Mikis Theodorakis

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Author: Gail Holst
Mikis Theodorakis was born on the island of Chios in 1925. He spent his childhood in various towns in the Greek countryside, where he became familiar with folk music and the music of the Greek Orthodox Church. In the Peloponnesian) town of Tripolis, where he spent his teenage years, he heard his first piece of symphonic music, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and decided to become a composer.
Youth in Tripolis
In Tripolis, Theodorakis also began his lifelong struggle for freedom. The Second World War had begun and Tripolis was occupied by the Italians.
The seventeen-year old composer took part in a massive protest on the 25th of March, the anniversary of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey, by laying a wreath at the statue of the revolutionary hero Kolokotronis. He was arrested for the first time and tortured but managed to escape to Athens.
In Athens, Theodorakis registered at the conservatorium of music to study composition. At the same time he joined E.A.M., the largest of the resistance organisations to the German occupation. For the remainder of the war he took an active part in the resistance while continuing his studies in composition.
During the years of the Greek Civil War (1945-48) Theodorakis continued his political activities. He spent these years either in hiding or in prison camps. Arrested several times and severely tortured, he struggled to continue his musical activities. His first symphony was composed on the notorious prison island of Makronissos. It was also during these years that he became interested in folk music and the popular Greek music known as rebetika.
Despite the terrible conditions of Makronissos, where supporters of the Left were tortured and killed for their beliefs, it was here that Theodorakis began his lifelong struggle to effect a reconciliation between the opposing sides of the Civil War.

Paris Years

In 1954 Theodorakis graduated from the Athens Conservatorium, and was awarded a scholarship to Paris. He entered the Paris Conservatoire, studying composition with Olivier Messiaen and conducting with Eugene Bigot. His talent was immediately recognized. He received commissions for film scores and ballet music and in 1959 his ballet “Antigone” was presented at Covent Garden.
Antigone in London 59, with Svetlana Beriosova
He seemed poised for international stardom as a classical composer. It was then that one of Greece’s leading poets, Yannis Ritsos, sent Theodorakis a sequence of poems called “Epitafios”, poems inspired by the death of a young tobacco worker in a strike. Theodorakis set the poems to music in a single day making use of elements from Greek popular, folk and ecclesiastical music. He also made up his mind to return to Greece and immerse himself in its troubled politics.

Activism and Music in the 1960’s

1960 marked the beginning of a very productive period for Theodorakis. He began setting Greek poetry to music and creating a new wave of sophisticated popular song. Other young composers were encouraged to follow the lead an exciting new wave of Greek music began.

In 1963, Grigoris Lambrakis, a socialist deputy of the Greek parliament, was murdered under circumstances that left no doubt that high officials of the police, army and government were involved. Although Theodorakis had never taken an active role in party politics up to this point, he was convinced to stand for election. Elected a deputy of the United Left Party in 1964, he was also made president of the Lambrakis Youth Movement (Lambrakides).

At the Head of the Lambrakides
He began to struggle for democratic rights, peace and disarmament. At the same time he was attempting to bring about a cultural renaissance, and to institute democratic reforms within his party. It was during these years that he established the basis of his lifelong popularity with Greeks from all walks of life. As a parliamentary deputy, Theodorakis travelled to Cyprus to meet Archbishop Makarios and discuss ways to find a solution to the Cyprus problem.
In 1964 Theodorakis presented his dream of a rapprochement between the two sides who had fought the Civil War to the Greek public in the form of a musical play: “The Song of the Dead Brother.” In the still-bitter aftermath of the war, his revolutionary work was attacked by all parties.

The Military Dictatorship (1967-74)

Theodorakis’s musical and political attempts to break down the divisions in Greek society were interrupted by the military dictatorship that took control of Greece in April, 1967. One of the first acts of the new regime was to place a ban on Theodorakis’s work. Knowing he would be an immediate target, he went underground and issued an appeal for opposition to the regime. Soon after, he was elected president of the first opposition organization (The Patriotic Front). In hiding, and later in prison he continued to compose. In 1968 Theodorakis was placed under house arrest in an isolated village in the Peloponnese. Even from there he managed to smuggle messages of resistance and musical scores to the outside world. He also composed a series of song cycles based on the work of Greek poets. Theodorakis was transferred again to the prison camp of Oropos where his health began to deteriorate alarmingly.

