Edward W Batchelder

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Ars Longa, Vita Longa:
Mikis Theodorakis's Eightieth-Birthday Concert

photo of poster for Theodorakis concertThe composer Mikis Theodorakis turned eighty years old this year and—as befits a man whose work has been so deeply intertwined with the life of his country—has been the subject of innumerable tributes, exhibitions, and concerts. Theodorakis’s prolific body of work is such that even an entire year devoted to his music just begins to scratch the surface, but at least the range of it has been suggested. There have been concerts devoted to his film scores and music for ballet and theater, to his early, seldom-heard chamber music and his better-known orchestral works, and, most of all, of course, to his vast outpouring of popular songs.

All of which, however, doesn’t appear to have cheered the composer himself that much. Perhaps suspicious of the process by which a persistent iconoclast is turned into an icon, Theodorakis announced at a press conference in February that his primary emotion these days is “desolation. . . . I have my family, my friends, but deep down inside, I am bitter.” The newspaper Kathimerini interpreted this as “giving voice to an entire generation that is beginning to lose its own”; in fact, Theodorakis seems to have felt for some time that the river of history—which he worked so hard to divert from its predictable course—has returned to its usual banks, passing him by and leaving the stables as soiled as ever.

Small wonder, then, that he announced at the press conference that Desolation was the title of his next album, or that a song cycle of the same name, based on poems by Leuteris Papadopoulos, was the foundation for the most visible of all the tributes to his work this year. Mikis Theodorakis—80 Years), with Maria Farantouri, Petros Pandis, and Manolis Mitsias singing with the State Orchestra of Hellenic Music led by Stauros Xarchakos, featured the newly composed Desolation along with Ballads, an older work based on poems by Manolis Anagnostakis. The concert debuted at the Thessaloniki Megaro Mousikis on June 27 (significantly, only four days after Anagnstakis himself had passed away at the age of eighty) before continuing on to Trikala and Athens, crossing the water to Cyprus and Rhodes, and finally closing on September 8 after visiting five cities in Crete. If the overall turnout followed the pattern of opening night in Thessaloniki, many thousands must have seen the performance.

Theodorakis’s place in Greek music and society can be difficult to grasp for Americans, whose culture has become so fragmented that no single individual can hope to capture center stage in quite the same way, and where genre-crossing of the sort that marked Theodorakis’s most revolutionary musical maneuvers has become virtually passé. Perhaps the closest parallel would be to his near-contemporary Leonard Bernstein, for the fame of both composers can be traced to a similar nexus of talent, charisma, populist instincts, and leftist politics, and it’s not surprising that Bernstein was active in the fight to get Theodorakis released from prison after the coup of April 21, 1967. Still, one would have to imagine a Bernstein morphed together with Dylan and bits of, say, Bartók or Stravinsky tossed in for good measure, not to mention perhaps a touch of Ralph Nader or even Martin Luther King, Jr. That it’s virtually impossible to imagine this is testimony to Theodorakis’s overwhelming presence in contemporary Greek life.

The reference to Bartók and Stravinsky, however, is a bit misleading, for it was Theodorakis’s particular genius to move in the opposite direction from his early-twentieth-century predecessors. Where they mined their countries’ folk music for material to enrich their classical compositions, Theodorakis plowed his rich musical education (he studied in Paris with Olivier Messiaen, among others) back into Greece’s popular musical tradition. At times, certainly, he incorporated folk motifs into his classical work, but his greatest legacy is to have revitalized the folk tradition by reworking forms like rebetika or the country’s Byzantine musical heritage. His decision in 1960, upon his return from France, to record Epitaphios, his setting of Ritsos’s poems, with the rebetiko singer Gregoris Bithikotsis and the bouzouki-player Manolis Chiotis, caused a small scandal—his orchestra of classically trained musicians refused to work in the same studio with them.

It’s this adoption and re-presentation of existing Greek music that has made Theodorakis such a central figure in Greece. It was summed up in a comment by an audience member at the Thessaloniki concert: “This is something special to us,” she explained. “I look on stage and I see not a symphony, and not a bouzouki, but a symphony with a bouzouki!” Theodorakis was responsible for an apotheosis of Greek song—not as classical music, but as itself on a higher plane.

photo of Maria Farantouri performingThe leading interpreter of Theodorakis's songs has always been Maria Farantouri, and if Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People had a voice, it would probably sound something like Farantouri’s alto—ringingly clear and pure, somewhat exhortatory, yet at the same time colored with a dark, throaty wisdom that resists simplistic cheerleading. Classically trained, Farantouri has sung with Theodorakis since the age of seventeen, when he first heard her in a school chorus. Legend has it that he asked her, “Do you know you were born to sing my songs?” and that she answered simply, “Yes.” The story may be apocryphal, but it bespeaks the sense of destiny that both share: virtually every vocal work composed by Theodorakis has been sung by Farantouri.

