Mikis Theodorakis was not only a great composer of international fame, he was the rarest of Greeks – appreciated, honored and revered by all his compatriots. Even those whose fathers and grandfathers had jailed, tortured and exiled him, even those who felt that his mercurial political opinions had betrayed their cause joined the rest to lament his passing yesterday. A country that has never had a strong central authority, a nation that always questions the legitimacy of those who would govern it, found in Theodorakis the expression of all its contradictions – in the beauty of his music, in his personal courage and charisma, in his unshakable moral compass. In him, they saw their anarchic love of freedom and their need for community, their thirst for grand causes, the rocky marriage of the personal and the public persona that can elevate weaknesses into strengths and turn strengths to weakness, that can unite them as members of the same community as only the Church at Easter and the state (in moments of patriotic frenzy) can. Mikis – the diminutive for Michalis – was the name by which he was known to all, exclusive to him.
Among those who achieved the acclaim of all their fellow Greeks in the past century – the poets Kostis Palamas, Angelos Sikelianos, George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, the composers Vassilis Tsitsanis and Manos Hadjidakis, and the resistance hero Manolis Glezos, among others – Mikis towers over all. Not only was he 1.93 meters tall (6-foot-4), but in his 96 years he managed to live many lives and to make his mark in all fields. He began to compose music from an early age, embarking on a promising career in classical music before veering toward popular music, embracing and transforming it. His music for the film “Zorba the Greek” became the trademark of Greece, known throughout the world.
Mikis was a political animal, taking up arms against local dictators and foreign invaders, joining the Communist cause and leaving it when he saw its failures, serving many terms in Parliament with different groups, speaking out on every issue. An ardent patriot, he saw the humanity that is common to all. With his friend the Turkish composer Omer Zulfu Livaneli he founded an association for Greek-Turkish friendship. For the Greeks, he had a legitimacy that came both from his music and for his fearless political struggles.
“Mikis is like a river in flood, sweeping away all in its path. In it, you will find all that is beautiful and great, along with the debris of villages and dead cows,” the film director Nikos Koundouros once commented to me, explaining one of his friend’s disruptive political opinions at the time. Everything that the composer said would be analyzed and debated intensively by all. He could adopt wild theories and outrage even his friends – as when he declared (incorrectly) that Socialist leader Andreas Papandreou was behind the “November 17” terrorist gang – or he could calm his compatriots in moments of danger.
In the days after the fall of the 1967-74 dictatorship, his terse statement “Karamanlis or tanks” helped ease the return of a conservative leader who restored democracy, preventing a backlash from the military. In 1999, the full magnitude of Mikis’ stature among his compatriots revealed itself. When Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan was found hiding in the Greek Embassy in Nairobi and was abducted by Turkish forces, Greece was rocked by protests from the Left and Right demanding the center-left government’s resignation. But when, in the midst of the storm, one of Ocalan’s aides declared that the Greeks had betrayed the Kurdish leader, Mikis, a strong friend of the Kurds, thundered that this was an unacceptable insult, “a Kurdish spit on the Greek face.” Immediately, the self-flagellation stopped. The sole person with the legitimacy to calm a national frenzy had used his power wisely. At times, his comments against Israeli policy towards the Palestinians stirred outrage abroad. These came from the same unwavering inner source which demanded freedom and justice both in Greece and wherever he saw oppression, regardless of complexities or sensitivities.
Mikis’ greatest power over the Greeks was the example that he provided with his life. He did not run from challenges but faced them with all his talent, all his power, with his sense of entitlement, his charm and passion. He embraced his nation’s strengths and weaknesses and at the same time was a citizen of the world: successful, outspoken, unique and very Greek.