Many associate the name Mikis Theodorakis with the music from the triple Oscar-winning cult film Zorba the Greek, which made him a global star in the mid-1960s. The accompanying dance, the Sirtaki, is regarded by many non-Greeks as the epitome of Greek folk dance, though the step sequence was invented especially for the film.
But Theodorakis has composed much more than traditional music, penning over 1000 songs, many based on the works of Greek poets, which have long become part of the folk heritage of his homeland.
He has also composed numerous symphonies and operas, as well as chamber, ballet and film music.
Resistance fighter and cultural revolutionary
Mikis Theodorakis was born on the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea on July 29, 1925. Particularly fond of classical music, he wrote his first compositions at the age of 13, and gave his first concert at 17. The young Mikis dreamed of a career as a musician and enrolled as a student at the Athens Conservatory. But fate would soon derail his plans.
During the occupation of Greece by German troops, Theodorakis fought in the resistance against the Nazis. During the Greek Civil War (1946-49), the budding composer was arrested several times as a communist opponent of the regime. He was tortured and was twice buried alive, being saved only by chance.
After his release from the Makronisos labor camp, Theodorakis was physically broken but his passion for music remained strong. He completed his studies in Athens and later in Paris – with distinction.
The Greek up-and-comer soon celebrated successes and won prizes as a classical composer. But he increasingly focused on the folk music traditions of his homeland, setting the socially critical texts of the poet Yannis Ristos, among many others, to the sounds of a folk instrument that was frowned upon at the time: the bouzouki.
Internationally successful, banned at home
The soundtrack to the Hollywood epic Zorba the Greek and The Ballad of Mauthausen, a series of arias about the Holocaust written by Greek poet and Mauthausen concentration camp survivor Iakovos Kambanellis, finally brought Mikis Theodorakis world fame.
While in Greece his music fired the people’s search for their own modern cultural identity, the composer continued the political struggle as a member of the Greek parliament.
When Grigoris Lambrakis, the left-wing member of parliament he adored, was murdered in 1963, Theodorakis wrote the film music for the political thriller Z about the Greek military dictatorship. In creating a musical monument to his idol, he was clearly again inspired by Greek folklore.
Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates dance the Sirtaki in the iconic sequence from “Zorba the Greek”
On April 21, 1967 the military junta again took power in Greece and Theodorakis went underground. After founding the leftist Patriotic Front party, he was again arrested, tortured and banished to a concentration camp. Only an international solidarity movement that included celebrities of music and film such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller and Harry Belafonte, allowed him to go into exile in France in 1970.
His music had already been banned in June 1967, but the rebellious composer traveled around the world and gave more than 1,000 concerts. He used his global platform to denounce dictatorships of all colors and to promote the resistance against the military dictatorship in his homeland. Politicians such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat welcomed him. Former French President François Mitterrand and former German Chancellor Willy Brandt became his friends.
In exile, he also wrote the music of the revolutionary Canto General from the pen of Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.
Mikis Theodorakis in his Athens home on January 27,1968, after his release from prison by the Greek military regime under a Christmas Amnesty
Hero of the people or traitor to the people?
After the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974, Mikis Theodorakis returned to his homeland and was celebrated as a folk hero and freedom icon.
In 1986, together with the Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli, he founded the Committee for Turkish-Greek Friendship in order to put an end to the centuries-old enmity between the neighboring countries – especially over the issue of the partition of Cyprus.
And from 1990 to 1992, Theodorakis sat as minister of state in the parliament of a grand coalition of conservatives, socialists and leftists. Here, too, he worked for the reconciliation of Greeks and Turks and made it his primary task to reform education and culture policy.
Read more:Greece, Turkey in border dispute after alleged island occupation
Still vocal at 95
After his retirement from state politics, in 1993 he took over the post of General Musical Director of the Choir and the two Orchestras of the Hellenic State Radio, and was also in demand as conductor of his own works. In 1999, he retired from the concert stage but continued to compose.
His musical commitment did not prevent him from continuing to opine about the events of the day. He has spoke out against the US government for invading Iraq, Israeli policy in Palestine, or austerity in Greece following the EU bank bailouts a decade ago.
“We are witnessing a national tragedy,” he shouted to his countrymen in 2012. The Greeks have been “maneuvered to the edge of the abyss,” he said.
In 2013, Theodorakis announced his “complete resignation as a fighting citizen” in an open letter, saying that “after 70 years of fighting” his views were falling on deaf ears.
But even at 95, he can’t resist having his say. Although he no longer makes public appearances, he rails against the status quo online, including during the Corona crisis, like when the Athens government initially did not grant subsidies to unemployed musicians.
When something happens in Greece, everyone to this day still wants to hear his opinion.