A Tribute to a Modest Greek Genius

September 6, 2020
By Phyllis ‘Kiki” Sembos

When doing research on various personages I stand in awe at the talents, brilliance, and endurance of certain people and how they withstood criticisms, estrangement, and physical harm and still come out of it all intact. Of all the essays I’d done, none had shaken my mind like that of Mikis (Michael)Theodorakis, composer/lyricist and sensitive human. His father was a lawyer and civil servant from a small village in Crete, his mother, Aspasia Poulakis was from Cesme, Turkey.

Born in Chios, Greece, he married Myrto Altinoglou and had two children, Giorgios and Margarita. From a very young age, before he knew musical notes or played an instrument he talked about becoming a composer of music. He was entranced by the Byzantine liturgy and after a while sat down and wrote his first song. At age 17, he gave his first concert in Tripoli, receiving high praise. Then, he went to Athens (1943) during the Civil War and joined the ELAS resistance organization that fought the Nazi occupation forces, and then the British and Rightists. He was arrested and exiled to Icaria, then to that infamous island, Makronisos, where he was tortured and buried alive twice but, by some miracle, survived.

From 1943 to 1950 he studied at the Athens Conservatory under Filoktitis Economidis, finishing with ‘flying colors’. From there he became head of the Chania Music School in Crete where he created his first orchestra. With his young wife, Myrto, he went to Paris (1954-1959) where he wrote a score for the ballet, Le Feu aux Poudres and received international acclaim. In Moscow,1957, he won a gold medal. Then, French composer, Darius Milhaud recommended him for the American Copley Music award. Honeymoon, title song of the movie of the same name, became part of the repertoire of the Beatles. It would take a full page to list all his concerts, symphonies, songs, and compositions, numbering more than a thousand. He returned to Greece in 1961 where he wrote Epitaphios, a contribution toward a cultural revolution, setting to music the work of great Greek poets like Giorgios Seferis and including pieces such as Little Kiklades (Odysseas Elytis) and Axion Esti and Romiosini (Yiannis Ritsis), all written to return Greece to the dignity it deserved.

After the assassination of Grigori Lambrakis, (1963) he organized the Democratic Youth that became an immense success with over 50,000 members, But, because of his political opinions, he was black listed and his songs censored. In 1964 he wrote the score for Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek (1964) and Costa-Gavras’ ‘Z’, (1969), and Serpico (1973). In 1989 he ran as independent candidate with Mitsotakis’ New Democracy Party to voice his strong opposition against the scandalous Andreas Papandreou, proving he is completely unbiased. In 1990, he was elected to Parliament and fought hard against drugs, terrorism and promoting education and culture. Even in exile, Theodorakis fought the colonels hoping in some way to restore democracy. He met Pablo Neruda, composing a piece called, ‘Canto General’. Millions of people across the globe praised him for his strong and fearless resistance against dictatorship. During that era he traveled, did concert tours in an attempt to make people aware of the importance of Human Rights, environmental issues, and the need for peace and understanding among nations – even Turkey. (Good luck with that, Mikis).

In 1988, he wrote a 4 volume autobiography, The Way of the Archangel, the 5th Chapter in 1989. Then, he wrote a trilogy of 3 operas; Medea (1991), Electra (1995), and in Luxemburg, he wrote Antigone (1999). More acclaims came, including being elected as Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of Luxemburg and then, IMC Unesco International Music Award.

He now lives in a well deserved retirement, reading, writing about culture and politics, having taken a strong stance against the Iraq War, the occupation of Gaza where apartheid exists, and the war crimes in Lebanon. His beautiful songs, Sto Periyialli, Kaimos, Aprilis, Doxa ton Theon, Agapi mou, Stis nixtas to Balconi, H Margarita, h margaro, To Yelasto Pedi, O Aidonis and many more lifts him, easily, to genius level with his awe-inspiring lyrics and musical talent and his resistance against an enemy that does not allow a difference of opinion or recognize that people will rise up against evil in time – something history has often proven. How many poems or songs have been written or dedicated, to a dictator, blackguard or despot? Since Attila the Hun, and those coming after him, how many received respect, admiration, medals or acclaims?

The style of music changes from generation to generation, some fade out eventually, some stay, thankfully, longer due to traditional value, but the beauty emanating from the mind and hands of Beethoven, Mozart, the Beatles, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and others, is eternal. And, among them, for more than his music, is our timeless Greek hero, Mikis Theodorakis.


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