Mikis Theodorakis, Greece’s Acclaimed Composer, Activist, Dies at 96

September 2, 2021

ATHENS – Music composer Mikis Theodorakis, whose works ranged from the irresistible dance tune of Zorba the Greek to heavyweight arrangements about life, justice and the military junta that imprisoned him, has died at 96.

With his electrified hair standing in a wave that mirrored his passion and defiance of fascists, he was a giant of a figure on the music and political stages in Greece and around the world.

His rousing works stirred the blood and brought goose bumps in sounds that made you grit your teeth in defiance of injustice, and softer sounds that were soothing to the soul and introspective laments.

His death at his home in central Athens which had a view of the Acropolis he said he would miss the most when he was gone, was announced on state TV and came after many hospitalizations in recent years, mostly for heart treatment.

Theodorakis’ prolific career that started at age 17 produced a hugely varied body of work that ranged from somber symphonies to popular television and the film scores for Serpico and Zorba the Greek that still has flash mobs appearing everywhere on streets trying to dance it the way Anthony Quinn did in the film.

But the towering man with trademark worker suits, hoarse voice and wavy hair also is remembered by Greeks for his stubborn opposition to postwar regimes that persecuted him and outlawed his music.

After the junta fell and those who fled returned from exile or were let out of prison, he gave one of Greece's most applauded concerts in a rousing scream for justice that had people yelling in joy and triumph.

He also conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in his triumphant March of the Spirit to an emotional crowd, the New York Times remembered in a piece on his passing and legacy.

“It was as if Zorba himself were conducting,” Newsweek wrote at the time. “When it ended, the audience wouldn’t let him leave; prolonged applause, cheers, stamping feet and rhythmic cries of ‘Theodorakis! Theodorakis!’ brought him back five times.”


His music was banned by the junta, the paper's report recounting a story of just how feared it was by the repressive regime of Colonels.

In the early 1970s, Greek exiles were fond of sharing a story about an Athens policeman who walks his beat humming a banned Theodorakis song, it said.

Hearing it, a passer-by stops the policeman and says, “Officer, I’m surprised that you are humming Theodorakis.” Whereupon the officer arrests the man on a charge of listening to Theodorakis’ music.

The paper said that while he was put away for his ideals, his forbidden rebellious music was a reminder to his people of freedoms that had been lost. “Always I have lived with two sounds — one political, one musical,” Theodorakis told The Times in 1970.

After he was released from prison into exile in 1968, he began an international campaign of concerts and contacts with world leaders that helped topple the Colonels, the movement started by rebellious students.

“It was a turning point for democracy, with a new constitution and a membership in the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union,” the report added.

During World War II, Theodorakis joined a Communist youth group that fought fascist occupation forces in Greece. After the war, his name appeared on a police list of wartime resisters, and he was rounded up with thousands of suspected Communists and sent for three years to the island of Makronisos, the site of a notorious prison camp.

There he contracted tuberculosis, and he was tortured and subjected to mock executions by being buried alive, the story said, but his spirit was indomitable and he rose to live and compose again, his jailers disgraced.

(Material from The Associated Press was used in this report)


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