Useful Links  Site Map  Greek
General Information
Library Catalogs
List of Works
Greek Music Archive
Educational & Research Programs
Contacting the Library
Digital Library
Notebook (articles)
Persons - Works
Greek Music
Library's Collections
Bibliographies - Discographies
Other Arts

You are here: HomePage| Notebook| Greek Music|
Theodorakis the innovator seen through his archive documents

The present article takes its title from the lecture which was delivered during the international conference “Mikis Theodorakis, the man, the creator, the musician, the politician; a Cretan and a cosmopolitan” held in Chania, July 29th to 31st, under the auspices of the Prefecture of Chania.

Introduction | First period | Second period: the composer | Second period: other activities


I began working on the Mikis Theodorakis Archive at the end of 1997 when the composer decided to donate it to the ‘Friends of Music Society’ and to the Music Library of Greece ‘Lilian Voudouri’. For me the composer was already a mythical figure in my childhood and represented the essence of ‘Greek music’.  His music carried me through my political awakening during the political changeover when I was still in high school. That was the time too, around 1972 I think, when, with other enthusiastic fans in Plaka, we listened to the ‘Lianotragouda’ with Giannis Didilis at the piano. These are the first memories that come to mind when I think of the work and personality of Mikis Theodorakis in the 70s.

Then ‘many days went by in a very short time’, as the poet says. In 1977, in charge of the Greek Music Archive of the Library, I began to carry out the operations involved in the transfer, management, archiving, documenting, safe-keeping and promotion of the Mikis Theodorakis Archive. I won’t tire you with details about the transfer of this archive. Let me just quote a few figures to give you an idea of its volume.

The Music Library of Greece Mikis Theodorakis Archive is divided into four sections: the music archive (50,000 pages), the document archive (56,000 pages which includes the composer’s correspondence and texts related to his musical, political and cultural activities), the paper clippings archive (about 350 volumes), and other items such as posters (120), programmes (270), DVDs (70), photographs (600), medals (69) and so on.

One glance at this material is enough to make one realize the exceptional creativity of Mikis Theodorakis. His manifold talents in music, poetry, speech, philosophy, politics, and his social sensibility point to a prolific, sensitive and combative personality. In the introduction to his book ‘Machomeni Koultoura’ (Combative Culture), Giannis Ritsos writes: “Mikis Theodorakis is multitalented, multidimensional, multifaceted, formidable. Everything about him is big: stature, hands, feet, voice, laughter, movements – everything to a superlative degree. He is one of those persons who ‘when they dance in the square, make the ceilings rock inside the houses and the glassware rattle on the shelves […] like a taut string perpetually vibrating, ceaselessly aware of even the slightest intimation in history, of each single sign in the ‘inside’ world.”1

My aim here is to line up as objectively as possible, by means of his own texts and other little known documents, the events that highlight Mikis Theodorakis’s music creativity. I want to share with you some archive documents that underline this music creativity as well as the innovations that Mikis Theodorakis brought to the actual world of contemporary Greek music.

It is however not so easy to answer questions like: why is Theodorakis a great music figure in Greece and beyond; what is it that makes him outstanding; what changes did he bring to the Greek music world; what do his originality, pioneering and innovations consist in.  In an attempt to analyze his contribution we need to approach his work using tools from the fields of musicology and history. It is impossible to reduce Mikis Theodorakis to one single field of action; we must simultaneously take into account Theodorakis the citizen, Theodorakis the musician and Theodorakis the politician. Even when we want to limit our field of study exclusively to Theodorakis the musician, we cannot isolate the composer of popular Greek music of artistic quality - a music that became a symbol for generations of Greeks in the struggle for freedom- from the composer of the First Suite, the Antigone ballet, the Third Symphony or the opera Medea, the composer who wrote ground-breaking Greek music of artistic quality in the 50s from the composer who in the 80s composed operas.

We will try to touch on certain elements that accurately show the innovative characteristics of his work. But because of our time limit we will touch only on significant points concentrating mainly on the Theodorakis’s first two creative periods.

