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Culture

Unknown Mikis – Listen Closely, and You Will Hear Beethoven Roaring… And Crete Whispering

ATHENS – The island of Crete, the site of Europe’s first civilization, is one of the most remarkable places on Earth – and while not all spectacular places produce great men and women, it has given birth – or is the place of the roots – of some of history’s most extraordinary people: the great statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, the sublime painter El Greco, the powerful writer Nikos Kazantzakis, and the transcendent composer Mikis Theodorakis.

Their lives embedded in the books and TV programs Greeks encounter from childhood, Hellenes would say, “yes, I know Nikos…I know Mikis  – their words and music are the background and soundtrack of my life.”

The songs they are thinking about, however, are a small though radiant portion of Mikis’ oeuvre, but there is so much more – symphonies and chamber music, oratorios and operettas, and even ballet music. Now, however, there is a gateway to his entire musical world that can be accessed the world over on mikisradio.com, a tribute to the great man by his adoring son, Nikos Theodorakis.

“Naturally, his one complaint,” said Nikos, Mikis Theodorakis’ biological son, who is also a professional singer, “was that his lesser known works were not played, his symphonies and operas, and that is why I established Mikisradio in 2017. Mikis told me ‘finally, my music has been liberated… You are my liberator.”

Nikos told The National Herald that with Mikisradio, “my father felt the way he did when Greece was liberated from the Germans because the full gamut of his work can be heard there, from the songs of his youth to his religious music to his chamber music to his operas.”

He continued, “what Mikis cared about the most was for the entire body of his music to be presented. It is part of his desire to see people rise higher, aided by listening to great works of music – the way Italians listen to their operas, the way people enjoy oratorios, he believed Greeks should do the same.”

In the discussion about Mikis’ music and life, three words kept coming up: ‘roots’ and ‘earth’ and ‘Ellada’. Asked if there were particular countries that also inspired his father’s music, Nikos quickly cut off the question and said: “μονο η Ελλαδα – only Greece.”

While he did not ‘live’ Crete – Mikis grew up on Chios and after that lived all over Greece because his father was a lawyer and civil servant, places such as Ioannina, Lesvos, Tripoli, Lefkada  – he did receive artistic inspiration from the Big Island. Mikis’ first symphonic composition, ‘To Panigiri tis Asi Gonias’ consists of reflections on the historic village located 25 miles from his father’s homeland of Galata.

As a young adult Mikis studied and then lived in Athens, but he was also drawn to Crete, where he became the head of the Chania Music School and founded his first orchestra.

THE GOD OF GREEK POPULAR MUSIC WORSHIPED ON THE ALTAR OF CLASSICAL MUSIC

“The main thing Mikis would like the Hellenes of the Diaspora to know about his life’s work is that he began as a composer of classical music – his first works were symphonies. His first was titled ‘Apocalypse – Ode to Beethoven.’ He was deeply influenced by him. He idolized him.”

Indeed, observing some of the famous paintings of the great German composer and recalling Mikis’ passion when he conducted, one has an immediate flash of insight: “Aha, Mikis IS the Greek Beethoven” – musically and spiritually.

“There are reasons for that. First, Beethoven like Mikis, was devoted to classical Greek civilization. Second, they were both Dionysiacal composers,” Nikos said.

The word ‘mountains’ is also part of any conversation about Mikis’ inspiration. Nikos believes one could say his father had a spiritual relationship with Menalo, the lush, green mountain – so alive – of Tripoli. “Certainly we can say that for Mikis, his music comes from the very foundations of the Earth, from deep in the mountains.”

That is the main reason Nikos says his music is Dionysian. “Mikis’ music was entangled with the Earth – and he wrote a song ‘Ta Themelia Mou Sta Bouna – My Foundation is in the Mountains’ – that was part of a Glykeria album.” His Symphony No 2 is titled The Song of the Earth.

“But what caused Mikis’ musical ‘plaka’” – his artistic epiphany if not explosion – “was when he first heard Beethoven’s 9th symphony – the Ode to Joy, as a child. That’s what caused him to want to become a composer…He wrote songs as a child – his first was ‘To Karabaki – the Little Boat’ was from when he was around 12 years old,” Nikos said.

Another surprise is that the first instrument Mikis wanted to study and did learn to play was the violin.

And yet another turning point and great influence was his participation in a church choir in Tripoli, specifically, his learning Byzantine music. “His family attended church and Mikis was inspired by our religious music, and he began to write pieces for the choir, like the Cherubic hymn and the Troparion of Kassiane – the latter is still performed. It’s a magnificent work,” Nikos noted.

His other musical foundations are deep in his family; one of his ancestors was lyra player on Crete. “So, music was in his DNA. And at home, they had a phonograph. Pappou Giorgos Theodorakis played records that they danced to: introduced him to European music – tango, waltz, etc.”

The inspirations for Mikis’ music were myriad, reflecting both people in his life, and his wide reading – Nikos called him a walking encyclopedia. Among the subjects that fascinated him was astrophysics – formally, he studied law – and of course, Hellenic and world literature. Mikis wrote seven symphonies and the topics of his symphonic pieces and operas and ballets include, Andalusia, Antigone, Elektra, Medea, Lysistrata, and naturally his ‘fellow Cretan’, Zorba – a ballet.

Nikos agrees that his father’s music opened a gateway for Greeks to the appreciation classical music – “in any of his music that you hear, you hear classical music. And to bring it to the people, he composed for popular instruments, the bouzouki, the santouri.”

Listening to Mikis’ music immediately transports one into his passionate and scintillating world, and a visit to Crete will plant one in his spiritual and physical soil. Galata, near the capital of Chania, is his final resting place, where there is also museum in honor of Mikis and his brother Yiannis Theodorakis. Every summer the Cretan Friends of Mikis Theodorakis present the ‘Mikis Theodorakis Festival.’

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