A Conversation with
Meeting with Mikis Theodorakis was a fascinating experience. He
was so alive, so full of excitement that it almost could not be
contained. Despite his age — he was very
nearly seventy when we met in May of 1994 — and the
hardships he had endured, it was like speaking with an exuberant
child. He was wide-eyed and tried to convey his amazement of all
he was saying.
The Greek Consul in Chicago was giving a
party for the composer [see photo
above] who was in the Windy City to conduct a performance of
some of his large works. [See
news item at right.] Our appointment was just before the
gathering so that we could spend a few minutes discussing his ideas,
his experiences, and his outlook.
His English, though passable, was certainly not something he had truly
mastered, and quite a number of his thoughts were mangled by his
speeding brain. I have cleaned up many of the wrong tenses and
erroneous usages, but have left intact much of the boyish delight and
enormous bombast that was conveyed. In the end, it was far better
to do it this way than to have an interpreter. It may take a
little getting used to while reading, but his thoughts do become clear
and his delight is contagious.
While setting up the machine to record our conversation, we were both
getting the feel of each other’s ability to
understand and communicate . . . . . . .
That’s what we should all do, get around in
Esperanto, yes. [Both laugh]
But you must speak not quickly so that it is possible to understand.
certainly will. So let’s start out right
there. We’re concerned here with spoken language. Do you
concern yourself with the musical language, or is that truly universal?
MT: Yes, the
music language. I like very much
the English language for his simplicity, for his music. My dream
is to learn English, but the only opportunity was when I was in prison,
and my English is the English of the prison because in Greek prison we
learn English. The science of language is exciting because the
language is not like an organism, like a tree. It is life.
It’s very nice, it’s very nice. But you can, I think, find
character of one people with his musical language, the music of
language. For example, the Gothic, the German is very
BD: Lots of
Yes. In Africa, the life is simple, so it
is ah, oh, eh, oh... is all light. His language is light, music
dark. Music is language of dark, language of life is light.
The other very intelligent side is the influence between the language
and the way the world works. Great works go to English language,
to Italian, to German. This is very nice. For the moment
the English language must be the international language. I
science and diplomacy?
MT: No, no,
for the people, too, because this
language is very, very simple, I think. Other languages... in
Greek, for example, the syntax is very complicated. French
language — I lived in France forty years and I speak French. It’s
for me, I never lose it. My accent is, because it’s very, very
delicate, the French language. Very difficult to pronounce, you
know? The foreigner, after two or three years, speaks English
very, very well. It is very important, this one.
BD: Is it
important that everyone in the world speak
is music, but we can also speak with the
gestures, yes, but after come the
songs. The works are the language, the logic, etc. The
animals hear the language, too. The whales, they have
conversation. Very intelligent. The fish speaks, the bird
speaks, the animals speaks. Only the fascists not speak. [Both
BD; You write
music for films and you write music for
symphony orchestra. Is there a difference writing for films and
writing for orchestra?
MT: Yes, it
is different. In the film, it is
exciting. I like the music of the film, all the films. They
give me before the scenario, but I never read the scenario.
because the film is every time different
than scenario. And me, I write only for myself. I see the
film. I see, the first time, the whole film and I have a general
impression of the film. I want to take the feeling of the film
because it dominates. After, I speak, I discuss with the director
of the film, and I propose that I won’t like this moment, this moment,
this moment, this moment. After we cut it — put
together the parts which will be with the
music — I see these parts as the moviola many,
many times! After that, I write the music. I’m not in my
room at my house,
but at the studio because I feel that I want the music to take
off from the characters on the drama,
on the movement of the film, the colors of the film. I
take the music of the film. This is mine, and after, it’s very,
very easy. I am musician for the film.
It’s like an actor. The director is responsible. Me, I am
one part of the film and I believe that the most
important music on the film is the music you do not hear. The
music which is on the
action on the film is an unconscious influence on the spectacle. This
more important, but the moment when the director wants to put off the
music is another. Another thing’s very, very
important is when we have a scene with quickly movement.
