Facing Violence with Music: The Story of Mikis Theodorakis

Mikis Theodorakis

21 Jun 2019:  Celebrating World Music Day

These days internet can open up fascinating treasure-troves from the half-forgotten past. In a French archive one can watch a short documentary- “Nous Sommes Deux”, made almost 50 years ago by Robert Manthoulis for the French television. The title – “We are two” (in Greek, “Imaste dio”) is the first line of a poem by Mikis Theodorakis, the legendary contemporary Greek composer. The title sequence rolls down smoothly with the sound of guitar played by another great singer-songwriter, George Moustaki. The poem, already conceived as a song by the composer when he was held in a prison in Greece, is being translated to French by Moustaki. And the score being written down finally, while the camera tracks them. 21st May 1970. In prisons there is hardly any scope of writing down songs, but one can always carry them in one’s imagination. That is exactly what the composer did, during all his days in captivity. Be it in the remote, barren Greek islands used as concentration camps, or in urban prisons, or in special torture-centers maintained by Italian Fascists, German Nazis, British military and the Greek secret police. This time, he was held by the infamous Greek secret police operating under the Military Junta. During the 20-month captivity and torture, his old tuberculosis lesions flared up.  At 44, Mikis is already an internationally acclaimed composer. Written several exquisite pieces of classical as well as modern music. In fact, he has transformed the soul of contemporary Greek music.  His music is banned in the country, as are writings of several other distinguished – contemporary and ancient, men of letters. For a list one can see the final credit sequence of the Movie “Z”, a political thriller by Constantin Costa-Gavras, based on the assassination of a popular pacifist Greek MP, Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. Mikis Theodorakis composed the soundtrack of that movie, which bagged the Oscar Award for the best foreign language movie in 1969.  In fact, the banned slogan “Zei” – which means “he lives”, was created by Theodorakis during a rally held in protest of the assassination of Lambrakis, when he moved his hand in the spontaneous gesture of an orchestra conductor to trace out the Greek letter Zeta.

A strong global campaign was launched in favour of his release, with active participation from people like Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Laurence Olivier, Arthur Miller, Hans Eisler, Harry Belafonte, John Williams. In April 1970, political negotiators could ultimately bring him out of prison. He was flown to Paris and immediately hospitalized for treatment. After some time, his wife and two young children managed to escape from Greece and joined him after a perilous journey by boat. After a month, Mikis has recovered a little, and is now engaged in campaigning against the Military Junta, with several other leftist Greeks in exile (his best interpreter, singer Maria Farantouri and singer-actress Melina Mercouri among them) to bring back democracy in a country which was the cradle of democracy.

We are two/We are two

The clock stroke eight/

Turn the light off/ Go stand in guard

They’ll come again when it’s dark ……

Two hit three hit/

A thousand and thirteen hit..

The “making” of this song, dedicated to a fellow prisoner of conscience, Andreas Lentakis, captured in the movie footage, is a fascinating document. The words create a sense of horror, one shudders at the very idea of the utmost vulnerability of the captives. But the composer hums a charming, almost light-hearted melody to go with it, not at all the slogan-sounding staff you would expect, and plays the piano to emphasize the notes while his collaborator catches up in guitar. If you are unaware of the background, you wouldn’t imagine that the singer-composer was being treated for an advanced stage of tuberculosis of the lungs, a disease he contacted when he was in his twenties, frequently in and out of prisons for participating in various political rallies and being involved in ultra-left operations. Sometimes he is smiling, but even when he is not smiling, his face, shows a strange expression of content, resilience and, yes – freedom. He has transformed all his miseries into heart-wrenching music. The process liberates him, and it also stirs up a longing for liberty in the mind of an onlooker, anyone who bears witness to this extraordinary phenomenon – that of facing, and winning over, violence with music.

‘I am a song of my time’

The history of 20th century Greece is written in the body of Mikis Theodorakis – they say. During 94 years of stormy life, he has always been passionately engaged in socio-political activities along with creating an astounding number of musical works of various genre. He has been detained several times and endured the most severe forms of torture, starting from the period of second world war, when the Germans and Italians occupied Greece, when he was merely in his teens.

Born in 1925, Mikis was raised as an ardent patriot by his father who came from a Cretan family of freedom fighters, and himself fought for his country in the Balkan war in 1912.  His mother belonged to a refugee family from Asia Minor, relocated after the great massacre of Smyrna by the Turks in 1922. His father’s job as a civil servant required them to live in remote areas where he had ample opportunity to be one with nature, and to be enchanted forever by the exquisite beauty of the Greek landscape combining the mountains and the seas, and to love those spirited people who inhabited that land.

“These trees do not bow under a minor sky/

These faces do not bow but in front of justice”.

He would transform these magic lines of Yannis Ritsos, the great modern Greek poet, into a song.

As a schoolboy Mikis sang in the church and school choirs and soon learned to write his own songs, some patriotic, some love-songs, when he was barely a teen-ager. In Greek provincial towns western symphonic music was rarely heard in those days. He had some records presented to him by his uncle, but he wanted to hear more.  He was good at Mathematics, and had artistic inclinations too. His family expected him to study architecture after school. However, when they were staying at Tripolis, a small town, and he was about to finish school, he realized that music was getting under his skin. He practiced his lessons in piano ardently at a wealthy person’s home when the inmates were absent, because they could not afford to have a piano at home.

It was 1942. Two incidents changed the course of his life. In a German movie screened at a local theater, he heard for the first time the finale of Beethoven’s 9th (Choral) Symphony where “a whole trembling humanity reaches out to the sky” with Schiller’s words. What else, other than the warmth of human voice, could communicate the message of “Ode to Joy”? It shook him so much that he was affected physically – ran high fever, and told his father that all he wanted to do was to compose music, like Beethoven. His father took him to Athens Conservatory where he qualified for a scholarship to study harmony from the next year.

However, the German occupation of Greece brought much more than German movies. They created famine in the cities in which about 300000 people died. Greece was devastated. March 1942. A street demonstration was organized by the leftist National Liberation Front, against the Italian fascists who occupied Tripolis at that time. Mikis was part of it, and he was arrested, thrown into police barracks and tortured mercilessly to reveal the names of his leaders. He didn’t. And that was the first time this schoolboy stood unarmed, facing state violence.

Until then, he was deeply religious and took immense joy in singing the Byzantine hymns in the church choir. His spiritual ideals were shattered too. Those around him who used to hail Christian love as well as love of the country, were now working hand-in-hand with the Fascists and Nazis. In jail, he saw that communists were ready to suffer for their ideology. This experience, and subsequent interactions with fellow prisoners, mostly workers and common people, brought him from pure philosophical quest to the philosophy of action – Marxism.  He embraced it with heart and soul.  In his own words – “God revealed himself to me in the face of a worker”.

These incidents construct two pillars of his whole artistic life: namely, the integration of western symphonic music with a truly Greek musical heritage through songs, thereby using human voice as an exquisite instrument, and composing music for the masses, as a counterpoint to the extreme forms of state repression and violence that overshadowed the Greek reality for many decades.

The following years were even worse. While he was a student at the Athens conservatory, he became associated with ELAS, the armed wing of the left partisans, was captured several times and subjected to brutal torture. Once he was found in the police morgue by his friends, listed as dead, in an unconscious state with severe head injury. His life was saved after an emergency surgery, but his right eye sustained a permanent impaired vision.

After the second world war, Greece was formally free of Nazi occupation, and the leftists aspired to be in power. But British army landed in Athens and the pre-war politicians were back to power, pushing Greece into a bloody civil war from 1945 to 1949. Theodorakis spent the later 1940s in and out of various detention camps where Greece’s communists were periodically interned. The worst was the remote island of Macronissos, where thousands of Greek communists were killed systematically. Mikis was buried alive twice, and rescued by sheer luck. In 1949 He was sent to a military hospital in Athens with tuberculosis and several broken bones. With immense effort, his father was able to get him out of the prison as invalid, and took him to Crete to complete his “compulsory military service” which he refused while in prison.He was again detained and tortured using the infamous technique “falanga” and threatened to be sent back to Macronissos camp. The spirited boy, who had endured so much, could bear no more. He attempted to kill himself by consuming gun-powder. He was saved, but the “Macronissos fever” remained for several years. The very memory of those days would push him to a strange disabled state – physically as well as mentally.

Yet it was in one of those detention camps where he started composing his first symphony, working after hard days of labour, giving vent to the pains he suffered when he came to know of death of two close friends, fighting for opposite camps. The civil war, the split of the Greek Communist Party, the infightings wounded him so deeply that time and again he had cried out for “national reconciliation” and a broad left socio-cultural movement that should emerge from the Greek reality, not remote-controlled from any other country. Much later, in 1962 his musical play ‘Ballad of the Dead Brothers’ was performed in Athens, bringing back the unspeakable pains of civil war. In a resounding finale, the chorus sang ‘Unite rock with rock’ – a call for unity and harmony despite everything. The entire political spectrum called him naïve and irrelevant.

In Macronissos and other remote island-camps Mikis was exposed to various traditional musical forms and folklore of Greece, through interactions with fellow prisoners and local people. Those melodies and rhythms went deep down, helping him to survive, just as the loving letters from Myrto Altinoglou, a medical student in Athens and a fervent left partisan, whom he would marry a few years later. In the spring of 1950, Mikis graduated from Athens conservatory with flying colours and his ballet “The feast of Assi-Gonia” was staged in Athens, where he used Greek folklore as musical material for the first time.

‘One needs the bow of words to reach the arrow of melody‘ – (Romain Rolland)

1949 marked the end of the civil war, with a split-up left, a Royalist New Government in power, and continuing white terrorism. Systematic persecution was so intense that even finding a job was difficult for anyone with left inclinations. Mikis and his wife Myrto moved to Paris for higher studies in their respective fields with scholarships from the French Government. Mikis continued to compose, along with studying musical analysis and conducting at the Paris Conservatory. His ballet “Antigone” was highly appreciated in Convent Garden with Margot Fonteyn in the lead role. Many other compositions, including soundtrack and songs for movies earned him laurels.He was moving in the cathedrals of European classical music, but at the back of his mind was the ambition to find andestablish a Greek musical identity.Apart from Beethoven, he was deeply influenced by the great composers, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Bartok. The former, for showing a contemporary way to interpret the spirit of the ancient Greek tragedies in music, like Beethoven did during his times.  The other two successfully combined ethnic elements of their respective countries in the framework of western European classical and romantic music, which Mikis aspired to do. Love of literature and poetry in particular, laid the path for him. He started setting into music the best fruits of Greek literature, poetry that he loved to read and recite.

with ritsos

With poet Ritsos

In 1958, one of Greece’s finest poets, Yannis Ritsos, who was a co-prisoner at Macronissos, sent him a reprint of some of his old poems -Epitaphios. Written in 1936, Epitaphios was a long elegy – a mother’s lament over her killed young son during a demonstration of tobacco workers. The name Epitaphios echoes the most sacred music of the Greek Orthodox Church, sung on Good Friday – the mourning of Madonna over Christ.  Reading those poems Mikis felt an intense urge to set it to music, which he did –almost within a few hours!He combined the liturgical music of the Orthodox Church with modern Greek urban folksongs, called rembekiko – mostly heard in the semi-underworld, which had its origins in the Greek and Turkish folk music of west Asia Minor. To match the emotions expressed in the songs he chose bouzouki – a popular folk stringed instrument, something between mandolin and balalaika, played mostly by mass-entertainers at roadside taverns and drug-dens of working-class districts and sea-ports.

Strangely enough, the creation of Epitaphios cured Mikis of ‘Macronissos fever’ – the seizures, fainting and loss of personality he suffered frequently as a result of torture. The seizures stopped as soon as he wrotethe first melodies! In his own words – “When I came back from Macronissos, I was a wreck…Epitaphios started transforming all that stuff, the psychological baggage that I had inside me, into something positive…I could not express my insides, my pain, my wounds – I managed to turn all these things, instead of into madness and self-destruction, into an ending, into ‘Epitaphios.’ (TV Interview, 2003).

He sent a copy of the music back home, to his friend, the famous Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, who recorded it with an orchestra and the golden-voiced singer Nana Mouskouri. It was one of her finest performances. However, Mikis was not satisfied. Something was missing. He came back to Greece, chose the great rebetika singer Grigoris Bithikotsis and recorded those eight songs under a different banner, dropping the orchestra, with an improvised four-string bouzouki played by the legendary Manolis Chiotis. The new release (1960) took Greece like a Mediterranean storm. When Greek people heard Bithikotsis’ masculine, rustic,common man’s voice cry out

“A day in May you left me/

A day in May I lost you..”

they heard their own voice. Their mourning of the lost, the executed, the exiled, the tortured was complete. The poem ends with a note of eternal struggle –

“My child, now go to sleep /

I’m on my way to your brothers…”

Epitaphios unleashed a tidal wave of emotions and allowed a whole nation to exorcise the pains of a violent past in a sublime way. Theodorakis continued his mission to reach out to the masses with his musical interpretation of the best of Greek contemporary poetry. Sophisticated works of Nobel prize-winner poets like George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis were on the lips of common people.When George Seferis died during the military dictatorship, thousands of mourners in the streets sang his much-loved poem “Arnisi” (Denial), almost as a kind of protest.

On the secret seashore

white like a pigeon

we thirsted at noon;

but the water was brackish.


On the golden sand

we wrote her name;

but the sea-breeze blew

and the writing vanished.


With what spirit, what heart,

what desire and passion

we lived our life: a mistake!

So, we changed our life.

Some of the compositions were wildly experimental in terms of style, merging decadent musical forms with the pristine classical and thereby inviting sharp criticism from both leftist and conservative intellectuals. Yet, after the initial shock, even the most high-browed could not help loving them.  At one time in the 60s, about forty percent of the total records sold in Greece was of Mikis’ music. His compositions were simple, forthright, yet sophisticated. They were considered to be equally suitable for a concert hall and a stadium full of workers.

Perhaps this phenomenal acceptance had to do with his honesty as an artist and a communicator. All he wanted to do is to reach out, to embrace and uplift the Greek soul, which was as wounded as his own.There is so much pain and anguish in most of his melodies, and yet, they have the power to elevate beyond the pain.

‘Search as one may in the poetic textsI have used,one will not find any political slogans. One will find neither obvious nor hidden propaganda concerning specific political viewpoints… my basic principle is that art ought to communicate at every moment with the people.’ – (Mikis Theodorakis)

After Epitaphios, Mikis went on to compose some his best works, song cycles and oratotios:Epiphania (George Seferis),Mauthausen – considered the best musical work on holocaust (Iacovos Kambanelli), Romiossini (Yannis Ritsos), Ballads (Manolis Anagnostakis), Little Cyclades and AxionEsti(Odysseus Elytis), March of the Spirit (Angelos Sikelianos) Romancero Gitano (Federico Garcia Lorca), Canto General (Pablo Neruda), The Sun and Time, Songs for Andreas (Mikis Theodorakis).

The new musical forms he adopted to serve the complexity of the poetic text often combined old Greek demotic music andmonophonic Byzantine melos with western European symphonic forms in the most imaginative way. He called them meta-symphonies. Listening to Mikis’ music is a holistic experience: superb text, soulful melodies and use of intricate rhythms, often adopted from old Greek poetry and folk dances – befitting the ancient Greek term ‘Musiké’ (which means something akin to the Sanskrit word‘Sangeet’).Poet Yannis Ritsos once commented that “Music helped poetry to become necessary to man, as necessary as bread and wine’.

