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Eighty Years with Mikis Theodorakis

The beginnings | Studies and pursuits | Review of his oeuvre | The Opera

Mikis Thedorakis is one of the most familiar figures in the Greek musical landscape as well as Greek public life. It is often difficult to define the several characteristics of the “familiar”. The fact is that his figure and his works have travelled through half a century of Greek history and have certainly affected the course of Greek music.

All Greeks ranging from the intellectuals to the simple common people loved Theodorakis’ music. 

Since of the 1950s Theodorakis expresses through his melodies, his rhythm, his harmony and his passion for Greek poetry and the human values for which he is fighting incessantly. 

On July 29 2005 Mikis Theodorakis will complete 80 years of active and productive life in music and politics.

In studying his personal archive, which was presented to the Music Library Lilian Voudouri and is available to all interested scholars, we can discover significant details related to the evolution of his music as well as the Greek history of his times.  Theororakis’ music and texts reflect the agitated and stormy character of the artist’s musical and socio-political personality.

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The beginnings

The musical course of Mikis Theodorakis begins in the city of Patras in 1937-1939 when he takes his first violin lessons and composes his first songs. These first compositions are based on poems by Solomos, Palamas, Drossinis and Valaoritis, which he finds in schoolbooks and his home library. This fact is by no means random.  As a teenager, he is inspired by Greek poetry and sets out to change the style of Greek music. Later on, during the period of his imprisonment at the Oropos jail, amidst analyses of Axion Esti, Byzantine chant and the folksong, he writes: “In the beginning, there was the Word (…) my greatest ambition was to serve Modern Greek Poetry faithfully, to such a degree, that in hearing a song, you would not be able to imagine the music with any other text nor the poem set in different music». 1

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Studies and pursuits

Until 1943, when Theodorakis begins his studies at the Athens Conservatory and comes into contact with European art music, he had been influenced by Byzantine music, he had formed a choir and produced compositions for piano and violin. Along with the Musician, the politically active citizen Theodorakis is born. Despite political persecutions and exiles, he devotes himself to music and composition even under the most adverse conditions.

Newspaper “Kathimerina Nea”, March 31, 1946

Theodorakis’ oeuvre from 1943 to 1954 (when he leaves for studies in Paris) totals more than 70 compositions. Among them are such orchestral works as Margarita, the Festival of Assi Gonias, the Sextet, Orpheus and Euridice, the Greek Carnival (for the Greek Dance Theater of Rallou Manou) The First Symphony, which was written in exile on the islands of Ikaria, Makronisos, Athens and Chania.

From "Elegeio and Thrinos" 

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Review of his oeuvre

In Paris, Theodorakis meets with the new currents of music and begins his international career. While trying to determine his own identity in an environment of great pursuits and expectations, he makes his own decisions. He disagrees with the new trends, which he finds loaded with sentimentality, lyricism and traditionalism. He composed the Epitaph in 1958, in an effort to present his art to the Greek public. Bound to affect seriously the development of Greek popular music, Epitaph is a work of art written for the people, with the advantage of having the poetry of Ritsos in its verse. He is thus introducing Greek poetry to popular song, as well as the song cycle as a musical form, the popular singer, the popular musical instruments (bouzouki introduced for the first time) and the popular concert as the new form of communication with his audience.

Epitaph is the “forerunner” of Axion Esti, the first major work with a choir, which the composer calls “popular oratorio – meta-symphonic”. This unusual definition does not indicate the time distance but the qualitative difference between the Western and neo-hellenic musical art. 2

Notes on napkins in the Oropos prison

This special form inspired again by poetry,  (this time by Odysseas Elytis), and the folksong, brings many new elements: the simultaneous presence of the narrator (chanter) on the one hand, and the classical popular orchestra on the other. At times of great reflection, again in the Oropos prison, (October 1969 to April 1970) Theodorakis analyses his works and notes, in various ways, the relationship of the melodies with those of the Byzantine hymns and the Greek folk songs.

