Oscar-winning music composer Zorba the Greek Mikis Theodorakis dies: tribute

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Influential Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis died at the age of 96 in hospital, the Greek Culture Ministry confirmed on September 2. Many people associate the composer’s name with the famous soundtrack of the three-time Oscar-winning film.

Zorba the Greek

(1964). The music made Theodorakis famous all over the world and the film became a classic.

For non-Greeks, the “Sirtaki”, a dance that appears in the film, has become synonymous with Greek folk dance – although the choreography was invented for the film.

Theodorakis has composed a vast body of works, including over a thousand songs, most of them based on Greek poems, which are now part of the country’s cultural heritage. His simple and emotional folk songs rooted in Greek texts and tradition have made him a symbolic figure in left circles. Theodorakis has also written a number of symphonies, operas, chamber pieces, ballet, and film music.

Resistance fighter and cultural revolutionary

Born July 29, 1925, on the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea, Mikis Theodorakis composed his first songs at 13 and gave his first concert at 17. Passionate about classical music, he dreams of a career as a musician and takes lessons. at the Athens Conservatory. Fate had different plans for him, however.

During World War II, Theodorakis fought the Nazi German troops who occupied Greece. During the Greek Civil War (1946 to 1949), he joined the popular left front. Arrested on several occasions for having been an opponent of the communist regime, Theodorakis suffered brutal torture, including being buried alive.

Upon his release from the horrific camp on the prison island of Makronisos, Theodorakis was physically broken, but his love for music did not wane. Finishing his studies in Athens, he continued his studies in Paris and finished them with honors.

Theodorakis’ classical compositions quickly gained acclaim and accolades, but over time he increasingly focused on Greek folk music, inspiring a cultural revolution in his homeland. He set to music socially critical texts written by the poet Yannis Ristos, writing for the humble bouzouki, a traditional Greek plucked string instrument.

International success, banned at home

Theodorakis’ breakthrough on the international stage came with the soundtrack of the Hollywood epic film Zorba the Greek and the Holocaust song cycle Mauthausen, sung in 1965 by the then 16-year-old Maria Farandouri, famous Greek singer and activist. Politics. While his music inspired the Greeks to search for their own modern cultural identity, the composer continued his political activism as a representative in the Greek parliament.

When the leftist representative Grigoris Lambrakis, whom Theodorakis revered, was assassinated, the composer wrote the soundtrack for the political thriller Z on the founding of the Greek military dictatorship. It was a musical monument to his idol, and once again the soundtrack was heavily influenced by Greek folk music.

On April 21, 1967, the military junta came to power, and Theodorakis was forced to go underground. As the founder of the Patriotic Front, he was again arrested, tortured and sent to a prison camp.

An international solidarity movement, made up of renowned artists such as composers Dmitry Shostakovich and Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Miller and singer Harry Belafonte, managed to bring about his release.

In 1970, Thedorakis was banished and sent into exile in France.

His music had been banned in Greece since June 1967, and anyone who listened to it had to expect harsh consequences. However, this did not stop the rebellious Greek musician from traveling the world and giving more than a thousand concerts.

During his shows, he spoke out against dictatorships of all kinds and gathered support for the resistance against the military dictatorship in his own country. During his tour, Theodorakis was received by politicians such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The future French President François Mitterrand and German Chancellor Willy Brandt also offered him their friendship. In exile in France, he composed vast cycles of songs and his famous musical setting of the revolutionary “Canto General” by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Hero or traitor?

After the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1974, Mikis Theodorakis returned to his home country and was celebrated as a hero and icon of freedom. Soon, however, intrigue again determined political life in Greece. The composer goes from resignation to commitment and from parliamentary activity to voluntary retirement.

In 1986, he joined the Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli to found the Committee for Turkish-Greek Friendship, aimed at putting an end to the centuries-old hostilities between neighboring countries. Both have come under heavy fire in their attempts to create peace – and both have been labeled “traitors”. But that didn’t stop them.

From 1990 to 1992, Theodorakis was Minister of State in a parliament made up of a grand coalition of conservatives, socialists and leftists. He remained determined to reconcile the Greeks and Turks while focusing on educational and cultural reforms.

Artist with a sharp tongue

After retiring from state politics, Mikis Theodorakis became music director of the Greek Radio Orchestra and Choir in 1993, where he often conducted his own works. Following the ancient model, he resumed writing lyrical tragedies including the ancient figures of Medea, Electra and Antigone. He left the concert scene in 1999 but continued to compose.

Always a sharp political commentator, he vehemently attacked the Greek government’s austerity measures under pressure from the EU. “We are living in a national tragedy”, he exclaimed in 2012. “The Greeks were needlessly dragged into the abyss”. He has also repeatedly severely criticized the US government and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Charges of anti-Semitism

In 2003, his criticism of Israeli policies culminated in the statement: “Today we can say that this small country is the root of evil, not good. This means that too much self-righteousness and stubbornness is bad. In a TV interview in 2011, he called himself “anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist” and said that “American Jews” were behind the global economic crisis, which had also hit Greece.

These statements sparked horrified reactions in Israel and beyond. In his apology, Theodorakis explained his position in a letter to the Jewish Central Council of Greece. What he meant by “root of evil” was the “unfortunate policy” of the State of Israel and its ally, the United States. Describing himself as “anti-Semitic” was a mistake made during the very long and tiring interview. “I love the Jewish people, I love the Jews! said Theodorakis.

Always take a stand

In an open letter in 2013, a visibly elderly Theodorakis announced his “full retirement as a citizen fighting”. After 70 years of struggle, he said, he felt his views had not been accepted by the people or political leaders.

But refraining from taking a position altogether does not seem to have been an option. Although he no longer made public appearances, Theodorakis commented on events in Greece on his homepage – for example, during the coronavirus crisis when the government in Athens refused to financially support musicians at the unemployment.

Towards the end of his life, Mikis Theodorakis seemed increasingly bitter, but his musical legacy remains undisputed. He is considered one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century.

This article was translated from German. Source: DW News

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