Greek composer Vangelis dies aged 79

Oscar-winning composer was a musical pioneer, renowned for his experimentation with electronic synthesizers.

Oscar-winning Greek composer Vangelis.
Greek musician and composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, known as Vangelis, has died at the age of 79 [File: Georges Bendrihem/AFP]

Vangelis, the Oscar-winning composer of the music for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, and a pioneer of electronic music, has died. He was 79.

According to several media outlets in the musician’s native Greece, Vangelis died of coronavirus in France, where he lived part-time. He also had homes in London and Athens.

“It is with great sadness that we announce that the great Greek Vangelis Papathanassiou passed away late on the night of Tuesday, May 17,” Vangelis’s lawyer was quoted as saying by the ANA news agency.

Over his more than 50-year career, Vangelis was renowned for his musical experimentation and eclectic influences. He won an Oscar in 1982 for his theme for the British film Chariots of Fire, and went on to develop the scores for a slew of other movies, including Ridley Scott’s cult classic Blade Runner, as well as for theatre and ballet.

“Vangelis Papathanassiou is no longer with us,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted.

“The world of music has lost the international (artist) Vangelis.”

Born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou in Agria, a coastal town central Greece, Vangelis developed an early interest in music and experimented with sound by banging pots and pans or fixing nails, glasses and other objects to the strings of his parents’ piano. He performed his first piano concert at the age of six.

“I’ve never studied music,” he told Greek magazine Periodiko in 1988, in which he also bemoaned growing “exploitation” by studios and the media.

“At one time there was a craziness … now it’s a job.”

“You might sell a million records while feeling like a failure. Or you might not sell anything feeling very happy,” he said.

After studying painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts, Vangelis made his start with local Greek rock bands. He left for Paris when he was 25, part of an exodus of artistic talent following the 1967 military coup.

In Paris, he joined fellow Greeks Demis Roussos and Lucas Sideras in the progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child, achieving cult status and selling millions of records before they broke up in 1972.

Fascinated by the then-new field of electronic synthesizers, Vangelis settled in London in 1974, where he established Nemo Studios, the “sound laboratory” that produced most of his solo albums for more than a decade.

But he valued his independence over record sales.

“Success is sweet and treacherous,” the composer told Britain’s Observer newspaper in 2012. “Instead of being able to move forward freely and do what you really wish, you find yourself stuck and obliged to repeat yourself.”

‘Ad astra’

Vangelis, who had a minor planet named after him in 1995, had a fascination with space from an early age.

In 1980, he contributed music to Carl Sagan’s award-winning science documentary Cosmos. He wrote music for NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey and its Juno Jupiter missions, as well as a Grammy-nominated album inspired by the Rosetta space probe mission in 2016.

On Twitter, NASA paid tribute with the words ‘Ad astra’ (to the stars), sharing a video from the Juno mission.

In 2018, he composed a piece for the funeral of Stephen Hawking that included the late professor’s words and was broadcast into space by the European Space Agency.

He was showered with honours, receiving the Max Steiner film music award, France’s Legion d’Honneur, NASA’s Public Service Medal and Greece’s top honour, the Order of the Phoenix.

Vangelis carefully guarded his privacy and little known was known of his personal life.

“I don’t give interviews, because I have to try to say things that I don’t need to say,” he told the LA Times in 2019.

“The only thing I need to do is just to make music.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies