Death of Mikis Theodorakis, the composer of “Zorba the Greek” that Greece had on its own Olympus

Perhaps for much of the world today the death of the composer of a universal song has been heralded: Zorba.

But for the Greeks, in reality, a divinity has just died.

Mijalis “Mikis” Theodorakis, who died on September 2 in Athens at the age of 96, was one of the most important and iconic figures of contemporary Greece.

And not just for his music.

Theodorakis also embodied the political and social struggles that marked his country and the world in the 20th century.

Besides being a musician, Theodorakis was a parliamentarian, minister and activist. Credit: AFP

His surname, which in a free translation could be a gift from God, remained etched in the heads and hearts of Greeks for decades.

They are truly a dead national treasure.

two giants

To tell the life of Mikis, as he was popularly called, is to tell an odyssey.

Born in July 1925 on the island of Xíos (pronounced Jios in Spanish), from an early age he had a clear vocation.

Theodorakis was a colossus of creation: his career spans over 1,000 plays. Credit: AFP

Although he later pursued formal studies in Paris, he learned to compose by listening to folk and Byzantine music, and at the age of 17 he gave his first concert.

It never stopped again.

Neither when he fought in World War II and the Civil War that immediately bled Greece, nor when he was persecuted, tortured and exiled during the military junta that ruled his country between 1967 and 1974. His songs have were banned and he was buried. live twice.

Nothing made him succumb. Always, in all circumstances, he was an imposing, exuberant, expressive presence.

It looked like a volcano.

On YouTube there is a fantastic video of a 1995 concert in Munich, Germany, in which Mikis shares the stage with Anthony Quinn, the famous Mexican-born actor who starred in the 1964 film “Zorba the Greek by Mikhalis Kakoyiannis.

Theodorakis was 70 and Quinn was 80. They sing, dance, kiss, hug, praise, but above all they have fun.

They are two giants having fun like children.

In 2017, another video circulated showing his greatness. He already appears very old, in a wheelchair, directing with enviable ardor a choir of a thousand people from 30 cities who sang in his honor.

Towards the end, he breaks down in tears of emotion, while the audience shouts at him, huge, eternal teacher, the last of the great Greeks.


The legacy of Mikis Theodorakis is overwhelming.

Between cantatas, operas, symphonies, ballets, chamber music, oratorios, films and popular songs, his musical career has more than a thousand pieces.

Expressive force was one of Theodorakis’ most striking characteristics (photo: Hulton Archive).

“Zorba the Greek” may be the best known, but it’s not necessarily the most beloved.

For many, his masterpiece is the “Mauthausen Trilogy (or ballad)”.

In the 1960s Theodorakis recorded The Ballad of Mauthausen with the BBC World Service Greek Service.

Based on Greek poet Iakovos Kambanellis’ tragic experience in the infamous Nazi concentration camp, it has been described as the finest musical work ever composed about the Holocaust.

Many of Theodorakis’ great compositions are, in fact, inspired by literature: among others, he set to music the words of his compatriots Giorgos Seferis and Odiseas Elytis, the “Romancero Gitano” by the Spaniard Federico García Lorca and the ” Canto General Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda.

These are epic works, a good reflection of his ambition, his compulsion to create and mix. The classic with the popular, the Greek with the universal, the simple with the grandiose.


Mikis’ musical career developed alongside intense political involvement.

Theodorakis’ genius has been recognized by such figures as Shostakovich, Bernstein and Arthur Miller. The Beatles recorded their song “Honeymoon” in 1964. Credit: AFP

He founded parties, was a parliamentarian, minister and communist activist for much of his life, although in 1989 he was an independent candidate for the center-right New Democracy party, which earned him criticism from those who considered him a traitor.

But he was above all an activist, an ardent defender of freedom, the environment, human and children’s rights and a fierce opponent of violence and war.

In the 1960s, he became a prominent figure on the international scene and, along with actress and singer Melina Mercuri, was the symbol of resistance to the dictatorship in Greece.

The list of personalities who received and supported him at this time is remarkable and includes artists such as Dmitry Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Miller and politicians such as Yasser Arafat, François Mitterrand, Olof Palme and Salvador Allende.

Melina Mercuri was, along with Theodorakis, one of the main symbols of resistance to the Greek military junta. Credit: Hulton Archives

His name gave and continued to go around the world.

In 1964, the Beatles recorded a version of his song Honeymoon (Honeymoon), in the 1980s Moscow awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize, and in the 1990s he was awarded the UNESCO Music Prize.

In 1994, he went on a humanitarian tour which took him to several European countries, Canada and the United States at the head of a mega-orchestra of 150 musicians and singers.

When he arrived in Washington, the Senate welcomed him with a formal resolution honoring and applauding “his exceptional artistry, his deep love for his country, and his dedicated work for great causes.”

With her children Yorgos and Margarita, in 1968. Credit: Getty Images.

Like that, there are hundreds of phrases or words about him that could now serve as an epitaph: genius, hero, colossus.

I saw it years ago at the Theater of Herodes Atticus, at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens.

It was that night that I discovered what the Greeks already knew: that Theodorakis was one of those larger-than-life men, a musician who had his own Olympus.

The Greek government decreed three days of official mourning on Thursday.

Getty Images.

BBC World

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