Upon his return to Greece in 1963, he establishes the Small Athens Orchestra with Manos Hatzidakis. With this orchestra he gives concerts with the intent to make serious music more accessible to the Greek public. He writes music for motion pictures, Phaidra (1961) and Zorba the Greek (1964) that make him famous the world over. From 1967 to 1980, he devotes himself particularly in the composition of song cycles. He composes 22 cycles such as the Songs of the Struggle, the Sun and the Time, the Novel, Arcadias I, II, III, IV, VIII, X, XI, Ballads and others. It is the period of incarcerations in Greece, escape to Paris, the composition of Canto General as well as the first years of the post-dictatorship period in Greece. This was a very intense period of time, really productive years where music becomes synonymous with the resistance against the dictatorship and lyricism alternates with rebellion in the area of melody and rhythm. 

Between 1967 and 1970 Theodorakis composes 5 pieces (Our Sister Athena, Arcadia VI, VII, VIII and Raven) all of which he characterizes as “meta-symphonic music” and calls them “River Songs”. This new form is defined by the strength as well as the specific requirements of the text. The voice of the singer, with the dominant verse, rolls along with the music without any repetitions, often reminiscent of a chanter’s recitation. The composer himself explains the influences of Byzantine music in the Third Part of the State of Siege, which includes the melody of Life in the Tomb. 3

Without abandoning the songs, during the 1980s, he turns again to greater symphonic works, starting with the Symphony No. 3 for mezzo, chorus and orchestra. Its conception of which is traced back to 1941. It was completed in 1981 and was based on poetry by Solomos, Kavafis, as well as Byzantine hymns.  There follow such works as Kata Saddoukaion, Dionysos (which Manos Hatzidakis calls sensational 4), the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Requiem, his first opera Kostas Kariotakis and the ballet Zorba the Greek.

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The Opera

It was on the imposing grounds of the Arena Di Verona, where the Ballet Zorba was first presented that Mikis Teodorakis decided to write opera: Medea in honour of Verdi, Electra in honour of Puccini, Ekavi (Hecuba) in honour of Bellini (the last part of the Trilogy developed as Antigone). It is in the 1960s that Theodorakis starts writing music for the theatre and his interplay with the Ancient Greek drama begins. The latter, thus becomes the source of inspiration for the composition of his operas. His decision to compose operas stems from “my need to take advantage of the dramatic possibilities offered to me by the entrance of the actors, especially the tragic characters in the space of my musical pursuits”. 5

The composer specifies this type of his composition as Lyric Tragedy in order to distinguish it from Western opera. He states: “I could not see the speech as being isolated or cut-off but, rather I placed it within the general framework which influenced decisively the final shaping of the own recitative did not bear the characteristics either of a simple or musical recitation or those of an aria...but, because here I was not dealing with actors but singers with strong capabilities of musical technique, it was natural that I would guide my melodic inspiration freely on the road that the melody guided the text...”. 6

View the video (mpg: 1':18'' - 7,48MB) 
View the video (mpg: 25'' - 1,45MB)

The Venture of Lyric Tragedy aims to convey to the Greek public the new elements, which are included in this medium. These major works (compositions) provide a number of stimuli to all of the senses. The composer tried to do the same thing in 1960 with the Epitaph and Axion Esti, when he introduced poetry to the Greek public through verse, chorus and orchestra. 

The strong musical anxieties of Mikis Theodorakis, made him try to seek many different ways of expression.  Inspirational, creative and prolific, he expresses himself through music and text. (Please see Discography, “List of Works” and Bibliography at From the simple Song, he moves to symphonic music, to “Popular Oratorio”, to River-Song and Opera. Whether he uses one voice and a popular orchestra or a chorus and a Symphony Orchestra, his unique melodies, the sometimes discreet, and sometimes complicated and dynamic rhythms, are capable of “speaking” directly to the public and conveying his lyricism and vigour.


Stephanie Merakos

1 Theodorakis, M., Mousiki gia tis mazes (Athens: Olkos, 1972):  29
2 op. cit.:   33
3 op. cit.: 163
4 Theodorakis, M., Dionysos (Sirios, Minos - EMI 850012, 1995)
5 Theodorakis, M., Melopiimeni piisi, v. 3 (Athens: Ipsilon, 1999) σ. 129
6 op. cit.: 129

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