In Memoriam: Mikis Theodorakis

Foto Theodorakis
News 02 Sep 2021
Greek composer, author and politician Mikis Theodorakis has passed away at the age of 96 in Athens. Hij composed more than 1000 songs, cantates, operas and oratorios, music for ballet and for some sixty movies. His oeuvre can be considered a musical history of Greece. Yet Theodorakis wasn't just an acclaimed artist, he was also an outspoken political activist. He received many prestigious peace and music award. In 2007 he received the World Soundtrack Lifetime Achievement Award.
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The first two notes of Zorba's Dance from the Oscar winning film Zorba the Greek are two of the most recognisable in the world and ensured Mikis Theodorakis of immortality. Mikis Theodorakis' music for Zorba the Greek will come to life at Film Fest Gent 2021 during the Great Greek Composers concert, Friday 22 October at Opera Ghent.

Mikis Theodorakis: striving for hope and harmony

Mikis Theodorakis was a great man, literally as well as figuratively. Hij was a giant of a man in which a composer, an author, a conductor, a politician, a Greek citizen and a citizen of the world were housed. Hij was an activist who resisted the nazis, fascists and colonels, was exiled and reacted against injustice with an intellectual discourse but above all with his powerful art. He was a god, but not a saint. His anarchy seduced him into foolhardy statements, which weren't taken kindly either by the right or the left. His drive? Striving for harmony, solidarity and peace, all of which he did not find in the world he lived in, but did seem to notice in space.

Theodorakis, born on 29 July 1925 on the Greek island of Chios, thought - as a child - that it was not fair that people couldn't fly. He wanted to travel to the stars, of which his father had such magnificent stories. Even then, rebellion was burning inside him: he still treid to fly, by climbing a wall and frantically waving his arms while jumping off it. He broke both his arms. The more grounded world of music seemed more within reach. As a teenager, he couldn't yet play an instrument, but he did learn himself to compose music.

Buried Alive

The story goes he started composing after hearing a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He gave his first concert at the age of 17 in Tripoli. After wanderings in various Greek cities and their music schools, he ended up in the music conservatory of Athens in 1943. He graduated in 1950. However, studying did not go smoothly if you know that while enrolled, he fought against the Germans during the Second World War and joined the left-wing resistance during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949). He was captured and imprisoned. In his autobiography The Ways of the Archangel he recounts how he was buried alive twice. It was the first but not the last time he was tortured.

Awards and Ballet

In 1954 he moved to Paris, again for the first but not the last time. Initially, he came to study at the conservatory where he took lessons with Olivier Messiaen, one of the most important composers and organists of the last century. In his first Parisian period, he mainly enjoyed international success with his ballet music. His Antigone was performed 150 times in London's Covent Garden. He has been awarded international music prizes, including by a jury chaired by Dimitri Shostakovich. His first film score, Michael Powell's Ill Met by Moonlight, also dates from that first Parisian period. Little did he know then that Paris would become his place of exile so many years later.

Cultural Revolution

In 1960 he returned to Greece, which didn't go without notice, as he caused an actual cultural revolution. He put Greek poems to music. Those songs are among the best and the most popular songs that Theodorakis ever composed. His songs are, as he said himself, dearest to him. He based his work on the poetry of, among others, Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, winners of the Nobel Prize in literature. Poetry was taught to the Greeks by the popular songs of Mikis Theodorakis.

Zorba's Dance

The first half of the sixties was an extremely creative time for Mikis Theodorakis. He became world famous. That happened in 1964 when he composed the music for Zorba the Greek by Michael Cacoyannis. Zorba's vitalistic, Dionysian, obsessive and compelling sirtaki took on iconic allures and introduced the world to the bouzouki, a stringed and plucked instrument from Greek folklore. Since then, Zorba's dance has been part of the cultural collective memory. Curiously, the score for Zorba was not initially on Theodorakis' personal list of his body of work, concluded the compiler of that list, Asteris Koutoulas. Koutoulas had been friends with Theodorakis for many years, and knew him through. When asked, Theodorakis said that his film music was entirely in the service of the image and was conceived according to the filmmaker's wishes. And so it didn't really belong to him, but to the movie. Perhaps a noble and generous thought, but Koutoulas ensured that the film music became an integral part of the varied oeuvre of the late filmmaker.

Cultural mélange

Theodorakis composed music for some sixty films. He considered film to be the contemporary version of ancient Greek tragedy. He felt at home with Michael Cacoyannis when he was allowed to provide contemporary music for film versions of classical pieces such as Phaedra, Elektra, The Trojan Women and Iphigenia. When composing, he often started from Greek folklore and gave it, either instrumentally or orchestrally, a jazzy touch. That cultural mélange actually became his trademark. The score for Serpico by Sidney Lumet is a striking example of this. Lumet did not want music, but producer Dino De Laurentiis insisted. Lumet, thinking of Zorba the Greek, put Theodorakis forward. He wanted to compose the music but was unable to perform or orchestrate it. Through Quincy Jones, Lumet ended up with a young jazz arranger - Bob James - who took the score to the now well-known next level. Wonderful to listen to.


