Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) has left the mortal plane, and one can only imagine he is flying the red flag in the heavenly realm – agitating alongside the great working-class heroes of history. He has been remembered warmly by the socialist world, by his own Greek party (KKE) and almost every other socialist party, while having little or no discussion from the classical music world, with the exception of a dedicated obituary in the Guardian, an honorary mention from Andre Rieu, and some nice anecdotes from composers who knew him personally.
For those who do not know the work of Mikis Theodorakis, his legacy and impact are hard to describe succinctly. However the simplest comparison artistically would be with composers Hanns Eisler and Alan Bush, as well as the writers Vladimir Mayakovsky and Christopher Caudwell. Like them, he was a composer whose output fitted the needs of the particular struggle or circumstance.
Like Hanns Eisler, Theodorakis made huge contributions to film, classical concert music, and agit-prop works. Theodorakis’ music for Zorba the Greek is what made him famous:
Canto General arguably stands as his most impactful piece of political music. Based on the texts of Pablo Neruda, the cantata was completed two years after the infamous coup d’état in September 1973, which the US carried out against the democratic government of Salvador Allende. The events sparked a large response from artists globally, and Theodorakis’ bold cantata is potentially one of the most renowned examples, receiving numerous global performances including an electric performance in Santiago in 1993.
As with many other of his works, the real strength in Canto General is the ability to incorporate Chilean traditional idioms (namely through the choices of percussion and instruments) to not only give an illuminating vision of Chile, but also to make the Chilean elements feel universal.
He produced numerous works for orchestra including seven symphonies, five operas, multiple concerti, ballets, and other works for musical theatre. Within the symphonies we see a skilful composer who was no stranger to modernism, giving the impression that if he wished to solely be a ‘serious’ composer he would have had every ability to engage with the idiom like his more ‘serious’ contemporaries like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the like. His second symphony Songs of the Earth is incredibly evocative and the orchestral colours it produces are wild and raw.
His life was surrounded by controversy, struggle, and politics. Despite being imprisoned and having his music banned by the ruling Greek junta, he never shied away from speaking his mind and doing what he believed was right and necessary, a resolute activist and campaigner until his final breath.
The controversy surrounding him was not always simply for being a militant communist challenging a bourgeois world. His denunciation of the riots in Greece and his views on Macedonia were mistaken, but his political failings – like his short stint with the New Democracy party – are part of his journey as an individual and in no way negate the important humanism of his works. He fought against NATO’s attacks on Yugoslavia, he continued to protest against the invasion of Iraq, and he tried to mobilise artists against the IMF grant awarded to Greece.
He won many accolades, including the Lenin Peace Prize, as well as winning notable friends including Salvador Allende, Yasser Arafat, Pablo Neruda, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Tito, and François Mitterrand.
For many, Theodorakis will eternally stand as Greece’s champion against dictatorship and imperialism, and an example to live by – an example of how an artist can spend their life fighting for the good of humanity.
Like all great individuals, he was a complicated figure, but he leaves behind a legacy which hopefully will continue to stand as a testament of what music written with a vision of the advancement of the working class can look like.
Ben Lunn is a composer, music critic, trade union activist, and helped found the Disabled Artist Network, an organisation which is bridging the gap between the professional world and disabled artists. He also has a monthly column in The Morning Star.