On August 8 composer Mikis Theodorakis was laid to earth in the city of Chania, in western Crete. He was ninety-six years old at the time of his death. But he had lived more lives—and certainly helped change far more lives—than most mortals could ever dream of.
This short memoir, devoted to the memory of an extraordinary man, begins nearly sixty years ago, in the spring of 1963. That was when my life-companion-to-be Ingeborg and I met Mikis, already widely known throughout Greece by his first name, at his family home.
It was a fine April day in Crete. The snow-capped peaks of the White Mountains loomed over Chania, a graceful city that still bore the imprint of the Venetians, who had ruled over Crete for several centuries before surrendering to the Ottomans, only becoming a part of Greece in 1912.
We had arrived there the previous evening, on our “honeymoon’ project to circumnambulate the great island, our means of transport a tramp steamer that carried us along the rocky northern shore from the port town of Rethymnon to Chania.
We’d gone to Crete to carry out our plan to be married. By then, I’d been living in Greece for nearly three years and had fallen in with Cretan students at the University of Athens. Their self-appointed task: to rip me from my adolescent American self and make not of me only a Greek, but a Cretan. Linguistically and culturally at least. How successful they were!
This was the young man Ingeborg encountered when we met in Athens two years previously, and with whom she gradually formed a powerful and enduring bond. My—our—friends make a convincing argument. “You should get married,” they said, “in Crete.”
They knew just where to do it, and how. A few years earlier the abbot of a mountain monastery had married a young lady who’d been abducted by her suitor. The wedding was as explosive—with gunshots being fired into the air—as it had enraged the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical.
Such a man, our friends reasoned, would look kindly upon our petition. As indeed he did. There was, however, one catch: for him to perform the service, we would have to be full-immersion baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith. Love usually overcomes all, but this would not be the time.
So we transformed our disappointment into advantage, and continued our expedition, mostly on foot but also by donkey-back, and by various vessels, until we’d criss-crossed Crete end-to-end and shore-to-shore.
Thus we had come to Chania, where we spent the night in a harbour-front hotel. The following morning, in ways I cannot recall, we encountered a man who told us: “Mikis is in town, at his father’s house. Would you like to meet him?”
In the question lay embedded the answer! Soon after we knocked at the door. Mikis opened and welcomed us with grace and familiarity. It helped that I was fluent in Greek by then: I must have made a good impression. And, like any reasonable man sensitive to beauty, he was charmed by Ingeborg, to whom he gave a flower fresh from his garden. That flower she pressed between the pages of her diary and treasured for decades, only discarding its desiccated fragments when we departed Montréal for Morocco.
I cannot recall what we discussed, as though two random foreign visitors might have placed themselves on the same level as a man who already bore the scars of political combat and torture, and had brought about, single-handedly, the transformation of Greek music.
But on that luminous morning, our host was true to the traditions of Cretan hospitality, which always placed the visitor—whoever he or she might be—in the place of honour. Did we drink coffee? An infusion of mountain herbs perhaps? The clear eau-de-vie the Cretans called tsikoudia? I cannot remember. But we were intoxicated.
Mikis was a large man, with a full head of curly black hair, a piercing gaze and a presence I can only recall as overpowering. He would bend singers and orchestras to his will, shape audiences, charm crowds, and issue ringing calls for political action and pay—frequently—for his audacity and daring. For his rich creative life was punctuated with long periods of exile in remote islands or mountain villages, with tuberculosis, with death-threats from political adversaries who had already killed.
There are moments when an event, or the advent of an individual, signals a sharp break from what had come before, and from what was to come. Mikis, as a composer and musician, was such a man, and his career was such an event unfolding in time as waves lash rocks.
Trained in classical composition, he already possessed the technical tools he needed. The next step, only a man of his political convictions could have achieved. As a member of the Greek Communist Party he set to music the words of Greece’s communist poets. This he did in a musical idiom drawn from the urban sub-proletariat and the working class. Its instrument was the bouzouki; its roots were in the Greek-speaking communities of Turkish cities like Izmir and Istanbul. Its tonalities were Turkish; its subject matter drawn from the lower depths of hashish dens and small-time criminality. It was an idiom universally understood in the Greek world, scorned and loathed by the official arbiters of good taste.
Suddenly these songs were on everyone’s lips. They spoke now of political oppression, resistance and struggle; of a mother’s mourning for her dead son.
But Theodorakis did not stop there. He set to music—and brought into the country’s cultural mainstream—Greece’s two Nobel laureates, George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis. Overnight, their poetic elegance and transforming language now belonged to millions. He wrote a cantata called Mauthausen, about the Nazi forced labour camp in Austria and so brought the horrors of Nazism to a nation that had looked the other way when the Jewish population of Salonica was deported en masse and exterminated in 1942.
Mikis wrote the music for a series of powerful films: Zorba the Greek, ‘Z’ and State of Siege by Costa-Gavras, starring Yves Montand, and Actas de Marousia, by the Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin. He devised a musical setting for Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, drawing on the Andean musical idiom that he had also mastered.
There is great risk in idealizing any individual. Even the Prophets are naught but messengers. Though no prophet, Mikis Theodorakis had about him qualities that far outshone his human faults and shortcomings. Who would I be to even suggest the latter?
He broke with the Communist Party, but remained faithful to its guiding principles. “I lived as a communist and I wish to die as one,” he wrote to his former comrades in the days before his death.
Mikis! There was no one quite like you; no one your equal. No one of your kindness and generosity to strangers—the guiding spirit of your music—that we experienced on that spring morning 58 years ago.