BD: Lot’s of
Action. Very action, but you feel the
action of the characters have another movement. It possible to
make a very large, very slow music with very action, and the contrary.
shows what’s it going on in their
MT: In the
mind. This is important, to take the
mind of the scene. This contrast is very, very important for the
film. On the contrary, we have the very slowly movement in the
film, but the internal action is very anxious. The music must be
very important. I think that my best music is
for the film Electra,
directed by Michael Cacoyannis, with Irene Pappas. It’s classic
because Cacoyannis directed three tragedies — first, Iphegenia, then The Trojan Women with Catherine
Campbell, and Electra, the
end of the drama, the
trilogy. He began with Electra.
It’s black and white. It’s his best film.
BD: It’s his
best film, and your best music?
MT: Now I
write my best music, but at this
moment I use for the first time an assistant. I put a little
group of musicians and with different themes, different music. I
say this group is for Clytemnestra, and this group is for
Electra; this group is for the scene of killing the eight
sisters. I make a group in harmony with personas or with the
action. I say to the director to conduct himself and group
separate from other group. It was the same with Anatole Litvak
when I make Five Miles to Midnight
with Sophia Lauren and Anthony Perkins. I
have a different group for different scenes, and Litvak conducts two
groups or three
groups. This is, I think, the most close to conception of the
film music, because it is music that is a part of the film. But
the question is to write the music with the contrapunto,
this superimposition, this going together. This is the problem,
going together because they start not every time in the same
place. For example, the first time the first group
started at eight seconds and the second at thirteen seconds. So
it was not possible to start with a six-second theme. But every
time must be in harmony, you know,
contrapuntal. It’s a system. I also write a lot of music
when I work in London with Rank Films, Rank Productions.
BD: If a film is
offered to you, how do you decide if
you will say, “Yes, I will write the music,” or, “No, I don’t want to
be involved with that film?”
MT: In this
case, it is the personality of the
director and the scenario. I read scenario only to see if the
serious or not serious. I choose
with objectivity because I want to work for the art, for myself, for my
for my personality, etcetera. For this reason I choose all the
films where I write music.
over to the symphonies,
how do you decide if you will write one or not?
symphony are very, very difficult
things. I start to write symphonies when I discovered European
music as I was a student in Athens and in Conservatoire de Paris with
Messiaen. The symphony for me is the last
great art after the tragedy, after the poetry. The symphony comes
in the eighteenth century, so it is very modern. For me, it is
the fruit of the German realism. They do architecture with sounds
only. They construct bridges, big bridges. They form fugue,
sonata, they form symphony, they form quartet. But this is very
big, only with sound, and is very difficult, I think,
for the common people to take — to see the fantasy vision of the
Ninth Symphony of Beethoven or
the Fifth Symphony of
Mahler. It is
very difficult, very difficult. This is the fruit of the time
where there was the big separation between classes, who at this
moment had much free time... you know, the princes. They had all
the time hear music; they
speak with Beethoven, with Mozart. Frederick the Great played
with C.P.E. Bach. This is aristocracy, the
aristocracy of music. It’s possible today to transfer this to all
Americans. Americans are like the aristocracy.
here in America can be a member of the
with one condition — that they have very rich
free time. Like the princes. It’s possible to work for the
society one, two, three hours per day,
and the other hours to spend in the arts.
BD: Is this a
good thing, or not a
MT: It’s a
very good thing. In this moment it is possible to speak about
the symphony. It is very difficult to understand the minds
of symphony. When we hear a symphony, the ordinary people will
take the melody, [sings: pa-pa-pa-pa, pa-pa-pa-pa — Beethoven’s 9th], but
it is not the symphony. A symphony is the whole, the
construction. It is the melody, the counterpoint, the
theme, all this! And this is very difficult. If you want
to have a society for understanding the symphony, you must
change. How many Americans are there now — two
BD: About two
hundred and fifty million at the
hundred fifty million princes?
for hear music. [Laughs] For this reason, I
write a new kind of symphonies — symphonies oratorio. I use the
text, poetic text. The voice is close to the people, the
text. The big
symphony is different symphony is classic symphony. I
write like this when I was two years into the student years. My Trio,
my Sexteto is what they call
conservatoire. But now, in the vicinity of 1980, ’83,
’84, I write my Third
Symphony, my Fourth Symphony,
Symphony with big quotes in the text, and this is like a
symphony oratorio. It
is to be close to people. They like a
wanted to get it to
be close to people?
