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Greek Composer And Politician Mikis Theodorakis Has Died At The Age Of 96

A portrait of Greek composer and songwriter Mikis Theodorakis, taken in Rome in 1973.
Wojtek Laski
Getty Images
A portrait of Greek composer and songwriter Mikis Theodorakis, taken in Rome in 1973.

Greek composer and politician Mikis Theodorakis died Thursday at age 96. A notice on his website cited cardiopulmonary arrest as the cause of death. Theodorakis' music for the film Zorba the Greek became a worldwide shorthand for a seize-the-moment kind of joyfulness.

However, Theodorakis endured a lot of tragedy — and he was a much more complicated person than Zorba the Greek and its most famous song, a carefree dance, would suggest.

Theodorakis was imprisoned, tortured and exiled multiple times: the first time during World War II, as a resistance fighter; again during the brutal Greek civil war of the 1950s; and then again in the 1960s, when he was already internationally famous — by a military junta which banned his music.

His leftist politics and his music went hand-in-hand, as he told NPR's Morning Edition in 1994. "I wanted to unite the popular and the serious," he explained, "and to make a popular symphony, a popular oratorio. I put one, one question: for whom I compose. My answer is I wanted to address to all my people, and if I write music for the Greek people ... I compose for all the people. I write for all the peoples, for all the world."

Mikhail "Mikis" Theodorakis was born on July 29, 1925, on the Greek island of Chios. His father was a civil servant, and the family moved frequently across the country from post to post. Mikis wrote his first songs as a child, already enraptured by music.

In 1943, while Greece was occupied by the Nazis and Mussolini's Italian forces, Theodorakis was living in the town of Tripoli on the Greek mainland. There, he was arrested and tortured for hitting an Italian officer; afterwards, his family sent him to Athens. Once in the capital, he began studying music at the Athens Conservatory — but also joined a resistance group and guarded Jews in hiding.

Almost immediately after the end of World War II, Greece descended into a bitter civil war that lasted three years. During one demonstration in downtown Athens, Theodorakis was arrested, beaten by the police, and left in a morgue for dead. He was hospitalized for months with a fractured skull.

During the remainder of the war, the composer was repeatedly arrested and held in a notorious camp for political prisoners, where he was again tortured.

In 1954, Theodorakis managed to get to France, where he enrolled at the Paris Conservatory; his teachers there included composer Olivier Messaien. Three years later, one of his pieces, the First Suite for Orchestra and Piano, won a gold medal at a Moscow competition — and among his champions in Russia was Dmitri Shostakovich. The Greek musician was on his way to a significant career as a classical composer with commissions, including one for a ballet from London's Covent Garden, rolling in.

But Theodorakis felt himself increasingly inspired by contemporary Greek poetry, popular music and folk instruments like the bouzouki — and in 1960, he decided to return to his homeland, despite the continuing political instability there.

In 1963, he met singer Maria Farantouri, who became his muse for decades. She was just 16; he was two decades older. But they connected instantly, as she told NPR in 2018.

"He asked me if you know that you were born to become a singer for my work, my priestess?" she recalled. "And I said yes, I know."

In 1964, Theodorakis wrote his most famous score, Zorba the Greek, but he continued to be extremely politically active and two years later, his music was banned in Greece.

Theodorakis had become the leader of an influential activist group called Lambrakis Democratic Youth, which was named after one of Theodorakis' friends, an anti-war politician named Grigoris Lambrakis.

Lambrakis was assassinated by far-right extremists in 1963 and a thinly veiled account of his murder became Vassilis Vassilikos' novel Z. It, in turn, became director Costa-Gavras' widely acclaimed political thriller of the same name, which won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1969. Theodorakis wrote the score, which brought together many of his most haunting and stirring song melodies.

In the spring of 1967, Greece's government was toppled by a right-wing military junta. Immediately, Theodorakis went into hiding. His music was banned, along with miniskirts on women, long hair on men, most classical Greek plays and the writings of Shakespeare.

In July of that year, Theodorakis was arrested and jailed. But he managed to send a message to Maria Farantouri on a gum wrapper — telling her to escape Greece. She left for Paris. There, at age 20, she became his voice to the outside world.

In 1968, Theodorakis and his wife Myrto, along with their two children, were sent into internal exile in a mountain village. Later, he was sent to a prison camp. The junta's treatment of the composer became an international cause célèbre: among his supporters were his old champion Dmitri Shostakovich as well as the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Despite imprisonment, Theodorakis managed to get tape recordings and sheet music smuggled out: hidden in wheels of cheese and cans of honey. Bits of recording tape were wound up tight and hidden in coat buttons.

In 1970, Theodorakis was freed; his family escaped shortly later. They went to Paris, and Theodorakis began traveling the world with his music, denouncing the junta wherever he went.

When the junta fell in 1974, he returned to Greece a hero and a political giant.

Theodorakis wrote songs, symphonies, ballets, and operas, served in Parliament and as a government minister. But by 1994, he told NPR, he felt his countrymen had lost their way.

"They cry, the Greeks cry because we have not an objective today," he said in his imperfect English. "Yesterday you have objective to put off the dictatorship. Today the objective is to find ourselves."

But by then, many fans felt that Theodorakis had lost his way. He seemed to have become a fervent nationalist. In the 2000s, he blamed American Jews for the global economic crisis. In 2011, he publicly declared himself an anti-Semite, and in 2017 defended Stalin. All of this — despite the fact that he guarded houses where Jews hid from the Nazis, and later wrote Mathausen, a song cycle about a concentration camp — with lyrics by a survivor.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.