager during resistance to the Nazi occupation of his country.

A committed communist who was elected to parliament 1981-86 and 1989-93, he nevertheless briefly held office under a conservative prime minister. He condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia for which Greek communism denounced him. Equally, as a fervent nationalist, he incensed Greek nationalists for his collaboration with the Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli in a gesture of Greek-Turkish friendship.

He was an idealist with no fixed ideology, other than that of freedom and dignity. When asked how he defined himself, ideologically, he replied: “As a free man.”

Nothing was allowed to inhibit that freedom. As an enigmatic figure, Theodorakis characterised a country that lacks a strong central authority and which questions the legitimacy of any government, including one of which he was a member. It was for this that Greece observed three days of official mourning.

A champion of traditional music, he also composed in the classical genre: his operas Medea (1991), and Antigone (1999) in particular displayed his characteristic passion for questioning abuse of power and authority. Many of his symphonic works incorporated the human voice as his principal instrument. This is especially true of Epitafios, with words by fellow-communist Yannis Ritsos – with whom he was sent into internal exile during the civil war. Even when his songs are at their most lyrical and sensual, they are expressive of defiance.

Yet Theodorakis’s death occasioned negative comment. The editor of Kathimerini, Alexis Papachelas, while acknowledging and celebrating the “myth” of Theodorakis, argued that “such myths are now finished. Theodorakis was Greece’s last enduring myth”. It’s as if Theodorakis, as a coefficient of freedom, had outlived his usefulness.

He once said “I have always lived with two sounds – the political and the musical.” It was when he combined them, in his operas and song-cycles in particular, that his life and his art became one. This symbiosis of music and politics became the myth, a myth which the Greek right would like to simultaneously acknowledge and deny.

The best example of the combination of music and politics is the story of a policeman during the military dictatorship humming a Theodorakis melody in the hearing of a passerby, whom he then arrested for listening to the outlawed music of the exiled composer.

Very few composers have succeeded in combining high art with popular culture. One thinks perhaps of songwriters like Schubert or Lennon and McCartney, with whom Theodorakis can be compared.

It is perhaps the fact that he made classical music in a popular vein (or vice versa) that estranged him from the political right that is now so evidently in the driving seat, with its own idea of what is sophisticated and “politically correct”.

Theodorakis himself said: “I’m not a hero. Heroes die young.” But, knowing his public profile, he added: “I am just a citizen who does his duty.” That duty involved the responsibility of writing music on a heroic scale. He made himself available as the voice of dissent. His music became the soundtrack of a nation.

Last year also saw the death of Manolis Gletsos (97), who removed the Nazi flag from the Parthenon in 1943; he too went into parliament and became an MEP at the age of 91. If Greece is to relegate heroes such as Gletsos and Theodorakis to the history books, with no place in today’s social or political context, then equally poets such as Yannis Ritsos no longer have a place in the living fabric of Greek culture. Many Greeks would insist that they still need such heroes.

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