The first period encompasses the years 1937 to 1959, from his return from Paris to his work Epitafios. During this period he became acquainted with the art of composing and the musician in him began to ripen. It was the time when he decided that the role he was to play was that of music composer for the masses.

His second period goes from 1960 (Axion Esti) to 1980, and sees the fulfilment of his vision. During this period his music becomes Greek and through it, he is able to express profound ideas.

Back to the top

First period

Already as a child Mikis Theodorakis read a lot. He read his schoolbooks but also read other books he found at home. He began to develop the first outlines of his music, what he was to call much later his ‘children songs’. Palamas, Valaoritis, Solomos wrote the poems he put to music; equally significant is the fact that 90% of his compositions were songs. Only a small fraction of his work included simple melodies for piano and later on for piano and violin (perhaps you know that he took violin lessons in Patras in 1937). Poetry was the composer’s driving force. This is obvious throughout his work. From his music notebooks in 1937 to his last work, Lysistrati, the text gives him the lead, inspires him, and he in turn gives the text wings with his music and puts it on everyone’s lips. I want to stress my point: Mikis Theodorakis is the first music composer who writes for the public at large, he wants his music to be popular, he puts poetry to music and makes it known and accessible to everybody, turning it into a part of every Greek’s life.

Aged 19 in 1944 he entered the Athens Conservatory and took his first lessons in music. He began learning composition with his teacher Philoktitis Oikonomidis, and began to discover music with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.  He really began to learn the language of music leaving behind his previous backward and traumatic music studies: he “found the key that opened the road to music sounds, lit by golden chords and meandering melody lines in endless embraces full of wisdom and feeling”.2

It was during the period of his studies at the Conservatory that he enrolled as an active member in the political organization EPON and, in 1945, with some of his fellow students he decided to found the “Mousiko Somateio Neon (Music Association for young people)”: “The aim of this association is to ensure that all young artists complete their music studies, and, as far as possible, to promote a wider dissemination of music. To develop the artistic chord in the souls of the young and to promulgate music education and teaching. To reach our aim we need to: […] set up a club and a library, set up various divisions for orchestra, choir, lectures and ceremonies in which the members of the orchestra and choir will perform […]”. In this enterprise he counted on the support and management of Argyris Kounadis, Giorgos Sisilianos, Stelios Kafantaris, Dimitris Fabas and other well-known composers and musicians. Their suggestions and comments are still valid today, for the teaching of music in the various conservatories has known few innovations if any since then. I don’t know if since then there has been an attempt to establish any other such association of conservatory pupils, who because of their status as ‘pupils’ as opposed to ‘students’ cannot benefit from the privileges attached to this last category.

Already at this early stage Mikis Theodorakis believed that the music he studied and used as a model in his composition exercises was “far from the actual Greek music” 3. The composer was already struggling to find a way of choosing between the elaborate European music and the strong but primitive modern Greek music, and struggling to find a way to put his talents to the service of this Greek music while developing his own ideals.

His quest began in 1954 when he went to Paris to further his studies and obtain the means to develop his own music language. His studies captivated him to the highest degree, he was an excellent student. Only a year after his arrival in Paris a work of his, his Sonatina for piano, was performed at the Cortot Hall in the Ecole nationale de musique, and he was asked to compose soundtracks for the cinema. [Other delegates will talk later on about his works during this period.] Despite his interest in his studies, the intellectual and specifically the music life in Paris disappointed the composer. He found the music context boring and found the myth of western music wilting. “All those snobs attending the avant-garde concerts made me feel sick”, he wrote 4. He found that avant-garde music was only for a limited public of snobs. Who does the composer write music for? How does he define his relation with the public? Looking back in history he discovered that the great composers wrote their music for their period and not for immortality. They composed for a very specific public: the people of their country. Their work became immortal because of their efforts to express their own period, their own people through their work. In his own words: “Bit by bit I put together the ideal of my life. To create music murals using exclusively live elements. Essentially and truthfully. To enrich my music language with every new technical tool … but above all I wanted my people to sense this large music mural, to make it their own, to feel it flowing out of them.”5

In 1957 the composer presented his Suite no. 1 for piano and orchestra, a work remarkable for its intense rhythm. He specifically wrote that this work belongs to the Greek world but not to its folklore. He explained how he tried to create a monument to the island of Crete, his homeland; a work of sounds, colours and unyielding rhythm.

