Amid the busy world news scene last month, the announcement of the passing of the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis on 2 September at the age of 96 escaped my attention. This blog offers a short introduction to his widely admired music. The political turmoil that frequently stamped the other side of his coin is easy to research; the obituary that appeared in The Guardian would be a good place to start.
As for a good place to start with his music, I’m going to be utterly predictable and open with the music he wrote for the film Zorba the Greek (1964) that features the engaging sound of the bouzouki, a popular Greek instrument similar to a long-necked lute.
Born in 1925 on the Greek island of Chios, Mikis Theodorakis first studied in Athens then, following the Greek Civil War that ran from 1946 to 1949, he became a student of Olivier Messiaen and Eugène Bigot in Paris. His left-wing political affiliations and revolutionary musical doctrines brought continuing problems following the Greek military coup of 1967, when a group of rightwing army generals seized power in a coup d’état a month before scheduled elections. Theodorakis was detained as a result of his leftwing ideology; his subsequent release was secured following an international outcry.
Here’s a piece of his that was born of a later conflict. It’s the deeply felt Adagio, written in 1992 for the victims of the Bosnian War that raged until 1995. It’s heard here in a version for soprano saxophone, percussion and strings.
Turning from that contemporary earthly scene to a more heavenly pitch, we have an extract from Theodorakis’ The Troparion of Kassiani. Kassiani, an early ninth-century abbess who wrote sacred poems and hymns, is the earliest woman composer whose works have survived, and while only around 25 of her compositions are extant today, both her poetry and her music have provided continual inspiration to Orthodox worshippers and to later composers. The Troparion, a short poetic hymn, for which she wrote both words and music, is sung in the Vespers service of Holy Tuesday. Theodorakis’ setting of the Troparion is an early work, written in 1942, while he was still a teenager. Its predominantly Western harmonies are nevertheless inflected by the nuances of the original chant. Here’s the opening section.
Turning from sacred to secular choral music, I’ve chosen a movement from Theodorakis’ Canto General which sets to music poems by Pablo Neruda (1904–1973), the Chilean poet-diplomat and politician who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. Canto General is the tenth of Neruda’s fifteen books of poems, published in 1950. Here’s Theodorakis’ setting of the final section of the work, titled America Insurrecta, in a performance conducted by the composer himself.
Theodorakis composed hundreds of fine songs, which brought him international fame and changed the course of Greek song. He was the first to set intellectual poetry to music in a purely popular way. This began in 1958 with Epitaph, an eight-song cycle based on the poetry of the great Yiannis Ritsos (1909–1990). Many of the cycle’s songs have been transcribed for the classical guitar and performed by renowned guitarists such as John Williams and Miloš Karadaglic. I’m going to end this short tribute with one of them, which translates, appropriately, as You were good.