Of course we must not forget his work for Z and for État de Siège by Costa-Gavras, films of political soul mates. Because the composer was imprisoned when Z was being shot, Costa-Gavras drew on pre-existing music by Theodorakis, who only started composing after seeing the movie. For État de Siège, which is set in South America, Theodorakis was present, and had his music performed on South American instruments. In the field of film music, his drive was still to bring together and to harmonise.

The Ballad of Mauthausen

Back now to the sixties and the memorable year 1965, with the composition of the Ballad of Mauthausen. Zorba made Theodorakis world famous, but the Mauthausen songs made him immortal. They are based on poems by Iakovos Kambanellis who survived the Mauthausen concentration camp. He first described his experiences in novel form and from this he distilled his poems. In it he talks about his search for his Jewish-Lithuanian lover. The most famous song is Asma Asmaton (Song of Songs) which contains lyrics from the Biblical Song of Songs. When setting it to music, Theodorakis used passages from the Orthodox liturgy for Palm Sunday.

The Voice

The Ballad of Mauthausen is among the most beautiful work that Theodorakis ever composed. No song depicts the tragedy of the Holocaust as poignantly as this cycle. In its chilling beauty, it brings people together all over the world. But with text and music comes a voice, which makes this the perfect opportunity to underline the importance of Maria Farantouris in the career of Theodorakis. She is the Theodorakis interpreter par excellence. He discovered her when she started soprano training at 16. He took her under his wing and tempted her into a career switch that she never regretted. Theodorakis had an ear for a voice and he proved it again when he once asked Liesbeth List to sing the Mauthausen songs.


As mentioned, Theodorakis chose his songs when he had to choose his favourite of the different genres he ventured into. He composed more than a thousand of them and sometimes grouped them under a certain title or denominator. For example, there are remembrance songs and songs about the living dead. That's what he called his compositions in which he honours his fallen or even murdered friends. There are also resistance songs that denounce oppressive regimes. With the junta of the colonels in 1967, Theodorakis did not have to look far for his inspiration. He was one of their first victims, lived in hiding, was imprisoned and placed under house arrest. His music was banned, anyone who listened to it could end up in jail, his albums disappeared from the shelves and were even destroyed.


His fate provoked international protests and, under pressure from the cultural world, he was finally allowed to leave for Paris on an Onassis plane. He stayed there with his family until 1974, when the colonels' rule came to an end. Theodorakis' public political career began. He became a member of parliament and even a minister. In between he traveled around the world to give concerts, also in our country. Theodorakis became a celebrated personality, but he occasionally caused controversy with his political choices. Even in the GDR he was persona non grata for a while. The artist faded away, Koutoulas concludes, as the politician took the upper hand.

Musical roots

But Theodorakis continued to compose. He wrote operas himself - he who, as a child, was afraid of opera arias - which he preferred to call "lyrical tragedies". Judging by titles like Elektra, Medea, Antigone and Lysistrata, Greek mythology was again a source of inspiration. But his musical examples - Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert - came from Germany. Like them, he composed symphonies, cantatas and oratorios. Without always adhering to the laws of the genres. He did not hesitate to mix instruments and elements from folklore and folk music with classical instruments. He described this new musical form as meta symphonic music.


Mixing, bringing together and making connections are keywords in the oeuvre of Theodorakis, as well as in his political and personal commitment. Hence his efforts to reconcile Israel and the Palestinians, or, closer to home, Greece and Turkey. He was a staunch supporter of Turkey's accession to Europe and campaigned for a solution to the Cyprus problem, the island which is divided into both Turkish and Greek parts and where tensions sometimes run high. Culture was his main weapon and he found an ally in the Turkish poet Zülfü Livaneli. Until he fell ill a few years ago, he also raised his voice loudly against the draconian austerity measures Europe imposed on Greece when it threatened to collapse financially. Even in his nineties he was protesting in Syntagma Square in Athens, gas mask on and in his wheelchair. A “song of the resistance” was no longer on the table. Zorba hadn't been dancing for a while. However, hundreds of thousands have adopted his sirtaki passes and countless listen to the hopeful beauty of the Ballad of Mauthausen. Mikis Theodorakis was a man of hope.

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Raf Butstraen

With decades of film history behind him, former film critic Raf Butstraen is the ideal man to bring the latest film news for Film Fest Ghent.