Many experts have studied the Greek element in Mikis Theodorakis’s work. What we have here is a work that underlines the composition concerns of its creator. It is a work as complex as the period when it was composed. It was performed for the first time in Athens on February 24th, 1957 by the Athens State Orchestra; Jean Vigue was the soloist and Andreas Paridis was the conductor. It was given only negative reviews. Despite the negative welcome it received inside the country, the work was awarded the gold medal in composition at the symphonic music competition that was held in Moscow, where Shostakovitch was president of the jury and Hans Eisler was vice-president. It is worth noting here that this was the first of a series of suites that Mikis Theodorakis meant to compose for various solo instruments. Why does this work stand out as something different in the composer’s career of this period? Because it combines a number of techniques. To begin with he uses the piano as a solo instrument but also as a simple part of the orchestra (Stravinsky and Messiaen did the same at this time), secondly he uses Byzantine and folk music elements, and thirdly he uses a complex tonal system for the composer makes use of harmonic polytonality and of an elaborate tetrachord system.

However, as we mentioned before, the outstanding Greek character of this work lies in its rhythm. The composer doesn’t use the typical Cretan pendozali rhythm as such; he doesn’t copy it openly, but conveys the character of the rhythm and of the melody. The Greek elements in this work have nothing to do with the Greek elements in Kalomiris’s work. Both composers have the same objective but achieve it through different means. Here Mikis Theodorakis creates his own Greek character, present in the lively and asymmetrical Cretan rhythms, an unmistakable reference to Cretan dances. In his book ‘Peri Technis’ (About Art), Mikis Theodorakis writes: “[…] it is a dramatic, tragic work. Behind the frenzied, Bacchian yells […] lies the deeply hidden unsatisfied passion of Man stumbling in awe over the merciless limit of life […] it echoes in all its realism a deep chord in the modern Greek soul […] Stravinsky’s influence on my work is exterior, superficial. It is basically due to the fact that we both rely on the music traditions of our countries –Russian and Greek- and they both share an iron quality in the rhythm of their respective dances” 6. Mikis Theodorakis was very well acquainted with Stravinsky’s work; in his archive we find studies and analyses of the latter’s work Agon. He greatly admired the musician’s personality, he appreciated the Russian flavour in Stravinsky’s works and believed he was a great composer and intellectual. The intense dancing and rhythmic quality of the piece is what made the composer choose the term ‘Suite’ for the title of this work.

1958 was a year marked by success: his medal for the First Suite, his preparation work for his ballet Antigone, the soundtracks for the cinema; it was then that he took on the Epitafios poems of Giannis Ritsos.  At the time, as he says in his own words: “I had to wake up to the reality around me, look at the future with open eyes”; the patterns for his popular Greek music began to take shape. In the next couple of years he had made his choice. He was to be much influenced by the idea that great artists create for their own time and place immortal works that end by conveying the feelings of peoples everywhere. Needless to add that for himself he saw no life outside Greece.

Back to the top

Second period: the composer

As for the composition of the Epithaphios music, most of us know that Ritsos sent his poems to Theodorakis who was then in Paris and that the composer put them all to music in one day. This was a turning point: the composer began developing a new style. The innovative elements we find in this work and which are significant because they represent the turning point in the composer’s career are precisely the elements of Greek music and of course the poems of Ritsos, a poet Theodorakis knows and admires. In this work we find simple syllabic melodies that move in a way common both to Byzantine music and to Greek folk music, and at the same time we find rhythms that remind us of Greek folk music and rebetico music. The Axion Esti is undoubtedly one of Theodorakis’s major works. It is his first ‘meta-symphonic’ work. This term, which so far hasn’t received the attention it deserves, is an instance of the continuous effort on the part of the composer to differentiate the various sections of his activities in music or politics. He didn’t hesitate to coin a word for a form and style that he himself introduced. He found this term to describe a work that simply couldn’t be described in any other manner. By then Theodorakis had become an accomplished composer in control of his art, and he had given proof thereof. However he wanted to find his own means of expression, break his own ground discovering a way to communicate with the public, with the masses. As the composer wrote about Elytis’s poetry: “this music was already in me and all I needed was for the sword to strike the rock and let the water of sounds gush out” 7. It is a symphonic sui generis work. It includes the instruments of a symphonic orchestra as well as popular instruments such as the bouzouki and the dulcimer, whilst the vocal part is divided into baritone, Greek popular singing and recitative, with a significant choir part.

