Mikis Theodorakis: a Greek life full of music and political engagement

Mikis Theodorakis, whose death was announced today, was one of the most important Greek composers of the twentieth century. Music and politics played a key role in his life. In total, he composed an oeuvre of more than 1000 works, ranging from film music to opera. In the Netherlands he became best known for the song La danse de Zorba that he wrote for the film Zorba de Greek (1964).

His musical passion coupled Theodorakis to a strong political commitment. In the 1960s he was in the Greek parliament and after the army seized power in 1967, he became active in the underground resistance against the junta. In the end, that came to him on an exile from Greece.

His strong beliefs were not limited to Greek politics. So he spoke against the Gulf War and supported Serbia in the Balkan War. As an anti-Zionist, he condemned Israel‘s occupation of Gaza Strip and turned against Greek Prime Minister Papandreou when he cited ties with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Traditional Greek folk music and the Byzantine liturgy he grew up with sparked his musical interest from an early age. Even before he could play an instrument, Theodorakis composed music. He founded a choir with which he gave his first concert at the age of seventeen.

Buried Alive

During World War II, Theodorakis was active in the Greek resistance and during the immediate subsequent Greek Civil War he was a member of the far-left Greek People’s Army for National Liberation. That‘s why he got into jail and was tortured badly. That’s how he was buried alive twice.

During the periods when he was not wanted or imprisoned, Theodorakis studied at the Conservatory in Athens where he graduated in 1950. A few years later he left for Paris, where he studied music analysis at the Conservatory with the French composer Olivier Messiaen.

In 1960, Theodorakis returned to Greece where he revolutionized Greek music with his song cycle Epitaphios. He developed the concept of ‘metasymphonic music’, combining symphonic compositions with popular music and Greek instruments.

In 1964 he wrote the music with Michael Cacoyannis‘ film Zorba the Greek. La danse de Zorba, largely based on the sirtaki from Crete, became a major international success.

Liesbeth List

In the Netherlands, the song was in the top 40 for weeks and the singer visited the cabaret Shaffy Chantant during a visit to the Netherlands and met chansonnière Liesbeth List there. This resulted in a collaboration from which the album Liesbeth List sings Theodorakis originated.

At that time he also wrote the famous Mauthausen trilogy, named after the Nazi concentration camp of the same name in Austria. Many consider this cycle of four arias, based on the poems of Mauthausen survivor Iakovos Kambanellis, to be the most beautiful musical work ever written about the Holocaust.

After returning to Greece, Theodorakis set up a democratic youth party and took part in the Greek Parliament. When in 1967, after a coup, the colonels regime in Greece took over power, Theodorakis went under and founded a resistance group. Soon he was arrested and imprisoned in various places, including a concentration camp in Oros. At that time, Greece was forbidden to play or listen to Theodorakis’ music.


Famous composers and artists such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein and Harry Belafonte put great pressure on the regime to release him, whatever happened in 1970. He had to leave Greece, though.

With his wife and children, he left for Paris, where he was admitted directly to a hospital with tuberculosis upon arrival.

Outside Greece, the composer continued to fight the colonels regime. He gave thousands of concerts around the world, spoke to key political leaders, and was considered by many as the figurehead of resistance to the colonels regime.

After the collapse of the colonel regime in 1974, Theodorakis returned to Greece where he took his political career in addition to his musical work. He was in the Greek parliament for several periods and from 1990 to 1992 he was minister in the government of Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis.

After his return, he was mainly concerned with classical music. He wrote his first opera, Kostas Kariotakis, the ballet Zorba the Greek and several symphonies. He also worked on his five-part autobiography. During this period, the Soviet Union awarded him the Lenin International Peace Prize.


In 2006 he composed the song cycle.Odysseia released in 2007 in a performance of Greek singer Maria Farantouri. That same year he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Flanders-Ghent International Film Festival.

After that time, Theodorakis decided to slow down. His last work is the film music for Recycling Medea by Asteris Kutulas in 2013.

In June 2017, Theodorakis appeared publicly as conductor of a thousand-headed choir from thirty cities that came to honor him at the Panathinaiko stadium in Athens. He was 92 years old at the time.

Mikis Theodorakis was 96 years old. Three days of national mourning have been proclaimed in Greece.