Legendary Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis turned 95 years old on July 29 of this year and while large gatherings and celebrations were canceled due to the global pandemic, including a tribute concert by the Pancyprian Choir of NY, his music continues to connect Greeks and philhellenes worldwide.
Well-known for setting the iconic poetry of great Greek poets to music, Theodorakis has also written many poems and song-lyrics of his own, selections of which are featured in a new book, released on his 95th birthday, The House with the Scorpions: Selected Poems and Song-Lyrics by Mikis Theodorakis, translated by Gail Holst-Warhaft.
When someone asked Theodorakis about the inspiration for his music, he answered: “It’s very simple. I never thought of my music as anything but a way to clothe Greek poetry.”
The book is a bilingual edition and highlights a fine range of poetry by Theodorakis as well as the impressive translation by Holst-Warhaft, a gifted poet in her own right, who has spent years working with the composer as a musician, biographer, and translator.
Holst-Warhaft left her native Australia in 1965 and moved to Greece. In the 1970s, she performed as a keyboard player with Greece’s leading composers, including Theodorakis and Dionysios Savvopoulos. Now Adjunct Professor in the Departments of Classics, Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, Holst-Warhaft recently spoke with The National Herald about The House with the Scorpions, as well as her upcoming books on nisiotika and rembetika.
When asked how she is dealing with the pandemic, Holst-Warhaft told TNH, “As COVID rages around us, and politics dominates the rest of our lives, I’m escaping into Greek poetry and music.”
Since she is working on her book about nisiotika with Nikos Oikonomidis and Mariza Koch as her “two major sources,” she noted that “I’ve been listening to a lot of nisiotika, but I’m also writing a rembetika book for children with Mariza – she writes the songs, I write the story and Zoe Dionysiou from the Ionian University helps make the book a useful learning tool. That’s also coming out fairly soon with the publishing house Fagoto.
“While I was writing it, I came upon a rather rare and wonderful recording of Sotiria Bellou singing ‘Eimai aitos horis ftera.’ That’s the way to deliver a song! There’s nothing between her and that song. She’s simply the mouthpiece. I also listened to Bithikotsis singing Drapetsona – a wonderful song and an incredible voice.”
Holst-Warhaft’s fascinating books include The Cue for Passion: Grief and its Political Uses (Harvard UP, 2000), Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature, Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music (Hakkert 1980), and Penelope's Confession (poems, 2007).
The Fall of Athens, published in 2016, is another remarkable work featuring Holst-Warhaft’s poetry and prose about Greece, including letters from her friend, Greek singer Mariza Koch. The eclectic compilation of poetry, prose, translation, memoir, and songs is a must read for anyone interested in the indomitable spirit of Greece and the ability of the people to create extraordinary beauty out of suffering.
The House of the Scorpions and all the above-mentioned books are available online.