(The following post is by Nevila Pahumi, Reference Librarian in Modern Greek and Albanian, European Reading Room)
“I am a song of my own time. I wasn’t living in Vienna like Mozart or Beethoven. In my circumstances, it was impossible to be indifferent.”
—Mikis Theodorakis, interview with the Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1994
One year ago, on September 3, 2021, Greece lost its beloved composer, Mikis Theodorakis. The death of the man who wrote the musical score for the internationally acclaimed film “Zorba the Greek” set his countrymen to tears for a three-day national mourning period.
Age 96 at his death, Theodorakis led a long and rich life punctuated by two intertwined passions: his music and his country. The classically trained composer studied at the Athens and Paris Conservatories and made his fame by harnessing Greece’s traditional bouzouki music, played on the eponymous stringed instrument, to write melodies for the common man.
Theodorakis was a prolific composer whose range spanned a variety of classical and popular music genres. He wrote operas, symphonies, chamber music, ballets, film scores, hymns, marches, and popular songs. Anecdotes of foes and friends who loved his music—from policemen to peasants—are abundant. This heart-warming irony seems particularly striking when we consider that his music was prohibited at the height of the Greek dictatorship for much of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Theodorakis’ reputation was so powerful that the military junta, which had imprisoned him in the late 1960s, bent to international pressure to allow him the dignity of seeking medical treatment in exile. From there Theodorakis used his voice to bring attention to Greece’s domestic troubles. Over the years he also used his music to comment on what he saw as popular struggles outside of Greece. This tendency made him a controversial figure but also Greece’s most beloved composer.
To understand this veneration is to comprehend the source of his passion. Theodorakis’ music was deeply influenced by the politics of his times. For much of his life, Greece was a country in transformation. Born in wartime, Theodorakis fled the Anatolian coastal city of Izmir (Greek Σμύρνη) for the island of Chios with his parents during the Greek-Turkish War in 1919. As the son of a civil servant devoted to the charismatic nationalist leader Eleftherios Venizelos, young Mikis inherited a deep love for Greece and thrust himself into politics by joining the antifascist resistance during World War II. Thereafter his political energies, like his music, were devoted to Greece. As recent biographers note, many of his musical concerts were also political events. From the numerous prisons, where he was subjected to severe torture, to the streets, where he protested against the austerity measures imposed after the 2008 financial crisis, Theodorakis put Greece and its people front and center. Looking at his life and his work, one gets a deep sense of the profound social and political change that defined Greece over the course of the twentieth century.
The Library of Congress holds much of Theodorakis’ musical works and political writing, as well as the many varied critical commentaries they generated. He visited the United States twice, in 1971 and in 1994. His first visit was sponsored by the United Nations and he visited New York City. Peter Seeger and Arthur Miller arranged for him to give a talk at the Manhattan Center on his music and the situation in Greece under the junta. At that time U.S. authorities considered Theodorakis a dangerous Marxist and did not allow him to move outside New York City.
However, during his second visit to the U.S., after his political views had changed, Theodorakis was widely greeted and acknowledged. Between the 1970s and the early 1990s, Greece itself underwent tremendous transformation. Theodorakis’ new political orientation mirrored some of this. As Greece moved on from the authoritarianism of the junta years and became a member of the European Union in 1983, Theodorakis joined the government as an independent MP and later on as the minister of culture.
In 1994, Theodorakis visited the United States on a month-long tour sponsored by the National Greek Symphony Orchestra and Choir featuring much of his work. To mark the occasion, the U.S. Senate introduced resolution 209 on May 3, 1994, to “express appreciation for his musical contributions and his efforts to promote human rights, raise awareness of environmental issues, and end child hunger.” The Baltimore Sun remarked how much this visit differed from Theodorakis’ previous one in 1971.
Theodorakis’ best-known work is widely considered to be “Η μπαλάντα του Μαουτχάουζεv,” anglicized as the “Mauthausen Trilogy” which he wrote a year before being imprisoned by the junta in 1967. Based on the memoirs of Iakovos Kambanellis, a Greek Jewish poet and survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp, the ballad is a cycle of four arias which reference Kambanellis’ love for a fellow prisoner. Over the years this dramatic ballad, considered to be one of the most beautiful musical compositions about the Holocaust, has been sung by some of the world’s leading vocal artists, including the Greek singers Maria Farandouri and Nana Moushouri, the American Joan Baez, the Finn Arja Saaijonmaa, and the Israeli Elinor Moav Veniadis.
Among Theodorakis’ countless treasures, the Music Division at the Library of Congress contains music scores to a number of his films. Two of these are from films produced in 1962, in particular “Five Miles to Midnight” (a full score manuscript in pencil) and “Phaedra” (a full score manuscript facsimile). These are both unpublished copyright deposits. Interested researchers can examine them in the Performing Arts Reading Room.
In addition, the Library also has deposits of excerpts from the famous “Zorba” which currently await cataloging and are stored at the Library’s off-site facility in Fort Meade, Md. In a conversation with Dr. Taru Spiegel, reference librarian in the European Reading Room, who guided me through the initial steps of conceiving this post, it became clear how important “Zorba” was to Theodorakis’ reputation in the United States. Dr. Spiegel humorously pointed out that, “while many people [here] might have trouble placing Greece on the map, I have heard stories of guys in Montana who had seen ‘Zorba’ and whose understanding of Greece stemmed from that film.”
Specialists in the Music Division, Susan Clermont and Paul Sommerfeld, in particular, made me aware of the scores and subsequently allowed me to examine both. The following images are excerpts of his compositions for “Phaedra” and “Five Miles to Midnight.”
The reader will note that this opening excerpt from the score of the Jules Passin-directed film “Phaedra” is a facsimile. Theodorakis was the sole composer for this American-Greek drama based on the ancient eponymous legend in which Phaedra’s blind love for her stepson brings the whole family and its shipping empire to ruin. As the excerpt below indicates, Theodorakis completed his work in Paris in late 1961.
By contrast, his music for “Five Miles to Midnight,” directed by Anatole Litvak, was composed in conjunction with a team of other twentieth century heavyweights. The cover to the music score, depicted below, makes it clear that still early in his career, Theodorakis was collaborating with major composer George Auric. The music reference librarian Melissa Wertheimer, who helped me process the images for the two scores, lit up when she recognized his name and proceeded to tell me that he was one of the most recognized French composers of the twentieth century. At this point, Auric was much older than Theodorakis and far more established.
Unlike the score from “Phaedra,” their collaborative manuscript on “Five Miles to Midnight” is an original. Going through this original score was an absolute thrill. The fragments shown below capture the work notes of all three composers.
Although neither film managed to outrank “Zorba,” the possession of these items indicates the Library’s interest in acquiring rare materials that document European culture. We also hope that they are a fitting homage to this beloved giant of Greek music.