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Monday, June 16, 2003

Arts & Letters

Theodorakis, Music, and Politics: Some Reflections 40 Years after the Lambrakis Affair

Over the course of his long career, Mikis Theodorakis has frequently crossed political and musical boundaries to the bewilderment of supporters and critics alike. The fact that his lifelong commitment to the left did not prevent him from serving as a minister in a New Democracy cabinet of the early 1990s was thus not anomalous, but only perhaps the most infamous of the many peregrinations that have made Theodorakis resistant to easy classification from the earliest stages of his career. His musical training at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1950s led him not to the international avant-garde, as might have been expected, but to immersion in the popular song of his native land. Looking even further back to his youth during the Second World War, one finds him balancing service to the resistance organizations EAM and ELAS with composition not only of resistance songs but also of an ambitious choral setting of the Byzantine Hymn of Kassianê.

Despite such apparent contradictions, Theodorakis’s career is not without its overarching themes. In the realm of politics, this is today perhaps most obvious in his longstanding commitment to peace and social justice, which is thoroughly documented by a number of recent biographies, including those of Pavlos Petridis and Guy Wagner. Theodorakis’s public advocacy of these causes began in earnest during the early 1960s. He was one of scores arrested by the authorities for participating in the Marathon peace march of April 1963, which was completed only by Grigoris Lambrakis. After Lambrakis was murdered in Thessaloniki the following month, Theodorakis redoubled his own political efforts, issuing a famous denunciation of the assassination and, at EDA’s behest, organizing the Lambrakis Youth, but doing so on a multiparty basis. His election as the group’s head, followed in 1964 by his even more important election as a deputy for EDA, inaugurated the period of his most intense involvement with politics, reflected outside of parliament by his continuing work with the Lambrakis Youth and its cultural clubs, the second Marathon peace march, and the further politicization of his musical activities as a composer and performer. Fervent resistance to the 1967-74 dictatorship was followed by a brief period of wild popularity that had already peaked by his failed 1978 bid to become mayor of Athens. Somewhat ambivalent parliamentary service in the early 1980s as a deputy of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), with which he had always had strained relations, led during the latter part of the decade to controversial campaigns for better relations with Turkey and other Balkan nations. Most recently, he has issued widely publicized statements of support for the Palestinians as well as condemnations of American intervention in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, the texts of which are regularly published on his official Website (

It is characteristic, however, that Theodorakis’s efforts on behalf of peace and justice both at home and abroad have not been limited to a single sphere of activity. At various times, they have included public service, speeches, writings, musical composition, and performance in combinations that are difficult to disentangle. Theodorakis has labored mightily over the long term to reconcile the binary oppositions that we fall back on when attempting to discuss his life and work: namely, politics and music; “high” and “low” art; national and universal; Oriental and Western; sacred and secular. Whether or not Theodorakis has always succeeded in producing satisfactory musical syntheses is much debated, but it is instructive to contrast his catalogue of works with that of his Italian contemporary, Ennio Morricone. Although both Theodorakis and Morricone have enjoyed considerable success in both so-called “serious” and “popular” genres, the former has spread his compositions fairly evenly across the stylistic spectrum delineated by the two poles, often blurring distinctions between them. Morricone, on the other hand, has generally chosen to distinguish strictly between popular and concert works, writing many of the latter in an aggressively modern idiom. In some ways, Morricone’s decision to bifurcate his artistic life recalls more closely that of Yannis Constantinidis, a member of Greece’s national school of classical composers. Constantinidis reserved his given name for his small body of “serious” works based primarily on Greek folk melodies, while achieving commercial success with Westernizing popular music, music for the theater, and film scores under the pseudonym of Kostas Yannidis.

The schizophrenic case of Constantinidis/Yannidis was not the only model for success in either Greek popular or art music available to the young Theodorakis. In the late 1940s — during which Theodorakis somehow managed between multiple arrests and periods of exile to continue studying at the Athens Conservatory — his older, largely apolitical contemporary, Manos Hadjidakis, began forging an eclectic synthesis of Western art music and various types of popular song. These included not only the cabaret songs of the bourgeoisie, but also the rebetika of its underclass, a provocative decision that he defended in a 1949 lecture entitled, “The Interpretation and Role of Popular Song.” Acclaiming rebetika as comparable in artistic value to folk song, Hadjidakis made them equally valid targets for appropriation and domestication through the application of Western compositional techniques and performance styles. He thus altered received paradigms of Greek urban culture only to a moderate degree, initially filling the upper end of the gap between “high” and “low” — which largely corresponded to Western and Oriental — with The Accursed Snake and several other small ballets, theatrical music, film scores, and songs with lyrics of generally high quality. After the fall of the dictatorship, Hadjidakis composed such oratorios and cantatas as The Era of Melissanthi and The Absurdities, but even these witty essays in social commentary never took him far from his chosen role as a composer of songs and theatrical music who preferred conducting operas and symphonies to writing them.

Theodorakis, who began the composition of his First Symphony in 1948, was from the outset more ambitious in this regard. His relocation to Paris in 1954 was therefore a logical move for someone seeking to become a “great composer” in the tradition of Western art music; the subsequent growth of his reputation in this field showed that he was up to the job. The compositional idiom of his ballets and chamber music of the 1950s drew inspiration from the music of his native land while also showing the influence of the rhythmic and harmonic innovations of such contemporary internationalists as Stravinsky, a combination that heralded a modest reorientation of Greek art music away from the Germanic prototypes of Manolis Kalomiris and his nationalist school. Just such an artistic reorientation was proclaimed in a 1960 manifesto signed by Theodorakis, Iannis Xenakis, and four other prominent musicians. This fascinating document advocating the “Reorganization of Greek Music” laid out a program that was to encompass not only art music, but also popular and liturgical song. Yet, soon after his return to Greece during that same year, Theodorakis all but abandoned two of these three areas (choosing to resume his career as an internationally renowned classical composer only during the 1980s). The story of how he did so is a now-familiar narrative of music, politics, and national identity recounting the birth of so-called “artistic popular song” (entechno laiko tragoudi). This curious expression refers to the setting of high-style texts — including the works of Greece’s major poets from antiquity to the present — in popular or hybrid “metasymphonic” musical styles, an approach pioneered by Theodorakis and Hadjidakis that was subsequently imitated by a broad range of composers during the 1960s and 1970s.

Theodorakis and most of his commentators have traced his artistic reorientation to his 1958 song cycle, Epitaphios. Dedicated to EDA, this work is a setting of Yannis Ritsos’s powerful lament on the death of a striking tobacco worker. Yet, in place of the modernist idiom one might have expected of a Paris-based composer of the period seeking to capture the emotional content of the poem, Theodorakis opted for accessibility by writing radically popular melodies redolent of various degrees of rebetika, folk laments, and Byzantine chant. Even more radical was his rejection of Hadjidakis’s urbane 1960 recording of Epitaphios, which featured Nana Mouskouri singing over Hadjidakis’s own orchestrations. Instead, both on record and in “popular concerts” throughout Greece, Theodorakis proffered a competing and aggressively plebeian interpretation headlined by rebetiko singer Grigoris Bithikotsis and bouzouki virtuoso Manolis Chiotis. The contrast between the two recordings ignited fierce debates over the propriety of a rebetiko approach to Ritsos’s words that initially recalled those sparked slightly over a decade earlier by Hadjidakis’s lecture on popular song. Yet Theodorakis, inspired by a Marxist vision of a truly popular art that he elaborated in speeches and manifestos, continued to raise the stakes. In 1962, political and social subtexts of his music rose to the surface in his cycle of songs for Brendan Behan’s play, The Hostage, excerpts of which were incorporated into the film score for Z. That year also witnessed his creation of The Ballad of the Dead Brother, an essay in proletarian musical theater on the subject of the legacy of Greece’s civil war that earned Theodorakis censure from the leadership of EDA, which criticized its message of reconciliation as ideologically suspect. In many ways, the Lambrakis affair of the following year and subsequent events over the next decade merely accelerated the tendency toward the integration of Theodorakis’s creative and political sides.

Today, what is most striking about the occasionally grandiloquent pronouncements by Theodorakis and such early apologists as George Giannaris in the 1960s and early 1970s is their belief that the inspirational union of high and low art music of the period was a permanent achievement heralding a new social order. Such optimism had largely vanished by the time Gail Holst published her 1980 study on Theodorakis, while the final volume of Kostas Mylonas’s study of Greek song treats artistic popular song as essentially a historical phenomenon. Examples of the genre are still produced occasionally by Theodorakis and others, most notably Thanos Mikroutsikos, another politically active composer and the only one of the succeeding generation to have achieved somewhat comparable levels of success in both art and popular music. Mikroutsikos, however, is a postmodernist who has offered biting critiques of the nationalist agendas underlying the discourse of modern Greek song. Viewed from this perspective, it is possible to view Theodorakis’s excursions into popular idioms during the 1960s and 1970s as part of a larger search on his part to construct a suitable neo-Hellenic identity in sound, a task that has bedeviled Greek musicians of all persuasions for over a century.

Alexander Lingas is assistant professor of music history at Arizona State University and a fellow of the University of Oxford's European Humanities Research Centre. He is also founding director of the vocal ensemble, Cappella Romana ( During the coming academic year, he will be at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
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