An appreciation by Dr Zannetos Tofallis
On the 29th July 2015 – Mikis Theodorakis, the Greek composer, resistance hero and humanist who has mixed music with politics for most of his career, will celebrate his 91st birthday. With him the whole world will celebrate the joy of life, of humanity and better days for the human race as a whole.
Here is a small appreciation of the Man, the Artist and the Fighter: I had an opportunity to meet him, to present his concerts at the Royal Albert hall, to translate some of his songs and chapters from his books. But above all, I am his many admirers!
Mikis Theodorakis was born on the Greek island of Chios, on 29 July 1925. His father was a Cretan and his mother came from Smyrna. He spent his childhood years in different provincial cities of Greece like Mytilene, Kefalonia, Pyrgos, Patras and mainly Tripolis.
Since that time it became apparent that his life would be shared equally by music and his shrugs championing for the benefit of Man.
In Tripolis, at the age of just seventeen, he presents his first concert with his work Kassiane and takes part in the resistance against the occupying forces. In the great demonstration of 25 March 1943, he is arrested for the first time by the Italians and is tortured.
He escapes to Athens, joins the National Liberation Front (EAM) and fights against the Nazi occupying forces. At the same time he studies music at the Athens Conservatory under Professor Philoctetes Economides. After the liberation, the Greek civil war breaks out. He goes underground, is exiled to the island of Ikaria and twice to the island of Makronissos and is hospitalized. Finally he graduates from the Athens Conservatory in 1950 – his diploma is in harmony, counterpoint and fugue.
In 1954 he wins a scholarship and goes to Paris for studies at the Conservatoire. He studies musical analysis under Olivier Messiaen and orchestra direction under Eugene Bigot.
During the period 1954-60 Theodorakis is intensely active in the realm of European music. He composes music for the Ludmilla Tcherina Ballet, for the Covent Garden, the Stuttgard Ballet and for the cinema.
In 1957 he is awarded the First Prize at the Moscow Festival contest by Shostakovich. At the same time he composes many symphonic works as well as chamber music. In 1960 he establishes himself in Greece. He has already set to music “The Epitaph” by Yannis Ritsos, which marks his “turning point” to the popular song. He founds the “Small Symphony Orchestra of Athens” and presents many concerts throughout Greece, in an effort to familiarize the audiences with the masterpieces of symphonic music.
After the murder of the Parliament Member Grigoris Lambrakis, “The Lambrakis Youth” is founded and Theodorakis is elected President. At the same time he is elected Parliament Member of the United Democratic Left party (EDA). On 21 April 1967 he goes underground and addresses his first appeal to the people for resistance against the dictatorship of 21 April. In May of 1967 he founds with others, PAM, the first resistance organization against the dictatorship, and is elected its president.
He is arrested in August of 1967. He is imprisoned in isolation in the notorious Bouboulina street security prison and afterwards in the Averoff prison. There follow the great hunger strike, hospitalization, release from prison, house arrest, exile with his family on mountainous Zatouna in Arcadia, Oropos camp. All this time he is incessantly composing. And he succeeds in sending abroad through various channels, many of his new works, which are performed by Maria Farantouri and Melina Merkouri.
At the Oropos camp his health deteriorates seriously. A surge of protest is mounted abroad. Personalities like Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, Yves Montand and others champion his liberation. Finally, under this pressure, in April 1970, he is released and goes to Paris.
While abroad, Theodorakis devotes his entire time barnstorming all over the world with concerts, meetings with country leaders and personalities, interviews and statements about the fall of the dictatorship and the return of democracy in Greece. His concerts become a tribune of protest and vindication also for other people confronted with similar problems: Spaniards, Portuguese, Iranians, Kurds, Turks, Chileans, and Palestinians. His conviction has always been that freedom and democracy are indispensable prerequisites for the strengthening of peace. War can be avoided only by free people who alone can determine their own destiny.
In 1972 he visits Israel and gives concerts. He has a meeting with the Vice-President Alon who asks him to carry a message to Arafat. Immediately afterwards he meets Arafat to whom he delivers the message of the Government of Israel and makes efforts to persuade him to start discussions with the other side. Since then, he played many times the role of the informal ambassador between the two sides.
It is significant that in 1994, in Oslo, the signature of the agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in the presence of Peres and Arafat was celebrated by a performance of “Mauthausen” (which in the meantime has become in Israel a “national song”) and the “Hymn for Palestine” which Theodorakis composed. This performance was given in recognition of Theodorakis’ contribution to the cause of peace in that geographical area.
He also visits Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria in an effort to reinforce the dialogue between the warring parties. With the fall of the dictatorship, in 1974, he returns to Greece. He is continuously composing music. He gives many concerts both in Greece and abroad. At the same time he participates in public affaires either as a citizen or as a parliament member [1981-86 (resignation) and 1989-92 (resignation)] or as a Minister of State [1990-92 (resignation)].
In 1976 he founds the Movement for Culture and Peace and gives concerts throughout Greece. In 1983 he is awarded the Lenin Prize for Peace. In 1986, something is realized which he had supported in his interviews since 1970: the creation of committees for the Greek-Turkish friendship, in Greece under his presidency and in Turkey with the participation of eminent intellectuals such as Aziz Nessin and Yasser Kemal.