At the Concentration Camp of Oropos
Committees had been formed in many countries by prominent people to secure his release: 21 members of the Academy of Arts in Berlin (Berliner Akademie der Künste) sent a petition to the Greek minister of Interior signed by Igor Stravinsky, Boris Blacher, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Dallapiccola, Johann Nepomuk David, Paul Dessau, Wolfgang Fortner, Hans Werner Henze, Giselher Klebe, Ernst Krenek, Rolf Liebermann, Ernst Pepping, Bernd Alois Zimmermann e.a. In a U.S.A. Committee for his liberation there were personalities such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Harry Belafonte, Arthur Schlesinger jr., e.a., and a Committee in USSR was conducted by Dmitri Shostakovitch.
International pressure for his release mounted and he was allowed to leave for Paris in 1970.
Theodorakis immediately began touring the world giving concerts, holding press conferences and meetings with political leaders and other world figures in an effort to bring about the restoration of democracy in Greece. At the same time he tried to bring about the unification of the divided Greek leftist parties and urged co-operation between all the opposition forces. At his concerts he gave an opportunity for many oppressed peoples – Kurds, Chileans and Palestinians among them – to express their grievances. Above all he stressed the need for a solution to the Cyprus problem.
In 1972 he toured Israel for a month. He also visited Beirut, bringing a message from the Israeli Prime Minister to. Mr. Arafat, in an attempt to assist peace efforts in the area. His work “Mauthausen” based on the poetry of Iakovos Kambanellis, a Greek interned in the concentration camp, became extremely popular in Israel. At the same time, he responded to a Palestinian request to compose a hymn expressing their legitimate struggle for a homeland. Many years later, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders met for the first time in Scandinavia, they asked Theodorakis not only to be present at the ceremony, but to perform these two compositions in appreciation of his contribution to the struggle for peace.
The great solidarity shown by the Scandinavian people to the Greeks in their effort to restore democracy to their country brought Theodorakis very close to the people of all Scandinavian countries. Many concerts of his work took place there with Scandinavian performers. His works like “Axion Esti”, a setting of the Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseus Elytis and “Canto General” by another Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda, became part of the repertoire of dozens of choirs.

With Pablo Neruda in Paris 1972
In Sweden Theodorakis was linked by personal friendship to Prime Minister, Olof Palme. It was characteristic that when Palme was murdered, at his simple funeral a single piece of music was played, according to his wishes: Theodorakis’ “Hymn to Freedom”.

Failing in his attempt to create a National Opposition Council to the dictatorship, Theodorakis concluded that the only hope of bringing down the dictatorship would be the formation of a civilian government with former conservative leader Constantine Karamanlis as president. A year later, this solution, which had seemed impossible at the time he suggested it, came true. Under the pressure of its internal problems, international outcry and above all the tragedy in Cyprus, the military regime invited Karamanlis to return from Paris and handed over power to him in July 1974.

Post-dictatorship Greece
Theodorakis returned to a hero’s welcome in Greece, where ten thousand people gathered at the airport to meet him.

Back in Greece

He gave his first concerts in stadiums filled with people, many of whom wept as they listened to his old songs and to songs composed during the dictatorship years. Politically, this was a difficult period for Theodorakis, who was attacked by the Left for seeming to have turned towards the Right. In fact he realized the fragility of the new democracy and was anxious to preserve it. At the same time, he put all his efforts into uniting the leftist party.

In 1976 Theodorakis

formed the Movement for Culture and Peace, and toured Greece giving concerts and holding discussions. Many young people, irrespective of their political orientation, were organized in this movement, but it did not last.

In 1977 in Crete Theodorakis organized a conference with the title “Culture and Socialism” in which such world figures as Francois Mitterrand) and Roger Garaudy participated.

Theodorakis’s differences of opinion with the political parties on the Left, particularly the Greek Communist Party, grew and in the 1980’s, frustrated in his efforts to bring about reconciliation between factions, he devoted himself to composing symphonic music.

The 1980’s and 90’s

In 1983 Theodorakis was awarded the Lenin Prize for Peace. He continued composing symphonic and choral works and giving concerts, especially abroad. He finished his first Opera “Kostas Kariotakis – The Metamorphosis of Dionysus” which was performed in the Athens Opera House.

