Obituary: Mikis Theodorakis, figurehead of Greek culture who survived persecution

Died: September 2, 2021.

MIKIS Theodorakis, who has died aged 96, was a composer whose idealistic vision of fusing classical and popular music came to embody an oppositionist Greek spirit, even as it confounded artistic expectations.

He channelled his philosophy into his infectiously catchy, bouzouki-based, score for Michael Cacoyannis’s film, Zorba the Greek (1964). By far his most famous composition, Zorba’s Dance, was based on a Greek folk dance, the sirtaki, and in the film it saw Anthony Quinn dance with Alan Bates on the beach. The tune caught the popular imagination, and became a symbol of Greek bonhomie across the globe.

Zorba was the most high-profile example of his maverick vision, which he applied to his politics as much as his art. He was a passionate advocate of left-wing causes that saw him hold public office, where he attempted to bridge leftism with less radical forces.

His partisan spirit nevertheless survived a volatile and tumultuous era in Greek politics, in which he suffered at first hand. When Greece was occupied by Germany during the Second World War, he combined studying composition at Athens University with an active role in the resistance. He was captured and tortured, and spent months in a prison camp.

This was a foretaste of things to come, when he was imprisoned again following the takeover of Greece by the military junta that ruled the country from 1967 until its collapse in 1974.

His work was banned in Greece during that time, though while under house arrest he provided the soundtrack to Z (1969), Costa-Gavras’s fictionalisation of events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. A close comrade of Theodorakis, Lambrakis was run down by hard-line right-wingers on a motorcycle during a peace rally.

The music for Z included extracts from the Mauthausen Trilogy (1965), a cycle of four arias once described as the most beautiful musical work written in response to the Holocaust.

In 1973, Theodorakis was brought in by Hollywood director Sidney Lumet to provide a score for Serpico (1973), another true-life thriller about police corruption that tapped into the era’s sense of institutional unrest.

At that time, Theodorakis was exiled in France, composing and touring the world with concerts of his work to help highlight the plight of his homeland and the possibilities for change. Following the junta’s collapse, he returned to Greece in triumph, as his no-longer-forbidden music became a totem of liberation.

He was elected to the Greek parliament, both with the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), then as an independent candidate within the New Democracy party, where he helped form a coalition between conservatives, socialists and leftists. In 2010, he founded Spitha: People’s Independent Movement, and spoke out against the Greek government and its handling of its economic crisis.

Throughout all this, he kept composing, producing more than 1,000 works during his lifetime. These were a heady mix of operas, symphonies, ballets, marches for protests and people’s anthems. Such a vast and diverse catalogue of works made him a figurehead of Greek culture, who thrived creatively and politically despite the brutalisation he had endured.

Michail George Theodorakis was born on the Greek island of Chios, where his father, Giorgios Theodorakis and mother, Aspasia Poulakis, had fled from Smyrna after the Greek-Turkish war of 1919 broke out. The elder of two sons, he was exposed to Greek folk music and Byzantine liturgy through his mother’s influence. He began writing songs from an early age, and gave his first concert aged 17.

After studying composition at Athens University, he became head of the Chania Music School in Crete, and founded his first orchestra. In Paris, he studied under Olivier Messiaen. He provided the scores for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film, Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), and for Honeymoon (1959), directed by Powell.

In 1959, his ballet, Antigone, was performed at London’s Covent Garden. In the years that followed, he drew ever more from his Greek roots in his work, fusing symphonic elements with popular songs and using traditional instruments.

This spearheaded a cultural renaissance after he founded the Lambrakis Democratic Youth, named in honour of his murdered friend. He was first elected to the Greek parliament in 1964, though his association with the United Democratic Left party saw some of his work blacklisted by the artistic establishment. Zorba the Greek transcended such restrictions.

Following his heroic return from exile, he attempted to unify the left, and in 1983 was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. He wrote symphonic works, and left the Communist Party in 1988 in protest at government scandals. He worked with conservatives before returning to the socialist fold in 1992.

He became director of the choir and two orchestras of the Hellenic state radio, and looked to Greek classics for a trilogy of operas, Medea (1991), Elektra (1995), and Antigone (1999). He followed these in 2002 with Lysistrata.

Theodorakis wrote books on music and politics, and penned a five-volume autobiography, The Ways of the Archangel (1985-1995). In his later years, he spoke out against the Iraq war and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, retaining his revolutionary spirit till the end.

He is survived by his wife, Myrto Altinoglou, their daughter, Margarita, their son, Yorgos, five grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992