There are few more joyous scenes in cinema than that in the 1964 film Zorba the Greek where Anthony Quinn teaches Alan Bates’s stiff Englishman to link arms, let himself go and dance on the beach, a scene played out against a soundtrack by the composer Mikis Theodorakis that was to become synonymous with the country, Greek holidays and Greek tavernas all over the world.
Immediately recognisable, Zorba’s Dance is Theodorakis’s best known composition internationally. But the composer – who survived imprisonment, torture and being buried alive by the Nazis and by Greek military dictators – was hugely prolific. He wrote folk songs, symphonies, operas, music for films and ballet and an anthem for the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
One of his songs was covered by the Beatles and he wrote music for the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Zorba’s Dance was later used at the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics.
He was a hero of the Resistance – wherever that Resistance may be. He served with the Greek partisans during the Second World War and later as a Communist MP in the Greek parliament. And in due course he became an elder statesman of Greek identity and culture. Three days of national mourning were declared following his death. The Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni said the country had lost part of its soul.
The son of a lawyer, he was born Michail Theodorakis on the Aegean island of Chios in 1925, though he had a peripatetic childhood, as his father moved frequently with work. His mother was passionate about the arts and music and Theodorakis showed an interest from a very early age, writing his own little songs as a boy.
He was in his teens when his country was overrun by the Germans and Italians during the Second World War. He was arrested when he led his church choir in a demonstration, singing the national anthem. He subsequently served as an officer in the partisan army ELAS, during which time he met his wife Myrto.
He also joined the Greek Communist Party, was caught up in the civil war that followed Greece’s liberation and was captured, tortured and subjected to mock execution.
After his release he studied at the Athens Conservatoire, lived for a while on Crete, where he composed and founded his own orchestra, and spent several years in Paris, where he composed music for the ballet Antigone, which was staged at Covent Garden in 1959.
He also began writing music for films, including Powell and Pressburger’s Ill Met by Moonlight, with Dirk Bogarde as Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, helping Resistance fighters on Crete, and Michael Powell’s film Honeymoon.
Paul McCartney loved the theme song and persuaded The Beatles to record a version for their radio show Pop Go The Beatles in 1963. It later appeared on the compilation album The Beatles Live at the BBC.
Although the other members of the group were less impressed by the sentimentality of the song, McCartney remained keen and he encouraged Mary Hopkin to record a version for inclusion on her debut album Postcard, released on the Beatles’ Apple label in 1969.
Zorba the Greek took Theodorakis to an even wider audience. Played on the Greek stringed instrument the bouzouki, the theme song begins slowly before gaining momentum and building itself – and the characters played by Quinn and Bates – into an exuberant musical frenzy.
A version by Marcello Minerbi and his Orchestra made the UK Top Ten, while Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s version was a hit in the US. The song was also the inspiration for Bend It!, a huge international hit for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. LCD took Zorba’s Dance back into the UK Top 20 with their version in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile Greece remained in turmoil and Theodorakis had become a prominent figure in left-wing politics. His friend and fellow activist Grigoris Lambrakis was assassinated in 1963. At the funeral Theodorakis drew the letter Z in the air, which meant “he lives”, and he founded the Lambrakis Democratic Youth movement.
Z was used as the title of a fictionalised account of events surrounding the murder by the celebrated film director Costa-Gavras. Theodorakis wrote the score and the film won two Oscars, including best foreign-language film of 1969.
By then the Greek military had taken power in Greece in a coup. Theodorakis was arrested and his music was banned, cementing its position and Theodorakis’s own position as symbols of Resistance.
Rumours began to circulate that he had been murdered by the military, who of course refuted them. They invited journalists to visit him in prison. They found him seriously ill, suffering from tuberculosis and coughing up blood.
International figures, including Arthur Miller, Harry Belafonte and Dmitri Shostakovich demanded his release. He had become a huge embarrassment to the Colonels and was sent into exile in France, with his wife and family, like some character in Ancient Greek history.
With the restoration of democracy, Theodorakis returned to Greece in 1974 and was elected to Parliament as a Communist in 1981. In the unstable world of Greek politics, he subsequently served as a minister in a centre-right coalition, describing himself now as a “free man” and judging issues on their merits, though it did all end in tears when he fell out with his new bedfellows.
Over the years leftists repeatedly acclaimed him as a hero and branded him as a traitor, while many others saw him as unifying figure, trying his best to unite various belligerents in Greece and beyond.
He continued composing into old age, though in recent years he had been blighted by ill health, including repeated heart problems. He is survived by his wife, a daughter and a son.
If you would like to submit an obituary, or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]
A message from the Editor
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.