Thoughts about Theodorakis

Mikis Theodorakis is one of the few contemporary composers who are of world- wide renown without belonging to the English Pop scene. Since 1980 I have accompanied Theodorakis on many of this tours and could see that he is the only Greek artist (resident in Greece) who attracts a mostly non-Greek audience, no matter if the concert is in Spain, France, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, Australia, Chile, Russia, the USA or elsewhere. And these are not exclusively con- certs with his songs, but also concerts of more complex and challenging works, e.g. the oratories "Axion esti" and "Canto General" or the 7th Symphony respectively. The range of his creative works and their programmatic arrangement also characterize this musician, who has not only composed simple songs but also chamber music, ballet, theater music, sound tracks as well as symphonies and operas.

Theodorakis is also a very cosmopolitan artist. Despite the “distinctive Greek ele- ment” to his music, his works are marked by Byzantine, demotic and Cretan influ- ences. He set to music texts by Federico García Lorca, Brendan Behan, Pablo Neruda (in Spanish), and Martin Walser (in German), and wrote the music for various international film productions (like Luna de miel – Honeymoon by Michael Powell, Phaedra by Jules Dassin, Five Miles To Midnight by Anatole Litvak, Zorba the Greek by Michalis Cacojannis, Z by Costa-Gavras, and Serpico by Sidney Lumet). Last, but not least, it is remarkable that his songs – that means songs of a contemporary composer – have been sung by numerous and various different interpreters during the last 35 years (e.g. The Beatles, Lisbeth List, Milva, Georges Moustaki, Nana Mouskouri, Edith Piaf). Theodorakis’s discography contains approximately 250 record and compact disc publications with his songs alone – of which were sold an estimated total of far more than 60 million copies.
This indicates that in the first place Theodorakis is a melody enthusiast. His work index comprises along with 100 bigger works 750 songs, most of which he composed after 1960. From the beginning of the 1940s up to 1959 he dedicat- ed himself to “serious” music (studies of composition and conduction in Athens with Filoktitis Ikonomidis from 1943 to 1951, and in Paris with Olivier Messiaen from 1954 to 1960) whereas from 1960 onwards he changed to the traditional Greek music and started to write songs. In the beginning of the 1980s the com- poser went back to symphonies. Since then he has created several symphonies, choral works and oratories, and the operas Metarmorphoses of Dionysus (Kostas Karyotakis) (1984–86), Medea (1988–90), and Elektra (1992–93). In these he tries to combine the Greek melodic and harmonic sound with the Western European music tradition.
The title songs of the movies Honeymoon and Zorba the Greek as well as other songs went around the world in the beginning/middle of the 1960s. But he became internationally famous also because of his anti-dictatorial commitment, his arrest, and consequent exile during the junta period (1967–1974). Theodorakis is without any doubt an anarchic fusion of a musician, who cannot be classified nor compared to any other contemporary composer, and of a “politician”, who does not adhere to any party dogma and whose political attitude depends on his “national humanistic” instinct.
However, this instinct is directed by a sense of reality without illusions. And these are the roots for the specific (for some people problematic) characteristics of Theodorakis’s personality. His character is especially “problematic” if you consider the fanaticism and damages a country suffers during the Greek civil war (1946–1949).
In 1960 Theodorakis turned his back on the Western European music business of Paris in order to concentrate on traditional Greek music. He used his 1940 experiences to explain this “Greek centricism.” In 1957 he wrote an essay pondering the question: “Who would belong to the audience of a composer, who spent a great part of his life fighting, in jails and exile camps? When I think back, I see people with petrified faces and their lively eyes open wide. To these my now dead friends I have dedicated almost all my work up to now.”
The break with Paris, the relocation to Athens, the rigorous turn from dra- matic music to the "contemporary folk song," as he called the new genre, all this happened at the end of the 1950s when Theodorakis had made his way as a composer in the serious music business and was at the peak of his career. In 1957 he was awarded the first prize for composition in Moscow for his 1st Suite by an international jury presided over by Dmitri Shostakovich and Hanns Eisler, and in 1963 he received the English Sibelius prize for his entire symphonic works. The jury consisted of Zoltán Kodály, Pablo Casals, and Darius Milhaud.
Theodorakis had achieved his international breakthrough with his music for the ballets Les Amants de Teruel (1958, Theatre Sarah Bernhardt Paris, director: Raymond Rouleau, lead role: Ludmilla Tscherina) and Antigone (1959, Covent Garden London, choreography: John Cranko, stage set: Rufino Tamayo, lead roles: Svetlana Beriosova, Donald MacLeary, Leslie Edwards, Rudolf Nureyev), which was performed more than 100 times.
Experiences from childhood and youth not only made him break with the aristocratic world of the Western European music tradition but also led him to work together with interpreters and instrumentalists, and integrate the music style of the Rebetiko, which in its way represented the outsiders of the Greek society. At the same time they and the new experiences with folk songs made him "forget" or at least repress his earlier work as a composer of dramatic music of before 1960, so that after a while, and especially after the junta period, to public's awareness he was more and more a politician who every once in a while also wrote songs. Between the oratorio Axion esti of 1964 and the meta-sym- phonic Canto General of 1981 Theodorakis had not published any big work, and this decisively added to his disappearance as a composer of symphonies. Almost 20 years had to pass for him to be reminded of being a composer. He had to go through a phase of disillusionment concerning social progress in Greece at the end of the 1970s before he could take up the musical material and the creative impetus of the 1950s again and discover the opera genre in the middle of the 1980s, which matches his compositional mentality of favoring both melody and symphony.
If you look at his last and probably most productive period, Theodorakis’s come-back to symphonies in 1980 appears like a liberation, a return to himself. Since then he has been writing various symphonies and orato- rio-like works.
Finally, in 1987 he created a new aesthetic method with the Zorbas ballet: from here on he examines the quality of the melodic material of the past 30 years. In Zorba, for example, Theodorakis tries to prove that his melodies also allow a symphonic entrance, in some cases – retrospectively – the melodies are symphonically demanding and in others very natural-sounding like a symphony.
In a letter (to Gail Holst) of 1974 he explains very vividly what he realized almost 15 years later: “For me the most important thing about my experiment was the search for an original melodic world which is similar to poetry and which has its roots in popular tradition. To create this melodic world two things were indispensable: simplicity and sincerity. The voice of the singer – unaffected, elementary, real in its effect – and the tonal color of the popular instruments evoke sincerity. I cre- ated simplicity by deliberately sparse harmony and orchestration. Each intellectual approach, all cleverly thought out would have meant that I aban- doned my main goal to exclusively rely on the power of melody. Maybe I devel- oped this tendency, that I would like to call ‘ascetic melodies,’ as a reaction to demelodization (and the renouncing of melodic intention) in the works of so- called modern composers. My melodic material is rich, versatile, and of such strict density, that, if I chose to, it would suffice for dozens of symphonies. If you analyze each separate melody you would surely come to the conclusion that in the end you are dealing with a new kind of composition which is not based on trivialized phenomenon, but is designed with immanent inevitability without affecting the compositional power or stringency.”

© Asteris Kutulas, 1996 English translation by Waltraud Seifert

(Published at the CD inlay of "Alexis Zorbas" (ballet), Schott Music & Media, Intuition (today: WERGO)