Famed Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis dies at 96

Tributes pour in for music giant, politician and activist after the announcement of his death in Athens.

Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis in 1974 [File: AP Photo]

Mikis Theodorakis, the beloved Greek composer whose spirited music and life of political defiance won international acclaim and inspired millions at home, has died. He was 96.

His death on Thursday at his home in central Athens was announced on state television and followed multiple hospitalisations in recent years, mostly for heart treatment.

Theodorakis’s prolific career, which started at age 17, produced a hugely varied body of work that ranged from somber symphonies and an anthem for the Palestinian Liberation Organization to popular television and the film scores for, Serpico, and, Zorba the Greek.

But the towering man with trademark worker suits, hoarse voice and wavy hair also is remembered by Greeks for his stubborn opposition to post-war regimes that persecuted him and outlawed his music.

Relatives and friends escort the coffin of Theodorakis outside of his home in Athens [Michalis Karagiannis/ Eurokinissi/AFP]

The Greek flag was lowered to half-staff at the Acropolis as three days of national mourning were declared.

“He lived with passion, a life dedicated to music, the arts, our country and its people, dedicated to the ideas of freedom, justice, equality, social solidarity,” Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou said in a statement.

“He wrote music that became intertwined with the historical and social developments in Greece in the post-war years, music that provided encouragement, consolation, protest, and support in the darker periods of our recent history.”

Music and politics

Born on the eastern Aegean island of Chios on July 29, 1925, Theodorakis was exposed to music and politics from a young age. He began writing music and poetry in his teens, just as Greece entered World War II. During the war, he was arrested by the country’s Italian and German occupiers for his involvement in left-wing resistance groups.

Some of those same groups bitterly opposed the government and monarchy that led immediately Greece after the war, leading to a 1946-49 civil war in which the communist-backed rebels eventually lost.

Theodorakis was jailed and sent to remote Greek islands, including the infamous “re-education” camp on the small island of Makronissos near Athens. As a result of severe beatings and torture, Theodorakis suffered broken limbs, respiratory problems and other injuries that plagued his health for the rest of his life. He suffered tuberculosis, was thrown into a psychiatric hospital, and was subjected to mock executions.

International tributes poured in after the announcement of Theodorakis’s death [File: Reuters]

Despite the hardships, he managed to establish himself as a respected musician. He graduated from the Athens Music School in 1950 and continued his studies in Paris on a scholarship in 1954.

A prolific career as a composer began in earnest, as he worked in a huge range of genres from film scores and ballet music to operas, as well as chamber music, ancient Greek tragedies and Greek folk, setting the work of leading poets to music, including Spain’s Federico Garcia Lorca and the Greek Nobel laureate Odysseas Elytis. A music series based on poems written by Nazi concentration camp survivor Iakovos Kambanellis, The Ballad of Mauthausen, described the horrors of camp life and the Holocaust.

But it was the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s, Zorba the Greek, in 1964, and the slow-to-frenetic title score by Theodorakis that made him a household name.

The movie starring Anthony Quinn, Alan Bates and Irene Pappas picked up three Academy Awards.

In 1969 he wrote the score for, Z, a film based on the assassination of Greek peace activist Grigoris Lambrakis which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film that year.

‘Sparked a revolution’

As Theodorakis’s fame grew, political turmoil in Greece continued, and his compositions were banned by a military dictatorship that governed the country between 1967 and 1974 – turning his music into a soundtrack of celebrations when democracy was restored and of resistance that would be played at protest rallies for decades.

Fans of his music were as varied as his work: The Beatles sang a cover of his song and he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union.

“Speaking to people from all sorts of life, all ages and different political backgrounds, it seems like we have lost a father figure,” Alexandros Zachariades, PhD candidate in international relations at London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera. “You know, like a father who we don’t really love all aspects of that figure, but we appreciate him as a guiding sort of light,” he said.

“What Theodorakis did was revolutionise Greek music, and at the same time … revolutionising politics in a very cultural way,” Zachariades explained.

“It was the fact that he chose to put very folk-sounding music – the sound of the bouzouki – to the words of poets not only coming from the Greek left, such as Giannis Ritsos and Manolis Anagnostakis, but he also put his music to the lyrics and the poems of Georgios Seferis or Odysseas Elytis, who were people that did not come from the left, and actually making world class poetry accessible to the average Greek citizens.

“He sparked a revolution in music, but also I would say in politics in that sort of manner.”

‘A giant’

After his death was announced, international tributes served as a reminder of the numerous causes he supported.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, thanked him in a tweet for his efforts to build friendship between old rivals Greece and Turkey. The Chilean ambassador in Athens visited his home in the Greek capital to thank his family for him speaking out against the former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“Greece lost part of its soul today,” Lina Mendoni, the Greek culture minister, wrote, praising Theodorakis’s ability to turn the work of poets into anthems sung by Greeks across generations.

Theodorakis took part in a number of anti-austerity protests during Greece’s financial crisis [File: Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP Photo]

Tireless in later life, Theodorakis continued to work with emerging artists and compositions that included music for the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and maintained an active interest in politics.

He was a member of parliament for the Greek Communist Party for most of the 1980s but later served the cabinet of the conservative government. He spoke at rallies supporting Palestinian statehood, against the war in Iraq and more recently in opposition to an agreement to end a name dispute between Greece and North Macedonia.

His defenders saw him as a unifier, willing to take bold decisions to try to heal the country’s bitter and longstanding political divisions, many rooted in the Cold War. Fans who disagreed with him looked past his politics, and tributes to Theodorakis on Thursday came from all of Greece’s political parties, as well as his fellow artists.

“He was a giant and we were all proud of him. His music, his life, he was unique,” singer Manolis Mitsias, who worked extensively with Theodorakis said. “Greece was orphaned today.”

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared three days of national mourning, posting a photograph with Theodorakis at his home following a recent hospitalisation.

“I had the honour of knowing him for many years … and his advice has always been valuable to me, especially concerning the unity of our people and overcoming divisions,” Mitsotakis wrote.

“The best way to honor him, a global Greek, is to live by that message. Mikis is our history.”

Alexis Tsipras, former prime minister and leader of main opposition Syriza party, said, “Mikis gave light to our souls. He marked with his work the life and course of those who chose the road of democracy and social justice.”

Tsipras added that “the superb composer, the fighter, the communist, the activist, through his music, life, struggles and his contradictions gave new meaning to freedom, to culture, art and participation. We are saying goodbye with the certainty that what he leaves behind is indelible. In the hearts of our people, the country’s identity, the cultural heritage of the world.”

Theodorakis is survived by his wife of 68 years, Myrto Altinoglou, daughter Margarita Theodoraki and son George Theodorakis. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available. His body will lie in repose for three days next week at Athens Cathedral.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies