Theodorakis writes the music of history


New York -- New York's foreign-born cabdrivers are not easy to impress. But this Spartan-born Greek became almost speechless when he heard that the fare he had picked up outside a midtown hotel had just spent an hour with Mikis Theodorakis.

"You saw Mikis?" he said. "You spoke with Mikis?" His tone was as if the fare had just descended from an audience with the Delphic oracle. "Mikis," he said with concern, "how did he look?"

Mikis Theodorakis is best known to Americans as the composer who wrote the music for such movies as "Zorba the Greek," "Z" and "State of Siege." Those ethnically seasoned scores, with their employment of popular Greek instruments such as the bouzouki and use of Byzantine and Cretan folk music, have given millions of non-Greeks their musical image of Greece.

But to the Greek people themselves -- at least most of them -- Theodorakis is a colossus who represents the birthplace of democracy itself. His various imprisonments and the torture he endured while in jail there -- first by the German occupiers during World War II and later by right-wing dictatorships -- stood for the travails of Greece itself.

"Fifteen beautiful years," Theodorakis says when asked how many years in all that he was in prison. "But I don't know about the future," he adds with a smile.

Nevertheless, the answer to the cabbie's question is that Theodorakis looks great. He's a huge man -- well over six feet tall, with enormous shoulders and a barrel chest -- with a still-youthful face and an undiminished shock of unruly, steel-gray hair that belie his 69 years.

If he's become a symbol of Greece, that's because he has never stopped thinking about her. He grew up on the island of Chios in the midst of olive and orange groves overlooking the sea.

"I remember that there was a boat that used to sail past twice a week," Theodorakis says. "The impression that white boat on the blue sea left on me is like a wound, the scar left by a moment of exhilaration. In everything I have composed, I have tried to re-create that beauty and rediscover that image engraved in my memory."

Theodorakis is in this country leading a monthlong tour of a Greek orchestra and chorus that will perform several of his most important works.

Different last time

The tour, which visits Meyerhoff Hall Tuesday evening and is being paid for by the Greek government, is a far cry from an earlier Theodorakis visit to the United States in 1971. International protests had just forced Theodorakis' release from prison (he had been imprisoned since 1967, when a right-wing junta imposed a dictatorship in a coup) and, though he remained technically under house arrest for most of the junta's remaining three years in power, he was allowed to accept an invitation from the United Nations to visit New York. Because he was an avowed Marxist considered a dangerous subversive by the United States, which had put the junta in power, Theodorakis had a visa that did not permit him to travel more than 30 miles from Manhattan.

"Two brilliant Americans -- [folk musician] Pete Seeger and [dramatist] Arthur Miller -- rented a theater for me 30 miles away so that I could speak about the tragedy of Greece," Theodorakis says.

The years of the junta were a tragedy for Greece. After decades of bloodshed and repression that began with the Metaxas dictatorship before World War II and continued during the

German occupation and the 1945-1949 civil war that followed it, Greece emerged from the deep freeze of history with a storm of furious creativity. There were writers such as the novelist-poet Nikos Kazantzakis, the Nobel Prize-winning poets George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis, filmmakers and directors such as Michael Cacoyannis and Costa-Gavras, and composers such as Theodorakis and the avant-gardist Iannis Xenakis.

That flowering of creativity came to an end with the imposition of the dictatorship in 1967. Contemporary Greek culture has never completely recovered from it.

Theodorakis was at the epicenter of the creative maelstrom that preceded the junta. He certainly had the credentials for leadership. He was a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance. In the civil war that followed -- a war caused by left-wing resistance to the right-wing government (including Nazi collaborators) that was imposed on Greece by Great Britain and the United States -- he was so horribly tortured that he walked on crutches for years.

And he was on fire to make music relevant to as many of his countrymen as possible. He returned from London in 1959, after the debut of his ballet "Antigone," with his success as a traditional classical composer seemingly assured. Instead, he went on to become a composer who combined the mass appeal of popular music with the sophistication and sensitivity of the best of classical music. His setting of the poet Yannis Ritsos' "Epitaphios" for a bouzouki player and a singer popular among the working classes -- an American equivalent might be setting the poetry of Robert Lowell for a rhythm and blues band -- set the Greek intellectual world on its collective ear.

'Ballad of Mauthausen'

But his greatest work may be his "Ballad of Mauthausen," which is based on a novelistic memoir by the Greek dramatist Iakovos Kambanellis, who fought alongside Theodorakis in the resistance, about his imprisonment in that Austrian concentration camp. Mauthausen was unusual among the Nazi chambers of horror in that it served as both a slave-labor camp and a death camp. Many of the Greeks who belonged to the resistance, and much of the country's Jewish population, met their fate there.

"In my youth there must have been 15 synagogues in Salonika alone," Theodorakis says. "They were crowded every Friday evening and Saturday morning. Now they're almost completely empty."

In Kambanellis' "Mauthausen," there are several poems -- one of them memorializing his love for a doomed Jewish girl:

How lovely is my love

In her everyday dress

with a little comb in her hair.

Girls of Auschwitz

girls of Dachau

have you seen the one I love?

We saw her on the long journey.

She wasn't wearing her everyday dress

or the little comb in her hair.

How lovely is my love

caressed by her mother

kissed by her brother.

No one knew how lovely she was.

Girls of Belsen

girls of Mauthausen

have you seen the one I love?

We saw her in the frozen square

with a number on her white arm

and a yellow star over her heart.

Theodorakis had the genius to set this poem with melodic elements from the hymn for Palm Sunday of the Orthodox Church, creating an exquisite, haunting and passionate melody that moves Kambanellis' affecting words to an even higher level. When the cycle was first performed in London in 1967, its composer was in jail and his music banished in his own country.

"I was certain that this time I would be killed," Theodorakis says. "Every day and every night I heard the cries of the tortured."

The role of culture

But the government realized the composer was too important an international figure to either torture or kill. Theodorakis passes over the irony that he is now a member of the Greek government -- he is the general director of the state-run radio and television. But he is conscious of the role he believes Greece and its culture need to play in a Europe newly torn apart by conflicts spawned by the end of the Cold War.

"I will always be a political animal," Theodorakis says. "All the time I see things that remind me very much of the 1930s. In the Balkans -- of which Greece is a part -- people murder each other simply because they think they are different. And there is the re-emergence of a new, more powerful and richer Germany -- a Germany in which skinheads murder foreign workers and often go unpunished. It makes me very afraid."

Theodorakis says the current tour is important "for selfish reasons. It gives me a chance to perform music which is important to me and which -- outside of Greece -- is not widely known."

"But there are more significant reasons," the composer adds. "Greece is the only country in the Balkans that does not have territorial designs on its neighbors and wants to live in peace with them. When people hear pieces like the 'The Ballad of Mauthausen,' I want them to think about what happens when that is not the case."


To hear an excerpt of a demonstration tape by Mikis Theodorakis, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6218 after you hear the greeting.


What: Mikis Theodorakis conducts an orchestra and chorus in his own music.

Where: Meyerhoff Hall

When: Tuesday at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $25-$75

Call: (410) 783-8000

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad