The political dimension of the artist

Mikis Theodorakis has died aged 96. He deserves better in tribute than a YouTube clip from Zorba the Greek. So I am republishing two Overgrown Path articles from 2007. The accompanying article Mikis Theodorakis' Songs of Freedom can be read via this link.

'So it is a question of with whom you want to communicate. It must be a free person for an artist can only communicate with free people. Yet in order to be free that person must have solved certain problems. He must have a job, he must be educated and in good health, he must have certain rights and dignity. I, as an artist, would like to have an interchange with such a person. You can't create art with slaves, no matter whether they were forced into slavery or made to adopt a slavish attitude. At this point the political dimension of the artist comes into force. He must contribute to the rescue of mankind out of pure self-interest.'

Mikis Theodorakis was born on July 29th 1925 on the Greek island of Chios, and his words above are from the sleeve notes for his own recording of his Requiem. The concept of 'free people' resonates strongly for Theodorakis. He had fought in the resistance against the occupying Fascists in World War 2, and was exiled in the subsequent Greek Civil War. He then studied music at the Athens Conservatoire, and in Paris with Olivier Messiaen.

Following the Greek military junta in 1967 Theodorakis went underground, and his music was banned by military decree. He was imprisoned for five months until an international pressure group including Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, and Harry Belafonte achieved his release, and he went into exile in April 1970. Theodorakis continued his opposition in exile through concerts and by enlisting the support of international leaders.

After the fall of the Colonels, Theodorakis returned to Greece, and took an active part in politics on a left wing ticket. He was elected to the Greek Parliament twice, and became a minister in the government in the early 1990s.
He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, and opposed both NATO’s involvement in Kosovo and the invasion of Iraq, and has been publicly critical of the policies of George W. Bush.

Mikis Theodorakis is best known for his music for the cinema, notably for his sound-track for Constantin Costa-Gravas' film Z which became a rallying call for opponents of the military regime, and for the film of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel Zorba the Greek which became a sound-track for tourism in Greece. But there is a lot more to Theodorakis' music, including five published symphonies, a string quartet, a Requiem, and five operas.

His 1984 Requiem sets the words of the 6th century Syrian monk John of Damascus. The structure of the work follows the Orthodox Mass for the Dead, and is quite distictinct from the more common Roman Catholic and Protestant requiems. Theodorakis is best known for his music for the theatre, and his Requiem is theatrical as well as sacred music.

Although rooted in the Orthodox rite it uses elements which are not permitted in the Orthodox liturgy - children's and women's voices and a full symphony orchestra, and builds Western polyphony and harmony on a Byzantine foundation. But this is most definitely spiritual music. Although sacred music started moving from the church to the concert hall in Haydn's time, Theodorakis' Requiem, thankfully, does not move as far into the concert hall as Leonard Bernstein's Mass - A Theatre Piece for Singers.

An excellent recording of Mikis Theodorakis' Requiem is available, with the composer conducting (photo below) the St. Petersburg Academic Capella Children's Choir, Choir and Symphony Orchestra. The recording was made in 1997 in the Capella Concert Hall, St. Petersburg, and is on the German Intuition Classics label, as are many other CDs of Theodorakis' music.


Pliable said…
I am fairly certain that a number of the links in this article have been broken in the fourteen years since it was first published. For this I apologise. My poor excuse is that I simply haven't had time to check and correct them, and that Blogger's new 'improved' - in fact much worse - user interface makes the removal of links a slow process of editing the raw HTML.
Frank Little said…
Surely a candidate for "Composer of the Week" on Radio 3?
David said…
This is a great article on Theodorakis. Isn't it refreshing to have artists who live and breathe in the same world as everybody else and who take up strong causes and political positions? I mentioned previously the Barbican Tantalus Festival of May 2005 which combined Peter Hall's adaptation of The Agamemmnon with seminars, debates, films and a concert broadcast by Radio 3 called "Greek Day" in a Sunday devoted to all things Greek. That concert featuring contemporary Greek songs with spoken introductions from Janet Suzman (including Theodorakis) sung authentically by the wonderful Nena Venetsanou and some excerpts from the radio talks I recorded to three CD-Rs and am willing to upload them to anybody via TRANSFER which is a free file exchange service. Nena Venetsanou and Janet Suzman are marvelous in these lyrical songs. Can I also recommend Venetsanou 's CD "Cafe Greco" which evidences all the political fire and commitment of the great Theodorakis. This contains an interesting booklet with texts and translations and forms part of a trilogy of CDs around the topic of emigration, place and memory.

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