Running a classic ZNet article to honor the birthday of Mikis Theodorakis, who is 90 today.
My last ZNet Commentary (of Sept. 26, ’05) ended with the following (rather “bold”) statement: “Of course it rests with me to prove that the comparison of the US to the Nazis is not an exaggeration (which I plan to do in a future Commentary).”
However, an event that took place in Athens, Greece, a few days ago deferred the writing of the US-Nazis-comparison Commentary for a later date.
The event: On one of the Greek Television channels there was a three hour programm of about thirty people, men and women, seated at a long right angle-shaped table sipping wine and talking (the way Greeks do in a tavern). The occasion was the honoring of the 80th birthday of one of the men at the table. The man was Mikis Theodorakis, a composer. (Theodorakis: Theodore + akis means the “small Theodore”, as the suffix “akis” is a diminutive ending in Greek. However, Theodorakis is a huge man 6 feet and 7 inches tall! Also, “Mikis” is a diminutive for “Michael”. In this text the shorter “Mikis” instead of the longer “Theodorakis” will be used, mostly.)
Why honor Theodorakis? One can say that the story started when Theodorakis was 12 years old (in 1937) when he composed his first work of music. (Of course, his Cretan father and his Asia Minor Greek mother are part of the story). How the Theodorakis story evolved is extremely interesting. Brace yourselves for the recording of the events of this evolvement:
– “The Italians charged into the group and a bloody hand-to-hand struggle began. Mikis and several others were taken off to the ‘carabinieri’… Mikis was singled out for questioning… they began beating him first on the head and then on the back… They even rubbed salt on his wounds.” (Date of the event: 1942, during the occupation of Greece by the Nazis. Place: the town of Tripolis in Peloponese. Supervisors of the event: Hitler and Mussolini. Age of Mikis: 17)
– “We marched on peacefully… We were shouting…’Democracy!’, ‘No new occupation forces!’, ‘Roosevelt! [FDR]’… With a sudden staccato, gunfire exploded… I [Mikis] saw the British soldiers pointing their guns at us…The tanks moved to disperse the crowd. An English soldier hit me with the butt of his gun and I fell a distance of two or three yards headlong into the bushes. I picked myself up and started for home, covered with blood…” (Date: December 3, 1944. Place: Athens , Greece. Supervisor of the event: Winston Churchill. Age of Mikis: 19)
– “Mikis again was in the front lines…The human waves were singing his Resistance songs…Across the street from the university, as chain-lines of police bore down on the demonstrators, an officer pointed out the tall leader in the crowd and told his men to concentrate on him…he was taken to the morgue and officially listed among the dead…his friends…carried him to a clinic, where he underwent an emergency operation for cranial fracture. As a result…the vision in his left eye was permanently impaired”. (Date: March 26, 1946. Place: Downtown Athens. Supervisor of the event: Clement Attlee, British prime minister. Age of Mikis: 21)
– “Mikis was knocked to the ground and almost trampled to death…He was left lying on the ground for several hours, until the guards came to count the dead. Mikis was found barely breathing. When he was dragged back to his tent, the archtorturer, Loris,…had him strapped on a table and started twisting Mikis’ legs until finally a shooting pain in his right leg rendered him unconcious…An eye-witness account of what followed [:]…’One day I saw some soldiers carrying on a stretcher, filled with blood, a man who was unconcious…He was being taken to the morgue…’ The doctor sent to examine Mikis found him on the brink of death…It was nearly two months before Mikis was well enough to move around in crutches”. (Date: February 1949. Place: Makronesos, a concentration camp island, off Cape Sounion and the famous temple. Supervisors of the events: Harry S. Truman, President of the US, and James Van Fleet, General of the US Army. Age of Mikis: 24). [Note: Mikis’ right foot was permanently defomed and since that time he has to wear a specially made shoe. This can be observed whan he is conducting an orchestra.]
– “Mikis, in the front lines as always, was rushed by a group of policemen…they hit him and threw him to the ground, but a group of friends picked [him] up and carried him home, bleeding”. (Date: January 6, 1966. Place: Pireus, the port of Athens. Supervisor of the event: Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the US. Age of Mikis: 41). [Note: Mikis relates that he entered his home noislessly, while his family was having lunch, so that they will not see him covered with blood, and composed “The Ballad of Romiossini”, one of his major works.]