Only superlative adjectives can properly describe the relation between the music and Elytis’s poetry. It is no accident that Theodorakis choose Elytis’s masterpiece to make his own music statement. The text describes the essence of Greek soul, Greek history, Greek atmosphere. It advances, if I may say, with ‘Greek means’. The five popular songs correspond to the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy which the composer dearly loves and believes to be the best form of art in ancient Greece.

On the whole what we have here is a symphonic work that wants to be popular, and a work of Greek popular music with sophisticated symphonic overtones. This brings us to another term coined by Theodorakis that he bequeathed to ensuing generations of composers, the term of ‘art-popular music’. 

In 1970 he wrote that “the contemporary folk song suffered from a basic weakness. It was one-sided. While musically speaking it was very strong, the lyrics were more often than not shallow and silly […] of all Greek forms of art the most advanced one was undoubtedly the art of poetry. There was nothing simpler really than to link these two outstanding achievements of the modern Greek spirit (music and poetry) […] the success or the failure of this experiment would decide the future of this attempt. Of course by success I mean here one single event”. On his work Epitaphios he said: “One can say of Epitaphios based on Ritsos’s poetry that it is ‘art for the masses’. This then opened a new way. Where did it lead? For me it led basically to the establishment of a new style that at any given moment would lend us a firm foothold from which to proceed forward. In what direction? Well, towards a modern musical work of art that can be creatively assimilated by the masses”8. After this there followed a vast number of works, based on this formula, that became property of the masses. Two factors need to be stressed here: first, the early date at which the composer began making use of poetry in his music, and secondly, the importance and the magnitude that this choice was going to have on the entirety of Mikis Theodorakis’s work. He wrote that his greatest ambition was to serve modern Greek poetry in the best way 9. This innovation was to influence and mark the next generation of Greek composers until about the beginning of the 90s.

To tragoudi to nekrou adelfou (The song for the dead brother), another ‘Greek’ work, has its own innovative elements. After the Axion Esti which is an attempt at composing ‘meta-symphonic music’ based on popular elements, we have here an attempt at re-establishing modern tragedy, a sort of lyrical theatre based on modern Greek popular song. There is no need however for the composer to go back to ancient Greek history or mythology to find tragic figures and settings. Modern Greek history from the beginning of the second World War until the end of the Civil War, in a word the decade of the 40s, gives this work its theme, touching on a great many issues that belong as much to history and politics as to the theatre. Theodorakis in a note included in the programme calls for national unity and explains that the work has a political aim; addressing himself to the public he concludes with the following words: “I have no strength left but the one I get from you”. This work is a proposal to create a modern popular tragedy. It belongs to vast political theatre genre introduced by Brecht and closely resembles the work Enas omiros (A hostage), especially in the use of songs. There are two basic elements: modern mythology and modern popular song.

For Theodorakis the words, the text, play a fundamental role, and in this case he writes the words himself, finding inspiration in persons he dearly loves (Pavlos Papamerkouriou was a close friend of his), but it is the symbolism of the work that gives it its character. The theme of the blind father and his daughter bring to mind the ancient Greek tragedy of Oedipus which served as a model to the composer in this work. The mother too is a central dramatic figure and another direct reference to ancient Greek tragedy; she personalizes human drama, and suffers for her children’s sake. Pavlos and Nikolios represent each one a different world, and Ismini the girl symbolizes love, destiny and sacrifice.

