His impact not only on Greece’s music but also its politics is unparalleled. As renowned Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis turns 90, singer Maria Farantouri recalls their years of close collaboration.
Born on July 29, 1925 on the island of Chios, Mikis Theodorakis has seen nine decades of political developments in Greece – and continually responded to them in music. Often referred to as Greece’s most famous living composer, he studied music in Paris under Olivier Messiaen and is known for writing the scores to films like “Zorba the Greek” (1964) and “Serpico” (1973). With his roots in classical music, he also pursued traditional Greek music, for many years in collaboration with talented singer Maria Farantouri.
Politically, Theodorakis was associated with the left-wing and became a vocal member of the resistance when the right-wing junta took power in the late 1960s, which led to a time in jail and exile for the musician. Theodorakis was elected to parliament three times – in 1964, 1981 and 1990 – and served as a minister in the 1990s.
Currently, Mikis Theorakis is suffering from the physical injuries resulting from a tear gas attack while he was participating in an anti-austerity demonstration in Athens in 2012. On the occasion of his 90th birthday, singer Maria Farantouri, who was his musical muse and long-time artistic colleague, tells DW what it was like to work with the composer and activist.
DW: Ms. Farantouri, Mikis Theodorakis discovered you as a singer during a performance in 1963. You were 16 at the time and quickly became the main interpreter of his music. Looking back, how would you describe this period?
Maria Farantouri: During the military dictatorship in Greece [Eds: 1967-1974] and just before it, I starting singing with Mikis Theodorakis and all my songs had to do with social justice, peace, solidarity, and humanity. Of course they also had an artistic message and nice melodies – Theodorakis was a very good musician, composer and conductor.
In the 1960s, music was very closely linked to politics and social struggles – it played a different role back then. We demonstrated against the political situation because we had neither freedom nor democracy.
Today, the finance crisis has made things difficult. We have somewhere around 1.5 million unemployed people. We still cannot believe that. The people are lacking basic needs and don’t even have enough food.
I’m not a politician, but we – Europe and Greece – have to find a balance. Greece cannot continue like this.
There was a sense of upheaval in Greece in the 1960s, after World War II, occupation, civil war, and the wave of emigration in the 1950s. The young generation wanted to start anew. Theodorakis embodied this sentiment – politically, because he was part of the resistance and had been arrested, tortured and banned. But also musically through his songs, which were received with enthusiasm. Nevertheless, society had been divided even before the dictatorship and the left-wing was persecuted. At the same time, people held together…
Yes, not only the left, but all democrats held together, no matter which party they belonged to. There was a lot of discussion about democracy and everyone was supposed to fight for it. Those who were suspected of being too left-wing were forbidden from working. Only those on the right got jobs. Democrats and those who leaned to the left had big problems. Sometimes it was enough if you were just seen with a left-wing newspaper.
When Theodorakis discovered me, I was 16. That is what was happening in Greece, and we were young. The police knew what I did with Theodorakis. My family wasn’t left, but center – democrats. But my colleagues, my friends, the circle of people around Theodorakis, the poets – they were all on the left, of course. However, they were not communists like in the Soviet Union; we were left-wing Europeans.
For us, humanity and peace were very important – especially peace. There were many wars at that time.
Your amazing voice played an important role, of course…
I was lucky. Mikis had an influence on me. He gave me a feeling for his convictions; he gave me everything. I was a young girl then and was to become a classically trained soprano at the music school. But Theodorakis said, “No, the best school is with me. You have to stay with me.”
And so I followed him everywhere. I had some health problems in my younger years and was often in the hospital. But singing gave me access to the world.
In 1967, Mikis Theodorakis was arrested by the military junta and his music was banned because he’d joined the resistance. It was you, who – from exile in France – continued to fight against the dictatorship by carrying Theodorakis’ songs into the world. It was through international protest that Theodorakis was able to immigrate to France in 1970 and you performed charity concerts there to support the families of victims of political persecution in Greece. When the regime was toppled in 1974, you had become a symbol of resistance and Theodorakis a national hero.
It’s important to keep in mind that Greece is the source of Theodorakis’ inspiration. Sometimes that is misunderstood and he is accused of being a nationalist. But he is not a nationalist. He simply believes that history and knowledge give him strength and energy to do great things.
This contradiction can be found in many charismatic personalities. I can only say that I was very lucky to meet this man. Otherwise I would have just become a good classical singer. With Mikis, it’s a continuous journey – even now that he’s 90 years old. He’s alive, he’s at home, and we communicate. And I feel at 66 like I was just starting – like a young girl. I would like to learn new things, understand and express myself. That’s how I grew up with Miki, and that’s why I say he’s my father.
In honor of Mikis Theodorakis’ 90th birthday, Maria Farantouri is going on tour in Europe, giving concerts in Berlin (25.09.), Amsterdam (27.09.), Luxemburg (28.09), and Brussels (29.09.).