Monday, 6 September 2021

Mikis Theodorakis - composer and revolutionary


A three-day of national mourning has been declared following the death of Mikis Theodorakis on Thursday. Theodorakis was much more than Greece's favourite composer. He had become a symbol of modern Greece and the public's most beloved figure. His life mirrored the history of Greece in the 20th century and his life-long struggle for freedom, equality and justice, epitomised the struggle of the Greek people.

Born on the island of Chios in 1925, he knew from very early on that he was going to become a composer. His political involvement started very early too. He fought during WWII and was captured in Tripoli. He was tortured and when he was set free he joined the partisan army, EAM, the National Liberation Movement, and fought in the Greek Civil War (1945-49). Arrested, he was exiled on the island of Ikaria in 1947 and then, in 1948 he was transferred to the notorious prison camp on the island of Makronisos where he was tortured, including being buried alive. He barely survived. When he was released he moved to Paris to continue with his studies in music. He composed continuously.

He dreamt of writing music that would attract and at the same time elevate a working class audience, and for a decade or so he succeeded. For a composer who trained under Olivier Messiaen and began a promising career as a 'serious' composer with a commission for a ballet from Coven 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.

His decision to combine high art with low caught the public imagination and ushered in a new age of Greek music.

One of his favourite stories was of meeting an old man riding a donkey into a small mountain village, who, not recognising the composer, asked him where he could buy a record of  'that new work by Theodorakis: Axion Esti'. Theodorakis' setting of Odysseus Elytis' long poem was an ambitious work, combining classical, liturgical and popular music. The idea that a Greek peasant should have heard of it, let alone want to buy it, delighted him.

His concerts were furthermore, political events, often closed down by the police.

In 1963, Grigoris Lambrakis,  member of the Greek resistance to Axis rule during WWII MP, physician, track and field athlete, prominent anti-war activist and anti-fascist, was assassinated by two men were found to be on the police payroll. His assassination provoked mass protests and led to a political crisis. Theodorakis wrote the score for the Kostas Gavras' film Z, which was about the assassination of Lambrakis and which showed the connection between the far right and the security services.

When the military junta seized power, Theodorakis founded the underground movement 'Patriotic Front'. He was arrested, held in a prison camp in Oropos and was tortured. Following an international outcry he was released and exiled once more, abroad this time. His music was banned in Greece but people listened to it and it became an anthem of resistance. Whilst in Paris, he continued to compose music and organised more than 1,000 concerts across the globe, calling for resistance to the military dictatorship and for the restoration of democracy in Greece. Maria Farantouri, fellow activist and one of the artists who performed his songs and who was also in exile, said about that time: 'during the military dictatorship in Greece and just before it, I started singing with Mikis and all of our songs were about social justice, peace, solidarity and humanity'.

Immediately after the fall of the junta, Theodorakis returned to Greece and became an MP. At that time his compositional work focused mainly on large-scale song cycles, including Epitaphios, Epiphania, The Hostage, Zorba the Greek, Romiossini, Songs of the Struggle, March of the Spirit, State of Siege, Trojan Women, Axion Esti,

and Mauthausen (about the Nazi concentration camps)

and Canto General (based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda).

In 1988, at the age of 63, Theodorakis began a surprising new chapter in his life. He wrote three operas. The first one, Medea, was given its premiere in 1991 in Bilbao; Electra in Luxembourg in 1995; and Antigone in Thessaloniki in 1998. Long and demanding works, the operas are filled with fine melodies, often reworked from the composer's early popular songs.

He has put to music the work of international leading poets, such as Odysseas Elytis, Pablo Neruda, Brendan Behan, Frederico Garcia Lorca, George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos. He has composed the national anthem of Palestine. He has become a symbol of resistance proving that music has no borders. Throughout his life he remained true to his principles, never compromised, and fought during Greece's darkest and most difficult times, always hoping for a brighter future. No wonder he is such a loved and respected figure in Greek public life.

He has composed over 1000 songs. His repertoire also includes operas, film scores, and symphony music, Orestia, Missa Greca, Canto Olympico, Medea, Elektra.

His political resistance and struggle never wavered. The last demonstration he participated in was in 2012, along with Manolis Glezos, Syriza MP and the guy who at 19, during the Nazi occupation of Greece, took the swastika down from the Acropolis and raised the Greek flag. 'Glezos was walking, I was in a wheelchair. It was a rally against austerity, which was what pushed us into the present misery. Then the police threw tear gas and I got some in the face because I had stood up to see. I fell back in the wheelchair. Some young people tried to help me and they put a gas mask on my face, but it was too late. My lungs suffered great damage and I had to stay in bed for weeks. I'm not the young Mikis anymore'.

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