In regard to its form this work gives a symbolic importance to the lyrics and is comparable to the chorus in ancient tragedy. Once again it is the popular singer who expresses popular feelings. The last but one song in this work, Sta pervolia (In the orchards), features all the elements of Greek music. Its rhythm, as in most songs of this work, is that of a Greek dance called zeibekiko; the lyrics recall the Byzantine epic poem of Digenis Akrita and more specifically the hero’s struggle against death in the marble threshing floors; the music is awe-inspiring. It also brings to mind the Easter hymns that lament the Lord’s death. The syllabic verse follows a chromatic melody very similar to that used in Greek Church music. This melody however is extremely dynamic, firstly because of its simplicity, secondly because of its step-by-step character which is a direct reference to Byzantine music, and thirdly because of its modality. The melody develops around A, dominant of D major, it includes a diminished fourth, D flat, which makes the melody modal. Harmonically, the work shifts from major to minor D chords. In this manner, although the piece starts out in a D major tonality, the composer manages to convey the sorrowfulness of the lyrics through a parallel use of major and minor D as well as of the diminished fourth on fifth grade interwoven into the melody.

Back to the top

Second period: other activities

During this period, Mikis Theodorakis engaged in parallel activities which included a “Greek music re-organization project”, the foundation of the “Small Orchestra of Athens” and the setting up of the “Piraeus Music Group”. The article that was published in May 1960 in the fortnightly review ‘Kritiki’ bore the title “Greek music re-organization project” and made suggestions on the ‘sum of the musical events in our life’; it was signed by Mikis Theodorakis and Argyris Kounadis, Giannis Xenakis, Giannis A. Papaioannou, Dimitris Chorafas and Phoivos Anogiannakis. The topics analysed included education, symphonic orchestras, opera and ballet, radio programmes, festivals, church music, light music, the compilation of music and dance folklore, scholarships and editions. The efforts and activities in all these fields were to be supported and controlled by the National Music Council. Forty years later and more, I am sorry to say that, while Mikis Theodorakis’s proposal remains as valid today as then, it also remains, unfortunately, unfulfilled.

The 1962 summer was marked by bad health, but in November of the same year Mikis Theodorakis founded the Small Orchestra of Athens which aimed at increasing the general public’s knowledge of music. I quote here a note from one co-director (Mikis Theodorakis) [the other co-director was Manos Hadzidakis] that was included in the programme dated 12-04-1963 (possibly the last but one performance): “The Small Orchestra of Athens was hailed and loved by the public, especially by the younger part of the public, who felt quite rightly that this wasn’t simply a getting together of musicians but rather a cultural movement. A movement of ideas aiming to break through the crystal barrier that the infinitely small number of Athens esthetes have erected around music, and to hurl it out into the noisy streets, the universities, the neighbourhoods, the provinces and into all kinds of discussions. The Small Orchestra of Athens wants to tell our people: be autodidactic, improve your cultural level, do not expect others to give you what is yours. And it wants to tell its artists: go out into the streets and deliver your poems; exhibit your pictures in factories; go and find the masses where they are; do away with the go-betweens. Time is up! Artists and public must go hand-in-hand without delay to the top of the hill to see what lies on the other side […]” 

This note included in the programme was a real manifesto against the society of its time; until then the only important orchestra was the Athens State Orchestra that had been founded by Mikis Theodorakis’s beloved teacher Philoktitis Oikonomidis. The Small Orchestra of Athens was in action until May 1963 and performed 38 public events. Theodorakis then gave up his post as director; as he explained in his letter to the orchestra members, he feared he was the reason why the government refused to subsidize the orchestra. He resigned in order to help it find financial support.


Later on in 1966, he decided to found the Piraeus Music Group in collaboration with the Piraeus Municipality. His project included the creation of a Small Piraeus Symphonic Orchestra, a Piraeus Vocal Ensemble, a school of Greek popular music, a Greek popular music orchestra, a Greek popular music society and a Piraeus Artists Office. The symphonic orchestra was to include in its repertoire old (pre-classic) music, choir works (pre-classic), modern Greek music, and modern music in general. I won’t tire you with details, however there was a project for the instruction and performance of all kinds of music. The orchestra was also meant to perform abroad and seminars were organized every Thursday. The foundation of the 1967 Musical August was yet another project that Mikis Theodorakis had in mind for the promotion of Greek music, but it was cancelled for political reasons.


