Mikis Theodorakis, whose death was announced today, was one of the most important Greek composers of the twentieth century. Music and politics played a key role in his life. In total he composed an oeuvre of more than 1000 works, ranging from film music to opera. In the Netherlands he was best known for the song La danse de Zorba that he wrote for the movie Zorba the Greek (1964).
His musical passion combined Theodorakis with a strong political commitment. In the 1960s he was a member of the Greek parliament and after the army took power in 1967 he became active in the underground resistance against the junta. In the end he was banned from Greece.
His strong convictions were not limited to Greek politics. He spoke out against the Gulf War and supported Serbia in the Balkan War. An anti-Zionist, he condemned Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and opposed Greek Prime Minister Papandreou when he strengthened ties with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The traditional Greek folk music and the Byzantine liturgy with which he grew up sparked his musical interest at an early age. Even before he could play an instrument, Theodorakis was already composing music. He founded a choir with which he gave his first concert when he was seventeen.
During World War II, Theodorakis was active in the Greek resistance and during the immediately following Greek Civil War, he was a member of the far-left Greek People’s Army of National Liberation. For that reason, he was imprisoned and severely tortured. He was buried alive twice.
While he was not wanted or imprisoned, Theodorakis studied at the Athens Conservatory, where he graduated in 1950. A few years later he left for Paris, where he studied music analysis at the conservatory with the French composer Olivier Messiaen.
In 1960 Theodorakis returned to Greece where he wrote his song cycle epitaphios caused a revolution in Greek music. He developed the concept of ‘metasymphonic music’, mixing symphonic compositions with popular music and Greek instruments.
In 1964 he wrote the music to Michael Cacoyannis’ film Zorba the Greek. La danse de Zorba, largely based on the sirtaki from Crete, became a great international success.
In the Netherlands, the song was in the top 40 for weeks. The singer visited the cabaret during a visit to the Netherlands Shaffy Chantant and met chansonnière Liesbeth List there. This resulted in a collaboration from which the album Liesbeth List sings Theodorakis came forth.
He also wrote the famous Mauthausen trilogy, named after the Nazi concentration camp of the same name in Austria. This cycle of four arias, based on the poems of Mauthausen survivor Iakovos Kambanellis, is considered by many to be the finest musical work ever written about the Holocaust.
After his return to Greece, Theodorakis founded a democratic youth party and took a seat in the Greek parliament. When the colonial regime in Greece took power in 1967 after a coup d’état, Theodorakis went into hiding and set up a resistance group. He was soon arrested and imprisoned in several places, including a concentration camp in Oros. In that period it was forbidden in Greece to play or listen to Theodorakis’ music.
Famous composers and artists such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and Harry Belafonte put great pressure on the regime to release him, which happened in 1970. He had to leave Greece.
He left for Paris with his wife and children, where he was immediately hospitalized with tuberculosis on arrival.
The composer also continued to fight against the colonel’s regime outside Greece. He gave thousands of concerts around the world, spoke to important political leaders and was regarded by many as the figurehead of the resistance against the colonel’s regime.
After the fall of the colonel’s regime in 1974, Theodorakis returned to Greece where, in addition to his musical work, he also resumed his political career. He was a member of the Greek parliament for several periods and from 1990 to 1992 he was a minister in the government of Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis.
After his return he was still mainly involved in classical music. He wrote his first opera, Kostas Kariotakis, the ballet Zorba the Greek and several symphonies. He also worked on his five-volume autobiography. During this period, the Soviet Union awarded him the International Lenin Peace Prize.
In 2006 he composed the song cycle Odyssey which was released in 2007 in a rendition by the Greek singer Maria Farantouri. That same year, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Flanders-Ghent International Film Festival.
After that time, Theodorakis decided to take it easy. His last work is the film music for Recycling Medea by Asteris Kutulas in 2013.
In June 2017, Theodorakis appeared in public as the conductor of a thousand-member choir from thirty cities that came to honor him at the Panathinaiko stadium in Athens. He was then 92 years old.
Mikis Theodorakis is 96 years old. Three days of national mourning have been declared in Greece.
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