Following the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, Theodorakis went on a European tour giving concerts to oppose the use of atomic energy.
Among other countries, he visited Turkey, which was facing severe problems in the abuses of democracy and human rights. He had positive discussions with writers, poets, musicians, and intellectuals.
The outcome was something he had desired for a long time: two committees for Greek-Turkish friendship were formed, one in Greece with him as the president and one in Turkey with the participation of well-known intellectuals and artists. During his concerts in Turkey, many of the young people in the audience waved Turkish and Greek flags and called for an end to the hostilities between the two countries. In Cyprus, the two committees organized a demonstration together on the “green line.”

With Zülfü Livaneli

Despite the fact that he was often under attack by the PASOK government for his attempts to foster understanding between Greek and Turkey, Theodorakis agreed to convey a message from the Greek Prime Minster to his Turkish counterpart in 1988. He also met with other international leaders to discuss the issue of Greek-Turkish relations.

Deeply concerned about the corruption he saw around him during the later days of PASOK’s administration, Theodorakis suggested that the conservative and the leftist party combine to defeat PASOK. For the first time in post-war Greek politics the two opposing sides of the civil war co-operated to form a government under Tzanetakis. Theodorakis supported the Conservative Party’s promise to reform the political life of Greece, and when a deputy of the Party was assassinated by a Left-wing terrorist group, he offered his support to conservative Prime Minister Mitsotakis. He was elected as a deputy in 1989 and became a Minister in the new cabinet.
He toured Europe giving concerts for Human Rights and the solution of the Cyprus problem under the auspices of Amnesty International. As a minister in the conservative government he dealt with cultural and national issues. He visited Turkey once more, where two leaders of the leftist party were on trial. He attended the trial and joined Turkish democrats in the struggle to gain their freedom. He also visited Albania to defend for the rights of the Greek minority and to try to improve relations between the two countries.
In this period Theodorakis also suggested a Pan-European meeting at Delphi with the participation of world leaders, philosophers, scientists and artists to discuss the problem of peace, of post-industrial society and the third world countries. He conceived the meeting at Delphi as an “Olympiad of the Spirit,” a centre where every European country – and eventually the countries of the rest of the world – would have a place of their own, and where every year contests of poetry, music, theatre etc. would be organized. This remains one of Theodorakis’s dreams, although he did organize meetings in 1988 in Germany attended by well-known European writers, philosophers, lawyers, politicians and artists, where he discussed cultural and social problems within the European community.
The Movement “Culture for Peace” was founded following these Seminars and was inspired by the ideas of Theodorakis.
Theodorakis also founded a committee of intellectuals and artists to aid the Kurds, who were facing genocide in Turkey. During the same period he sent a letter to Arafat, condemning the terrorist actions in which Palestinians seem to be involved, and appealing for a non-violent approach to the Palestinian struggle. He was also a member of the committee to free Nelson Mandela and for peace in South Africa.
In 1993, Theodorakis took over the management of the Symphony Orchestra and Choir of the Greek radio station. Touring with them, he was honoured by the United States Senate for his services to culture and humanity.
In 1994, he toured Europe, inspired by the efforts of the group “Physicians without Borders. ” He called his tour “Music Without Borders.” His third opera “Electra” was given its world premiere in Luxembourg in 1995. In an attempt to bring reconciliation between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, Theodorakis presented a concert in Skopje in 1997.
The same year he began a tour in Europe with the Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli, but had to terminate the tour because of ill health. Nevertheless a CD of the two composers called “Together” was released and distributed throughout Europe.
In 1998 Theodorakis gave concerts to mark the 100th anniversary of the “International Commission for Human Rights”.
In 1999 Theodorakis made an appeal against the NATO bombing of Serbia, which was carried out without consultation with the United Nations.

Concert for Peace in Kosovo, Athens 1999

He also gave a concert in Belgrade and met with Milosevic to discuss the restoration of Peace in Kosovo. Following the disastrous earthquakes in Turkey and Greece, he and Livaneli gave concerts in Greece and Istanbul to benefit the victims of the quakes.

The world premiere of Theodorakis’s opera “Antigone” was given in the Athens Concert Hall in October 1999. With this opera he completed his trilogy based on classical tragedy. Needless to say his opera stresses the eternal evils of civil strife and the need for peace and reconciliation.