In 1970 in his jail in Oropos the composer reflected on his ‘Debt’ and felt the need to find his roots. It is there that he wrote his “Artist Credo”, an important document in his Archive which consists of 95 paper napkins with texts on his works Axion Esti and the Tragoudi tou nekrou adelfou, on meta-symphonic music, modern tragedy, traditional music, Byzantine music and various features of melody.  

He put the last touches to his “Artist Credo” in Paris on July 27, 1972; this is the epitome of his principles as an artist: “[..] effort cannot be justified with studies or analyses. Only life can justify effort. It is a fact that my effort remained meteoric. In 1967 I was under the impression of leaving behind my pre-historical creative activities to enter the main phase of my personal history. I had made my choice – the folk music oratorio, the Axion Esti and the meta-symphonic work- and I was ready to dedicate myself to this effort. What’s more at that time I counted on a symphonic orchestra, a mixed choir, an orchestra of folk music and all the means required to perform every possible success, mine and others. […] Today I do not have this possibility anymore. […] I have to solve my own problem. I have to place the people on one side and, on the other, the artist who wants to dedicate his work to the people”. However, as an exile in Paris at that time, he realized he wouldn’t be able to fulfil his vision. His text nevertheless was written for all Greek artists. He tried to bring them out into the open, “to lead them out of their ‘walls’ and to make them aspire to express through their work and their stand the infinite sensibility and the intrinsic passion of our Greek people”. A little later he did have the opportunity to realize this dream and to create ever more songs, firmly establishing the foundations of a folk Greek music of artistic quality. From 1970 to 1986 (the period that he himself describes as his time in exile, abroad and inside the country, 1974 to 1986) he composed 18 song cycles and gave a series of impressive concerts throughout the world. He really and truly wrote music for the masses.

But let us go back to Mikis Theodorakis’s innovations in the 1969-70 period when he presented his ‘Tragoudia potamos’ (river songs). Yet another term is coined in relation to a music form the composer created, guided once again by the poetical text. The two works Pnevmatiko Emvatirio (1969) and Raven (1970) are both ‘river songs’. Originally they are works for a small orchestral and voice and they differ from the ‘lied’ form in that they do not make use of alternate burden and verse in the music or the lyrics. There are no repetitions: the music and the lyrics flow like a river. The ‘river songs’ are classified among Mikis Theodorakis’s symphonic works and represent a work of great value.

We tried to show how Mikis Theodorakis gives poetry the first role in his work, the way in which his music was shaped from sophisticated European music during his successful time in Paris in the 50s to sophisticated popular Greek music from the 60s to the 80s, through songs and symphonic compositions, lyric theatre and ‘river songs’. The Greek musician, Mikis Theodorakis, also tried to establish the foundation for orchestras and institutions that would bring music and music education closer to the Greek public at large.

Mikis Theodorakis is part of our life. His music and his personality are everywhere and are linked with pleasant and not so pleasant moments of our lives. His pioneering in music and his vision has influenced the next generations of Greek composers, it has stirred the Greek public and has changed the music background in Greece. His music is present everywhere: from a friendly get-together on a warm summer night to the largest opera and concert halls the world over.

After a long struggle the vision of a Greek ‘art-popular music’ that Mikis Theodorakis began to introduce in the 60s has become a fact.

Stephanie Merakos
(translated by Maria Teresa Hildebrand)
Chania, 30 July 2005

1 Mikis Theodorakis. Machomeni Koultoura. Athens: Synchroni epochi, 1982

2 Mikis Theodorakis. Peri Technis. Athens: Papazisis, 1976, pp.72-73

3 ibid.

4 ibid.,p. 103

5 ibid.,p. 105

6 ibid.,p. 102

7 ibid.,p. 116

8 Mikis Theodorakis. Music for the masses. Athens: Olkos, 1972

9 ibid.,p. 29

Print Back to the top