Schott Music

Skip to Main Content »

2021/09/02

Mikis Theodorakis 1925–2021

Ode to freedom: on the death of the composer Mikis Theodorakis

The Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis has died in Athens on 02.09.2021 at the age of 96.

Born in Greece in 1925, Mikis Theodorakis resolutely devoted his life to fighting for freedom and justice, searching for valid and comprehensible forms of musical expression and pursuing the significance of art. This long journey ended in Athens on Thursday morning of 2 September in Athens.

Theodorakis tells of his beginnings as follows: “My career as a composer began in the early 1940s when no suitable environment actually existed for my career choice: no orchestra, no symphonic concerts, no music conservatoires, not even a grand piano. When I saw a film showing a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, I told my teachers at school the next day that I would now concern myself exclusively with music from this point onwards – and that is just what I did.” This astonishing early certainty was to develop into a compositional output that encompassed over a hundred larger-scale works including symphonies, ballet music, chamber music, theatre music and opera. While Theodorakis conducted a large proportion of his works’ premieres himself, prominent conductors such as Thomas Beecham, Charles Dutoit und Zubin Mehta were also great champions of his compositions. Yet the true core of his oeuvre is an amazing series of more than a thousand songs of enduring popularity. In the years to come an entire nation, perhaps the whole world, shall continue to sing his melodies.

Before Theodorakis became established in genre of the contemporary song, he studied the techniques and artistry of classical music with Olivier Messiaen in Paris. Supporters and admirers of the young composer included Dmitri Shostakovich, Hanns Eisler, Benjamin Britten and Darius Milhaud, who predicted a brilliant career for the tall and lively man constantly overflowing with musical ideas. Theodorakis’ impressive output of symphonic and chamber music ceased however upon his return to Athens in 1960, where he would not compose another purely instrumental work for more than 20 years. He instead turned his attention to song cycles, oratorios and film music, through which his political and social beliefs could be voiced. The works Theodorakis produced in this period were not only of uninhibited and innovative artistic merit, but also intended to be rooted in the identity of the people, with a message to communicate. Soon artists such as Agnes Baltsa, the Beatles, Dalida, Maria Farantouri, Mary Hopkin, Maria del Mar Bonet, Marino Marini, Milva, Georges Moustaki, Nana Mouskouri, Edith Piaf, Herman van Veen and many more adopted his songs into their own repertoires, and spread his messages across the world.

Theodorakis first turned to the field of opera later in his career as he approached the age of sixty, yet subsequently produced new works in an established rhythm of every four years. All five of his operas offer new interpretations of classical Greek mythology in which Theodorakis combines European musical tradition with his intrinsic melody-writing and the characteristic Greek idiom.

Theodorakis occupies a unique position in the musical and intellectual history of our time. His worldwide popularity, the great variety of his artistic creativity, and his political career have established him as one of the most significant figures in contemporary history. Throughout his life he selflessly stood up for international human rights, despite being interned in prison camps while Greece was under military dictatorship, and later exiled. He was a humanist out of profound conviction who never retreated into his art, but repeatedly involved himself in politics and always took a stand, above all in the most problematic of times. In 2018, Theodorakis was honoured for his timeless music and dedication to human rights with the award of an honorary doctorate in philosophy from the University of Salzburg.

The lasting legacy of Mikis Theodorakis in Greece and beyond is found not only his struggle for freedom, even in the face of personal torture and exile, it is in his flawless coupling of art with the voice of the people. What could be a more pertinent example than his perhaps most famous composition: the dance melody for Michael Cacoyannis’ legendary film Zorba the Greek, which has become an unofficial Greek national anthem. The significance of this melody for the people of Greece echoes the power of Verdi’s Va pensiero, and the melody that first inspired Theodorakis to become a composer, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.