For those with only a nodding acquaintance with Greece and Greek music, the name of Mikis Theodorakis, who has died aged 96, still conjures up Zorba the Greek and that moment on a Cretan beach when Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates break into an ecstatic dance. It was often hard for the classically trained composer to live down his image as a writer of memorable film scores. Despite the performance of his operas, symphonies and songs in some of the major concert halls of Europe, Theodorakis remained, for many, the man who wrote the catchy bouzouki music of Zorba and the Costa-Gavras film Z.
For those who remember the 1967-74 military dictatorship in Greece, he was also a symbol of resistance to that regime. But Theodorakis was much more than a political symbol and a writer of film scores. He was a composer of great melodic gifts: he composed more songs than Schubert and the best of them – his settings of Lorca, Seferis, Brendan Behan, Kambanellis, Elytis and Ritsos – do not suffer by the comparison. It may be that his other works will one day occupy a place in the repertoire of 20th-century classical composition, but his songs will undoubtedly remain the most enduring legacy of the man known to his friends simply as o psilos – the tall one.
Theodorakis was always conspicuous in Greece. He stood a head taller than most of his compatriots, and his political and artistic decisions were almost always controversial. For a composer who trained under Olivier Messiaen and began a promising career as a “serious” composer with a commission for a ballet from Covent Garden in 1958, it was a fateful and unexpected step to turn to the low-class bouzouki music of his country and use it as the basis for his songs.
Like many of his fellow artists and intellectuals in Greece, Theodorakis was inspired by Marxist ideals. He dreamed of writing music that would attract and at the same time elevate a working-class audience, and for a decade or so he succeeded.
One of his favourite stories was of meeting an old man riding a donkey into a small mountain village who, not recognising the composer, asked him where he could buy a record of “that new work by Theodorakis: Axion Esti”. Theodorakis’s setting of Odysseus Elytis’s long poem was an ambitious work, combining classical, liturgical and popular music. The idea that a Greek peasant should have heard of it, let alone want to buy it, delighted him.
Theodorakis’s decision to combine high art with low caught the public imagination and ushered in a new age of Greek music. Other Greek composers such as Manos Hadjidakis, Yannis Markopoulos and Dionysis Savvopoulos were also writing fine popular songs. Theodorakis was not only the most gifted of these composers, but the one whose music was always linked to the leftwing cause. His concerts were political events, often closed down by the police. The murder of his friend Grigoris Lambrakis, the politician and anti-fascist, by two men found to be on the police payroll (the events dramatised in the film Z), inspired Theodorakis to form a new leftwing organisation, the Lambrakis Youth Movement.
When the 1967 coup d’etat put a stop to the brief spring of Greek democracy, one of the first ordinances passed by the military rulers was a complete ban on the composer’s music. Theodorakis went into hiding, but was soon arrested, imprisoned and eventually exiled from Greece.
Imprisonment was something the composer was used to: his life was marked by a series of clashes with authority. Theodorakis was the son of a Cretan civil servant, Giorgios Theodorakis, a lifelong supporter of the anti-monarchist leader Eleftherios Venizelos. Theodorakis senior was serving in a government post in Smyrna when the Greek-Turkish War of 1919 broke out. He and his young fiancee, Aspasia Poulakis, escaped the burning city in a small boat and settled on the nearby island of Chios, where their first child, Mikis, was born.
The young Theodorakis spent his childhood moving from town to town in Greece according to where his father was stationed. When the Germans occupied Greece during the second world war, he was already composing his first choral works and had joined a youth group allied to the partisan resistance. By 1944 he was a captain in the partisan army ELAS. It was then he fell in love with a young medical student and fellow member of the resistance, Myrto Altinoglou.
Theodorakis began to study composition at the Athens conservatory, but continued his underground political activities. He escaped arrest in the December street battles when British troops attacked the leftwing forces that had led the resistance against the Germans, but was captured and tortured first in 1945, and again in 1946, when he was so severely beaten that he was presumed dead.
During the Greek civil war he spent months in the prison camps established on Aegean islands, including two periods in the notorious Makronisos camp, where prisoners were tortured or shot unless they signed statements renouncing communism.
He was released at the end of the war, and graduated from the Athens conservatory in 1950. He began composing ballets and film scores, and working on his first symphony. In 1952 he married Myrto and both won French government scholarships: she to study radiology at the Curie foundation, he, composition at the Paris conservatoire.
The young couple were not destined to pursue traditional careers. Their first child, Margarita, was born in 1958, putting an end to Myrto’s career as a scientist. And in 1959, despite his youthful success, Theodorakis found himself dissatisfied with the esoteric world of contemporary classical music and decided to return home to play an active part in Greece’s cultural and political development.
