Composer  Mikis  Theodorakis

Μιχαήλ (Μίκης) Θεοδωράκης

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


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. 

theodorakisThe 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 . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   That’s what we should all do, get around in Esperanto.

Mikis Theodorakis:   Esperanto, yes.  [Both laugh]  But you must speak not quickly so that it is possible to understand.

BD:    I 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 strong.  Ka-ka-ka.

BD:    Lots of consonants.

MT:    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 believe that.

BD:     For 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 Music?

MT:    Language is music, but we can also speak with the hands.

BD:    Gestures?

MT:    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 laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

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.

BD:    Never???

MT:    Never, 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 musicI 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 is 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?

MT:    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.

BD:    This shows what’s it going on in their minds?

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.

theodorakisBD:    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 theme is serious or not serious.  I choose with objectivity because I want to work for the art, for myself, for my ideas, for my personality, etcetera.  For this reason I choose all the films where I write music.

BD:    Coming over to the symphonies, how do you decide if you will write one or not?

MT:    The 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, they form 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 music with C.P.E. Bach.  This is aristocracy, the aristocracy of music.  It’s possible today to transfer this to all the Americans.  Americans are like the aristocracy.

BD:    Everyone here in America can be a member of the aristocracy?

MT:    Everyone, 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 good thing?

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 hundred millions?

BD:    About two hundred and fifty million at the moment.

MT:    Yeah, princes!

BD:    Two hundred fifty million princes?

MT:    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, my Seventh Symphony with big quotes in the text, and this is like a symphony oratorio.  It is to be close to people.  They like a popular oratorio.

BD:    You 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?

MT:    Yes, 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 the Orthodox 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 form 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!

MT:    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 after.  The common man is a prince.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

theodorakisMT:    Future for me is the human being.  I think that the man is the same, essentially same.  We have the same passions, the 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 wants peace, the love, he likes the family, likes the children, likes the all the animals, 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 won’t 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 never win.

MT:    With the arts!

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 people 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 mortal, 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 man.

BD:    Do you have any advice or suggestions for young composers today?

MT:    Young composers now composing... this is very difficult because for me what they compose is very complicated 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, all 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, or 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 the 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 philosophy.

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.
theodorakisTheodorakis’ 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 Aachen/Germany.

--  Text from the Schott Website 

 © 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 on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning 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 like 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.