Obituary: Mikis Theodorakis wrote the theme song for “Zorba the Greek”

ITHAT’S ALL perhaps the most famous two-note phrase in post-war European music: a gradual journey up the ladder that feels like a question. Repeated over and over again, it invites you to stretch your arms wide, lift your chin, and start snapping your fingers. The first time you hear the opening notes for the theme song for “Zorba the Greek”, which was composed in a single late-night scrambling session in 1964, Anthony Quinn talks to Alan Bates about his sound. santuri, the instrument he takes care of as a child. “He makes the best music. It always accompanies me. From then on, with each dramatic turn, we hear a little more of the Zorba theme, until the moment on the beach when the air swells in an ode to Greek virility and a romantic spirit as the two men jump. in the rhythm, slow-fast. , sirtaki dance that cements their friendship.

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Five years after “Zorba”, the composer lives in internal exile in his homeland. His music was banned, for having aroused passions and caused unrest among the people, it is said. A young woman is judged for having played one of her records and turned up the volume to the maximum. The Greek colonels who had taken power in 1967 judged his compositions in the service of communism. Her two grandchildren are not allowed to play with other children at school; his wife is strip searched every time she does her shopping, and again when she returns to make sure she is not carrying any contraband messages. He writes a poem and calls it “I had three lives”:

the wind took one
the rain the other
and my third life
locked behind two eyelids
was drowned in tears

Mikis Theodorakis’ Three Lives was a theme that would grow with the tale, until he seemed to use it to braid all the threads that gave meaning to his life: limitless artistic energy, heroic political struggle. and a private love and sorrow. Chios, the island where he was born, was renowned for his courage and adventurism. His mother grew up in the Greek colony of Asia Minor, his father’s family in Crete, each with very different folk traditions. The elder Theodorakis was an Interior Ministry official, so the family often traveled across the country, exposing the young Mikis to different musical influences. At the age of seven in Ioannina, he learned to sing Byzantine hymns; at ten years old in Argostoli, a town of 7,000 inhabitants and a piano, the bishop asked him to perform the Passion in church on Good Friday. Later, in Patras, he was given a violin and an accordion. He forms a group and writes his first compositions. As a teenager, he conducted a choir, formed an orchestra and gave the first concert in which his Byzantine ode, “Kasiani”, was performed. In his twenties, during the Greek Civil War, when he was imprisoned and tortured for being a Communist, he saw friends killed and dedicated his symphonic work “Elegy of Zanos and Karlis” to two victims of the fratricidal conflict.

With the advent of peace, he finally left Greece in the early 1950s, obtaining a scholarship to study counterpoint and musical analysis with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. He was part of a circle of fashionable artists that included Salvador Dali and Jean Renoir, and quickly made a name for himself as one of the most important symphonic composers of the time. The “New Wave” was coined to describe the evolution of cinema, but music and dance were also part of the great post-war revival. And he could very well have stayed in the center, if he had not noticed, one evening in Covent Garden in London, how the public reacted viscerally to the Byzantine hymns he had woven into the music of his ballet. ” Antigone “. Within months he returned to Greece and his roots in Greek music.

He was inspired by poets: Odysseas Elytis, but also Yannis Ritsos with whom he had been imprisoned during the civil war. Based on repetika, the Greek blues played in all the taverns of Piraeus, he wrote the music of their verses. These songs have become so common, being so much a part of the sound of the country DNA, that the Greeks might be able to sing every note he composed without knowing who wrote the words.

He channeled his interest in politics into cultural activism and energetically supported better relations between Greece and Turkey. Yet it also drew criticism. Friends on the left blasted him for suggesting, while the colonels were still in power, that Konstantin Karamanlis, the former right-wing prime minister who banned his music, was the only leader capable of restoring democracy in Greece . His friends abroad paled at his excessive criticism of Israel, his friendship with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, and his periods of support for the Soviet bloc.

Three lives

But to judge him for whom he rubbed shoulders politically is to ignore the deep roots of his popularity. Since at least the revolution of 1821, rebellious songs and poetry have served to make the differences of opinion heard in Greece. In other countries, as Vaclav Havel has shown in post-communist Czechoslovakia and now Bobi Wine in Uganda, nothing disturbs the ruling power as much as a flute player.

If there was a day when his three lives came together, it was September 22, 1971. Greeks flocked to Athens for the funeral of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, George Seferis. Slowly, they began to sing the song he had composed for Seferis’ poem, “Denial”. From across the crowd arose cries of Dimocracy! Eleftheria!-Democracy! Freedom ! – words barely spoken since the colonels took power. On an old recording, the screams sound like gunshots. It would take another three years and a lot of extra pressure, but to the beat of its moving hymn – a hymn all Greeks know – on this autumn day, you can hear the seemingly relentless face of the junta starting to crack.

This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “Soul Music”


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