Much of his later career was devoted to the dream of revitalising the music of his own country. He began with an attack on the musical establishment of Athens, and followed it up with his provocative setting of a poem by Yannis Ritsos, Epitaphios. His use of a bouzouki and a popular nightclub singer to record the music created a storm in Greek intellectual circles.
In the years that followed Theodorakis produced an astounding volume of music. The international fame brought by the 1964 film score for Zorba probably ensured that he was imprisoned for only a brief period during the dictatorship, after which he was placed under house arrest in a remote village in the mountains of Arcadia. Even from there he managed to smuggle tapes and messages attacking the regime to the outside world. When Costa-Gavras sent him the scenario for the film Z (1969), it was confiscated by the authorities, but Theodorakis was able to get a message to the director indicating which of his songs should be used in the soundtrack.
After his release Theodorakis and his family left for Paris and he began touring the world giving concerts with his band. It was during these years, 1970-74, that international audiences became familiar with his work. There continued to be film and TV scores, notably Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), starring Al Pacino as a whistleblower cop.
With the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, Theodorakis returned to Greece a hero, but he soon found himself under attack in his own country. Although an avowed Marxist, he had condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops. He was seen to have lent support to the new conservative prime minister by saying that the people faced a choice between “Karamanlis or the tanks”. The Greek Communist party attacked him as a traitor, an accusation that would be repeated when he collaborated with the Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli and when he joined the conservative government of Konstantinos Mitsotakis during the early 1990s. Theodorakis’s politics may have been naive, but they were generally inspired by idealism, and by a belief that he could act as a go-between and bring peace to his troubled country.
In 1988, at the age of 63, Theodorakis began a surprising new chapter in his life. After the premiere of his Zorba ballet suite in Verona he sat looking at the banners hanging above him, with his name beside those of the great Italian opera composers. “I’ll write three operas,” he decided, “one for Verdi, one for Puccini, and one for Bellini.” Over the next eight years he did just that. His first opera, Medea, was given its premiere in 1991 in Bilbao; Electra in Luxembourg in 1995; and Antigone in Thessaloniki in 1998. Long and demanding works, the operas are filled with fine melodies, often reworked from the composer’s early popular songs.
In 2002, Greece’s cultural Olympiad opened with a performance of Theodorakis’s new comic opera based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and the popular singer George Dalaras sang a leading role as the Poet in a lighthearted burlesque.
Theodorakis’s 80th birthday, in 2005, was celebrated in his father’s home town of Chania, Crete, with the first international symposium devoted to his work. Two years later, a second symposium attended by scientists and philosophers from around the world addressed Theodorakis’s theory of the “law of universal harmony”.
A belief in an ideal harmony had served the composer since his adolescence as a means to reconcile his Christian and Marxist ideals, although he admitted that it was “a figment of my imagination”.
In later years, Theodorakis suffered from health problems that forced him to cancel most of his conducting engagements, but he continued to compose occasional new works, including the 2006 song-cycle Odysseia. He gave extensive interviews on Greek television and made regular statements to the Greek press on political events, often taking a stance that made him unpopular with his former supporters.
His support for the police in their attempts to contain riots that continued for months in Athens in 2008-09 came as a surprise to many on the left, who had expected him to take the side of the young anarchists.
On his 85th birthday, concerts celebrating Theodorakis were held in towns all over Greece, in Munich and in Berlin. But despite his vast output of music and international fame, he never felt that his classical music was sufficiently appreciated, especially in his own country. In 1998 he conducted the London Philharmonic, with Tatiana Papageorgiou as soloist in his Piano Concerto, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. France, the country that was his second home, awarded him membership of the Légion d’honneur in 1996.
His classical compositions were better known in Sweden, Poland and Russia than they were in Greece. In his own country, he suffered from “tall poppy” syndrome – too gifted, too idealistic, too famous, even too tall. He was criticised for his politics, his music, his private life. Still, when he got up to conduct one of his best-loved works in Greece, the magic would return, and someone in the audience would call out “Mikis, you are eternal!”
His health problems included vertigo, which doctors ascribed to repeated beatings. Often using a wheelchair, he attended and conducted concerts of his work, encouraged many young artists, and continued his advocacy for social justice. In 2012 he was pepper-sprayed at a demonstration against the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European Union.
Theodorakis is survived by Myrto, his daughter, Margarita, his son, Yorgos, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
• Mikis Theodorakis, composer, born 29 July 1925; died 2 September 2021