MT: When I
gave a concert, I feel
that the people are feeling... [searches for the right words]
BD: They get
the feeling from you?
yes. It’s in a new kind of
oratorio. It is an oratorio like the oratorio we will present
tomorrow in Chicago. It’s a popular oratorio based on the text of
Elytis. It is very popular with my music; I use
symphony orchestra, chorus, soloists and a little popular
orchestra. It is like the Passion
of Bach because of the orchestra and the chorus, the chorale. In
Church we have the cantor. I have the cantor and I have
the Evangiste who is
the text of the poet. I think this form, the form of liturgy, the
of the Passion of Bach, is
liturgy, and the people, the common
people, is very, very close to this music.
BD: You write
your music for everyone?
MT: Yes, I
want because everyone is very
rich. Everyone. The everyone is a prince! But he
works too much.
BD: So we
should work less!
Yes. When I speak of the work, I mean the social work. My
job of composer is not work for me. It’s
pleasure. It’s different. I like to work, but for my
pleasure. You work
for your pleasure, but in this society there are jobs of
necessity. This is the social works. All the day to
construct the buildings. This is the social works, and this is
too much. Too much, eight hours; too much six hours. I
want, for this work, two hours, three hours, and make prince
The common man is a prince.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the
future of music?
MT: Future for me
is the human being. I think
that the man is the same, essentially same. We have the same
same problems, the same questions, the same
anxieties, everything. And I think the man is Romantic all the
time. Man is like a child; he is afraid, very
afraid. It’s exactly the same everywhere. I think the man
the love, he likes the family, likes the children, likes the all the
the birds, the country, the colors. Man is the same in our
concept of this, in all the cultures. We all have the same
problems. I think the problem for the man is how to live in
harmony with the others, with the nature, with the time, to take joys
for his life, for the little things like the wine, the love, the
friendship. It is very important, the little things. And
after, the big
problem is the death. The death is not accepted by us. We
accept it. We will not accept that tomorrow, perhaps after an
accident, must be nothing. But it’s impossible to be
nothing. The death is impossible, and for this
reason I think the man is the only animal who wants to be immortal, to
fight the death.
BD: But we
MT: With the
BD: With the
arts we win over death?
MT: With the
arts. With the arts, the Athenians live today. We live also
with the children, with the
grandchildren. We continue. It is a victory against the
death. We plant a tree. Is a victory over the death
because you are in the tree, on the tree. It is very nice for the
with this action, and even better with the arts. With the
spiritual works I think the man becomes immortal. This is big
problem. If one society
passes a crisis, like now, it’s my opinion, my analysis that it’s
luck. In this society, the common man feel that they have the
opportunity to participate in one creation, a common creation, and this
creation must be
immortal. This happen in
all time because in the villas, the men, when they
participate in the common construction of songs, of
dance, in this moment the people must be immortal by the dances, by
the songs, etcetera. In Africa, when they dance and
sing, they participate in action for immortality. Now when we
live, we are the first society in all the epoch
where the man, the common man, has the feeling that he is alone, is
is a victim of death.
BD: This is
the first time we’ve felt this?
MT: The first
time. It is very dangerous.
For this reason, in my opinion, the youth go over the narcotic because
this is a society of consumers which kills every day the immortal man
inside the common
BD: Do you
have any advice or suggestions for young composers today?
composing... this is very difficult because for me what they compose is
works. The basis of music is the songs. The basis of music
is the dance, the rhythm, the harmony. This is the base.
The composition must be based in this base. Me, I prefer all the
composers of this century,
the biggest ones, because they make songs. I prefer our own
Greeks composers, popular composers. They write songs for the
people. This is the
music. If it is possible to construct in this music
with orchestra, with symphony, etcetera, good. But the
basis must be the inspiration, must be the songs, popular songs.
The songs are the basis. I think that Vivaldi, Verdi, Beethoven,
start for the popular, the German popular songs, Italian popular
songs, the Spanish popular songs, French, and step by step construct
this symphony. For me, a new composer must start from the songs,
start by dialogue from the others, supposing to compose a piece only
for five persons, for one hundred persons, for a concert. The
critics write articles, etcetera, philology, etcetera, and for me all
this is death. It’s not the life. The life is the
phenomenon. Music is called the phenomenon of life. We have
genesis. The genesis for music is
the melody. If you say today, à la Bach, à la
Mozart, à la Beethoven, à la Verdi, à
la Stravinsky, we think a kind of
melody. This is the genesis; this is the
life. The other is construction. This is my poor
BD: Thank you
for being a composer and thank
you for all of your music.
MT: But thank
you for my English, too? [Laughs] You understand me?
BD: I was
able to follow what you were saying.
MT: Excuse me
for it, but this is the English of the
prison. [With a wry smile] Thanks to dictators, who put me
in the prison to learn
English. [Both laugh] Now we go to the party! [See photo below, taken a few minutes later.]
|Mikis Theodorakis was born on
the Greek island of Khios in the Aegean Sea on 29 July 1925. He grew up
with Greek folk music and was early influenced by the Byzantine
liturgy. Even as a child, he decided to become a composer.
Theodorakis’ life has been characterized by his political
commitment to the Greek people and their freedom, by persecution and
struggle for survival. His activities as resistance fighter during the
occupation of Greece by German, Bulgarian and Italian troops led to his
arrest and torture in 1943. The Civil War of 1947-49 to him meant being
tortured again and finally banished to the penal colonies of Ikaria and
Makronissos, where he barely survived.
From 1945 Theodorakis studied intermittently with Philoktitis
Economidis at the Odeion music school and from 1954-1959 with
Eugène Bigot and Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire. In
1957 he was awarded the gold medal of the composition competition of
the World Festival in Moscow for his ’Suite No.1’ and in 1959 the
American Copley Prize for the best European composer. Furthermore he
received the first prize of the International Institute of Music in
London. During that time, he created ballet musics such as Greek Carnival, Les Amants de Téruel and Antigone in close collaboration
with international theatres.
This successful period was interrupted by a bitter cultural struggle in
Greece in which right-wing and left-wing groups and factions were
engaged in fierce controversies. Theodorakis became one of the leading
personalities among the renewers of Greece. After the assassination of
the left-wing politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 he founded the
Lambrakis Youth and took his seat in the Greek Parliament. During that
time, he also notched up great successes and achieved worldwide fame
with compositions such as the film music Zorba the Greek and the oratorio Axion Esti. The internal political
disturbances of the following years led to the formation of a big and a
small junta and their coup d’état. Theodorakis founded the
underground movement ’Patriotic Front’. Shortly afterwards, his music
was banned, and he was arrested and imprisoned in the concentration
camp of Oropos. He was released in 1970 in response to an international
initiative of important artists such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Hanns
Eisler and Leonard Bernstein.
Having become a symbol of the European student movement, not least by Zorba the Greek, Theodorakis
started to live in exile in Paris from 1970. At concert tours he called
for further resistance to the military dictatorship and for the
restoration of democracy in his home country where he could return to
as a politician in 1974. At that time, his compositional work focussed
mainly on numerous large-scale song cycles.
It was not until the beginning of the 1980s that he moved back to Paris
and fully resumed composing. He began to create increasingly symphonic
works, cantatas, oratorios such as Canto
General on the occasion of the accession of Greece to the EC,
sacred music and operas such as I
Metamorfosis tou Dionisou. In the time that followed, the
independent left-winger Mikis Theodorakis was appointed Minister
without Portfolio in the Conservative government of Mitsotakis, making
an educational and cultural reform his particular task from 1990 till
1992 and promoting the reconciliation between Greece and Turkey.
After retreating from politics, he was appointed general music director
of the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Hellenic Radio and
Television in 1993 and was also in great demand as conductor of his own
works. In the years before and after 1990 Theodorakis composed the
great lyric tragedies based on classical literature: Medea, Elektra, Antigone. At the beginning of 1998
he donated his entire collections to the Lilian Voudouri Foundation at
the Megaron in Athens.
In 2000 Mikis Theodorakis was proposed as nominee for the Nobel Peace
Prize with great support of not only the Greek population and was
shortlisted by the Nobel Committee. For his artistic œuvre in the field
of film music he has been awarded the Erich Wolfgang Korngold Prize at
the International Film Music Biennial in Bonn in 2002. In November 2005
Theodorakis has been awarded the UNESCO prize for arts and music in
-- Text from the Schott
© 1994 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at the home of the Greek Consul in
Chicago on May
19, 1994. Portions
(along with recordings) were used on WNIB the following year, and again
in 2000. The transcription was made and posted
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.