Theodorakis gives in Turkey many concerts, attended mainly by young people bringing slogans in support of the friendship between the two peoples. Later on, he assumes again the role of the informal ambassador for peace, carrying messages of the Greek Prime-ministers A. Papandreou and K. Mitsotakis to the Turkish government. Also, in 1986 (after the Chernobyl disaster) he organized a great concert tour throughout Europe against nuclear power.
It was due to his initiative that in 1988, two congresses for peace are organized in Tübingen and Cologne, Germany. Among the participants are politicians, like Oskar Lafontaine and Johannes Rau, philosophers like Düerrenmatt, writers, political scientists and artists. In these congresses he has the opportunity to present his theory on free time and its importance in the development of free people.
In 1990 he gives 36 concerts throughout Europe under the aegis of Amnesty International. He continues giving concerts for the cause of solar energy (under the aegis of Eurosolar), against illiteracy, against drugs, etc. At the same time, he fights for the human rights in other countries and especially in the neighbouring countries of Albania (which he visits also as a Minister for the sake of Greek minority rights) and Turkey. As President of the International Committee in Paris, he makes successful efforts for the liberation of the Turkish opposition leaders Koutlou and Sargin.
He proposes the organization at Delphi of a Pan-European Congress for Peace and submits to the Greek government a project plan for a “Cultural Olympiad”. He founds a committee of support and assistance to the Kurdish people.
During the following years, his operas “Elektra” (1995) and “Antigone” (1999) are presented. At the same time, he develops numerous activities abroad (Europe, South Africa, America) and makes statements to all important events of this period (Greek-Turkish friendship, earthquakes, bombardments in Yugoslavia, affair Ocalan, war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq etc.).
In the same year, he is a candidate for the Peace Nobel Prize. The political and intellectual leadership of Greece and Cyprus supports unanimously his candidature, while in Norway, continuously letters arrive in the offices of Committee for the Nobel Prize from all parts of the world issued from personalities, institutions and simple citizens. In 2002 his opera “Lysistrata”, is performed as a genuine anthem for Peace.
In 1998, during a tour in USA and Canada for the support of a Cultural Centre of the Americans of Greek descent, the President and the Faculty of the Quebec University receive him with a unanimous citation and award to him the honorary doctorate for his contribution to culture and his struggles for the cause of Man.
Mikis Theodorakis was prolific in all genders of music: operas, symphonic music, chamber music, oratorios, ballets, choral church music, and music for the ancient Greek Drama, music for the theatre, for the cinema, artistic popular songs and meta-symphonic works.
He has also written many books which were translated into many languages. He is still producing top-selling albums that appeal as much to young Greeks as to their parents. His latest offering, Asikiko Poulaki, with its Anatolian rhythms and melancholy lyrics, goes back to the roots of Modern Greek music – the rebetika songs created during the 1920s and 1930s wars by cafe musicians who rarely achieved fortune or fame. The album features Vassilis Lekkas, a relative newcomer in the long line of talented vocalists discovered by Theodorakis, many of whom have had no formal musical training.
Almost all Theodorakis’ vocalists turned up to sing at a special seventieth birthday concert in Athens last summer. Several thousand Greeks and foreigners holding lighted candles crammed the marble stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were staged, to listen to some of the composer’s best-known work. The program ranged from Zorba the Greek, the catchy film score that made his international reputation in the 1960s, to the solemn strains of the “Axion Esti”, an ambitious choral work based on a long poem by Nobel Prize winner Odysseus Elytis.
Theodorakis is as imposing as ever on the podium – a bulky figure in a voluminous black shirt, who conducts with his arms rather than a baton. He clearly enjoys working with massed choirs and a large orchestra where bouzouki players and other traditional Greek instrumentalists take precedence over the violinists
Theodorakis is now recording another new album in Berlin, this time with Maria Farantouri, who has interpreted his songs for more than 20 years. And in his spare moments he is working on an opera. Friends say Theodorakis has returned to music with undiminished enthusiasm since giving up politics. A former communist deputy in the Greek Parliament, he gave up his last political post – as a minister without a portfolio in a centre-right government – four years ago. But he still feels involved. He made a passionate plea for reconciliation between Greece and Turkey after the recent flare-up over the Imia islets in the Aegean.
Theodorakis learned Byzantine chants as an Orthodox choirboy, but wrote his first songs as a teenager on the island of Kefalonia, one of the few places in Greece where Western music was played. His musical studies were interrupted by hard labour on the barren prison islands where Greece’s communists were exiled after their defeat in the 1940s civil war. Eventually he made his way to Paris to study.
His early work was strongly influenced by Bartók and Stravinsky’s music, but instead of becoming an international virtuoso, he came home to create a new style of Greek music. Theodorakis went in search of a melody based on Greek tradition.
He says, “A genuine and truthful composer is one who gives birth to genuine and true melodies.” His list starts with Monteverdi and Vivaldi and winds up with Gershwin and Bob Dylan. His symphonic work uses traditional Greek instruments, Byzantine rather than Western scales, and a diverse group of singers. Theodorakis has long preferred to work from a poetic text, saying they give his longer compositions a cohesiveness that might otherwise be lacking.
But however well-respected Theodorakis’s symphonies, oratorios, and operas have become, he has never lost his popular appeal. The Greeks are still whistling the melodies of his early songs. The name of Theodorakis will live for ever, Greece and the world should be proud of a wonderful artist, man and humanitarian.
Congratulations, Mikis, May you live a Thousand Creative Years! Greece and the whole World are proud of you!