Meanwhile, he also wrote music for movies: Phaedra (Jules Dassin), The lovers of Teruel (Raymond Rouleau), Serpico (Sydney Lumet), Z and ‘State of Siege’(Costa-Gavras), ‘Trojan Women’, Electra and ‘Zorba the Greek’(Michael Cacoyannis) – to name a few. Incidentally, Mikis is best-known worldwide as the composer of Zorba’s music, set to rhythmsinspired bytraditional dancesof Crete. The music promotes unending hope, on and off the screen. The Zorba theme,with the twang of the bouzouki has become a kind of musical signature of Greece to outsider’s ears.

Your tanks will rust, my songs will grow stronger with time

This is what Mikis told one of his torturers in an Athens jail in the late sixties. From 1963, once again he became actively involved in politics, following the assassination of his friend Lambrakis, and was a member of Parliament representing EDA (United Democratic Front). The early 60s saw him in the forefront of a cultural movement, called the Lambrakis Youth Movement. They built libraries and concert halls, planted trees, organized concerts, debates and blood-donations, promoted peace and harmony in communities.  In 1967 Military Junta seized powerand Mikis was arrested.After seven years, in 1974, when the Junta fell, he came back to Greece. By the time he became a symbol of Greek resistance. His concerts meant inspired singing along – by the common people of Greece, who have nearly forgotten the taste of democracy, and have preserved his songs within the secrecy of their hearts all these years of ban on his music.

After 1975, his popularity in Greecenever matched that height, politically as well as musically, for acceptance of his works was closely related to the socio-political scenarioat that time.His earlier association with Bertrand Russell’s peace movement and resignation from the communist party isolated him from the dogmatic left. Added to it was his open criticism of the corruption of the left leaders, culminating in his participation in the conservative ministry of Greece in 1989, a stint that didn’t last long. After early 90s, he stayed away from active politics, although, never failed to respond to outrageous events (like NATO bombing of Serbia, Iraq war and the recent economic crisis in Greece).All these years one thing that he never gave up was composing, singing and building bridges with music. ‘The deep solace of song’ remained with him all along. His later symphonic works, chamber music and operas are part of repertoire of choirs and orchestras, and loved all over the world, along with old favourites.

Mikis Theodorakis 94

Now at the age of 94 he is still alert, works on his old compositions, reviews and comments on current events, and participates in public meetings and concerts occasionally, health permitting. And despite everything he is the most-loved contemporary composer of Greece.24th of June, 2019 the Panathenaic stadium of Athens will witness a grand concert of his works. Musicians from the world around are coming together to perform the favourite songs of a man whose mission is to achieve “moral and spiritual elevation, the internal liberation of man”through music. Perhaps in today’s violent, fragile,virtual world, where it is often difficult to distinguish between illusion and reality, Greek people once again want to listen to one of the most conscientious voices of their country, whose appeal to his fellow men is to unite, refrain from violence and pettiness in all aspects of life, and work together to build a future befitting their glorious past.

Links to some YouTube Resources

Imaste Dio (Documentary)


Mikis at a concert in Athens 2017 (He conducts 1000 singers from all over Greece to sing George Seferis’ “Denial”)


Part of AxionEsti (“Worthy It Is”, Oratorio in praise of Greece, Odysseus Elytis):

Epitaphios ‘A Day in May’Grigoris Bithikotsis

Maria Farandouri singing “How beautiful is my love” – inspired by the Biblical “Song of songs”, a number from Mauthausen Trilogy.… one of the best works on Holocaust


Mikis and Maria Farandouriin concert (Pireaus, Greece 1966 ,Two songs from the famous Mauthausen Trilogy, the second one is “Song of Songs”)


Mikis singing the Zorba theme song at a concert in East Berlin 1987:


Part of Canto General:


Maria Farantouri singing “to yelastsopedi” – “The laughing Boy” (A song set to Brendan Behan’s poem) in a 1974 concert, after the fall of Military Junta.


Surasri Chaudhuri is an Associate Professor in a Kolkata College. She teaches Physical Chemistry at Thakurpukur Vivekananda College, Kolkata. [email protected]


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