This made her the perfect interpreter for a retrospective of his work, although, in truth, the Thessaloniki concert was less a retrospective, in the sense of a career overview, than a juxtaposition of two snapshots from different eras. Reversing the temporal order, the recent Desolation opened the concert, while Anagnostakis’s Ballads appeared in the second half. Set to music in the late seventies, the Ballads marked the first point in Theodorakis’s life when his popularity—immense from the early sixties through the end of the dictatorship—had begun to wane. Sidelined politically because his idiosyncratic positions didn’t fit within any of the existing leftist parties, Theodorakis found his music similarly sidelined by the influx of Western pop that followed the end of the junta. Gail Holst, in her excellent Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music, quotes him around this period as saying that, “[M]y music once coincided with the spirit of the time. Now I am quite alone.” It’s fitting that he turned to the poetry of Anagnostakis, one of the so-called Poets of Defeat, whose life had followed a similar trajectory from political engagement to increasing isolation. As a group, the songs are more introspective and intimate than many Theodorakis works, less immediately melodic and more complex.

Before a small orchestra composed of a mix of instruments both traditionally classical (flutes, clarinets, classical guitar, piano) and folk (accordion, bouzouki, baglama), Farantouri and the baritone Petros Pandis worked their way through the cycle, alternating songs. Pandis’s voice is the perfect masculine counterpart to Farantouri’s: both singers are masters of stately phrasing, strongly emotional and yet unsentimental, in Holst’s words. The music, under Xarchakos’s direction, was a series of contrasts, moving through tensions and releases, and frequently leaping from the brooding melancholy of a single instrument to a playful or dramatic restatement of the theme by the entire orchestra.

It was the first half of the concert, though, that was the most thought-provoking. Where Pandis’s voice mirrored Farantouri’s in its tonality, Manolis Mitsias’s voice was in sharp contrast. Like Bithiktsis before him, Mitsias comes from the popular tradition, and his singing is marked by the strong, slightly nasal and plaintive tones of the rebetiko singer. To hear him trade songs with Farantouri, as they did for the first half, is to become aware of the two quite different streams that have nourished Theodorakis’s work: the Western classical and the eastern Mediterranean.

photo of Pandis and Xarchakos on stageand The orchestral scoring played to this difference: Farantouri’s songs tended to display a gentle, flowing melodicism, while Mitsias’s songs had a harsher, more percussive, rhythmic feel. Time after time, the graceful orchestral balance that carried Farantouri’s singing would give way to the sharp, edgy attack that announced the opening of a Mitsias song. Where her pieces highlighted bowed strings, woodwinds, and chimes, his featured drums and the rapid-fire plucking of the bouzouki and baglama; where she sang with a quiet confidence, he gestured emphatically. The division wasn’t complete—towards the end of the first half, Farantouri’s “Ki an tha mou fygeis” had short bouzouki and percussive sections, while the following “Na me fylas” with Mitsias had the light jauntiness of a Brecht/Weill tune—but there was almost a sense that, after a lifetime of attempting to integrate these two influences, Theodorakis had decided to allow them to play themselves out in their full difference on stage. That the texts of the songs were, for the most part, about failed or unrequited love seemed only appropriate.

Perhaps, after all, Theodrakis’s musical and political life has been less about integrating opposites than about simply experiencing and expressing them, for as Schiller pointed out, balance is achieved equally well with full or empty scales.

A lifelong leftist jailed repeatedly during the Nazi occupation, the Civil War, and the junta, Theodrakis has also accepted cabinet positions under rightist governments. Trained at the Paris conservatory, he returned to devote himself to the national music of his homeland, and yet this fiercely nationalistic composer also composed the theme for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He’s written a popular song for Cyprus in the wake of the Turkish invasion, then toured Turkey to promote closer relations between the two countries, then gone on to fight for the rights of Kurds and Turkish dissidents. His 1964 Mauthausen cycle was one of the first musical works to address the Holocaust, yet he’s also written a Hymn to Palestine that functions as the Palestinians’ national anthem—and both pieces were played, at the request of Simon Peres and Yasser Arafat, at the signing of the 1994 Oslo accords.

Most recently, Theodorakis has drawn criticism for remarks that Jews were “at the root of evil” for their support of Bush’s war on Iraq (it’s Bush himself, Theodorakis made clear, who is the root of evil); in a long interview in Haaretz, however, Theodorakis reaffirmed his belief in the necessity of a Jewish state, and rejected Palestinians’ claims to a right of return. No wonder he feels bereft in a world that increasingly demands from its public figures that they adopt simplistic and immobile positions, and from its composers that they offer simplistic and immaterial pop songs. As full as the scales of his life have been, Theodorakis may well feel the desolation that any ambitious artist must eventually feel about the impotence of art to deliver on its promises in a world that shuns it.

In the words of his favorite poet and comrade, Giannis Ritsos: “If poetry cannot absolve us, there is no mercy anywhere.”

© Edward W Batchelder
(from GreekWorks.com)


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