A Portrait of Mikis Theodorakis issued by the EU Commission
Mikis Theodorakis, the Greek composer who has mixed music with politics for most of his career, turned 70 last year (i.e.1995).
But he is still producing top-selling albums that appeal as much to young Greeks as to their parents.
His latest offering, Asikiko Poulaki, with its Anatolian rhythms and melancholy lyrics, goes back to the roots of modern Greek music – the rebetika songs created during the 1920s and 1930s wars by cafe musicians who rarely achieved fortune or fame. The album features Vassilis Lekkas, a relative newcomer in the long line of talented vocalists discovered by Theodorakis, many of whom have had no formal musical training.
Almost all Theodorakis' vocalists turned up to sing at a special seventieth birthday concert in Athens last summer. Several thousand Greeks and foreigners holding lighted candles crammed the marble stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were staged, to listen to some of the composeis best-known work.
The program ranged from Zorba the Greek, the catchy film score that made his international reputation in the 1960s, to the solemn strains of the "Axion Esti", an ambitious choral work based on a long poem by Nobel Prize winner Odysseus Elytis.
Theodorakis is as imposing as ever on the podium – a bulky figure in a voluminous black shirt, who conducts with his arms rather than a baton. He clearly enjoys working with massed choirs and a large orchestra where bouzouki players and other traditional Greek instrumentalists take precedence over the violinists.
Theodorakis is now recording another new album in Berlin, this time with Maria Farantouri, who has interpreted his songs for more than 20 years. And in his spare moments he is working on an opera.
Friends say Theodorakis has returned to music with undiminished enthusiasm since giving up politics. A former communist deputy in the Greek Parliament, he gave up his last political post – as a minister without a portfolio in a center-right government – four years ago. But he still feels involved. He made a passionate plea for a reconciliation between Greece and Turkey after the recent flare-up over the Imia islets in the Aegean.
Theodorakis learned Byzantine chants as an Orthodox choirboy, but wrote his first songs as a teenager on the island of Kefalonia, one of the few places in Greece where Western music was played. His musical studies were interrupted by hard labor on the barren prison islands where Greece's communists were exiled after their defeat in the 1940s civil war. Eventually he made his way to Paris to study.
His early work was strongly influenced by Bartók and Stravinsky's music, but instead of becoming an international virtuoso, he came home to create a new style of Greek music. Theodorakis went in search of a melody based on Greek tradition.
He says, "A genuine and truthful composer is one who gives birth to genuine and true melodies." His list starts with Monteverdi and Vivaldi and winds up with Gershwin and Bob Dylan.
His symphonic work uses traditional Greek instruments, Byzantine rather than Western scales, and a diverse group of singers. Theodorakis has long preferred to work from a poetic text, saying they give his longer compositions a cohesiveness that might otherwise be lacking.
But however well-respected Theodorakis's symphonies, oratorios, and operas have become, he has never lost his popular appeal. The Greeks are still whistling the melodies of his early songs.
© Commission of the European Union, 1996