– “The composer was bound, pushed around, hit in the stomach with a police club, and attacked with a barrage of filth and curses.” (Date: August 21, 1967. Place: Athens , Greece. Supervisor of the event: Lyndon B. Johnson. Age of Mikis: 42)
– “Mikis was determined to stage a hunger-strike. (A personal letter from Senator Robert F. Kennedy was sent to the Greek Ambassador in Washington, in which he said that Theodorakis should be allowed to stand trial and present his case in a public hearing.)…On the tenth day, he was taken to the military hospital…in a coma.” (Date: November 1967. Place: Athens, Greece. Supervisor of the event: Lyndon B. Johnson. Age of Mikis: 42)
All the events quoted above are from the book “mikis theodorakis: Music and Social Change”, by George Giannaris, London-George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1973, for which we congratulate him and thank him. All parts in brackets [ ] are our comments.
Torturing political enemies has been a “tradition” with the British and the Americans. (The present situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and elsewhere is simply the continuation of this tradition). Also, toleration by the British and the American peoples of these practices, at least since the end of WWII, has been quite evident. Reports of most of the above events in relation to Theodorakis can be found in the mainstream British and American press (e.g. the British “Sunday Times” and “the New York Times”). As a matter of fact, of the first event recorded above (with the British soldiers, in 1944) there is a photograph that appeared in the world press which was taken by an American photographer.
But why single out Mikis for such brutal treatment? First, he was a leftist activist. But, that he was a dangerous person that could inspire the people with his music was more significant for his tormentors. Finally, what is so important about the music of Mikis?
[Parenthesis: To understand Mikis’ contribution to world music, or better to world culture, a few introductory words could be helpful.
The opera is a rather uninteresting and boring kind of music. Yet, the greatest music ever composed in human history is found in the operas of Georg Friedrich Handel! The opera constits essentially of two components: the “aria” and the “recitativo”. The aria is simply a “song”. The recitativo is a “spoken” (not sung) narration of the story taking place on the stage, a practice which people find unnatural or “bizarre” as Voltaire said. There are between 30 to 40 arias (or songs) in an opera and about the same number of recitativi.
Take Handel’s “Messiah”, known to most people in the world. It consits of 17 arias and 16 recitativi. (The Massiah is classified as an “oratorio”, that is of religious content. However, in the 18th century, the era of Handel’s work, there was no difference between the secular music of the opera and the religious music of the oratorio! Pat Robertson was not born yet to punish the blasphemers; Handel, Bach, etc). The 17 Handelian arias bring tremendous joy to the listener. The 16 recitativi are mostly (and correctly) ignored by the (honest) listener. The highbrow upper social classes (especially some dignified old ladies) pretend that they enjoy even the recitativi. They thus succeed to “terrorize” the ordinary people into feeling inferior and not fit to “understand” the operas of Handel.
But why Handel? Or, what is so special about Handel’s arias? The opera was “invented” in Italy in the 1600s. Monteverdi (1567-1643) wrote 19 quite beautiful operas. Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) wrote 70 operas of great beauty. Handel (1685-1759), a “student” of Scarlattis’, wrote 34 operas. After Handel there are no operas comparable to the Handelian operas. (Mozart and Rossini offered some enjoyable works, but they were not at the Handelian level). Handel wrote also about 20 oratorios, i.e. (religious ) “operas”. So, there are at least 1,200 Handelian songs from operas (34 operas x 35 arias per opera) plus at least 700 Handelian songs from oratorios (20 oratorios x 35 arias per oratorio).To this should be added about 100 songs sung by a choir (which are simply arias sung collectively). This grand total of 2,000 Handelian songs constitutes part of the greatest music in the world. (The other part is found in the at least 900 songs in the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach). This cultural treasure of humanity, for obvious reasons, has been kept away from ordinary people. But, that is another matter.
Now, why is the Handelian (or Bachian) songs so great? Handel’s music, the Baroque music of the first half of the 18th century, had as a foundation a prominent “beat” and a beautiful “melody”. From around 1750 the composers intentionally suppressed the strong beat in order to be different or “modern”! This resulted in a “weaker” music, the “classical” symphonic music (of Hydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc). A weakness, which ordinary people sense easily. (The only music that retained the strong “beat” is the American rock. Which, however, has a weak or non-existant melody, excepting the music of Dylan and the Beatles). So, building on this very strong Baroque foundation the Handelian talent created a universe of great songs. End of the parenthesis].
The music of Mikis Theodorakis is Handelian music. It has as a foundation an extremely strong “beat” and rich and beautiful “melodies”. Handel’s talent created thousands of superb melodies in his 2,000 songs. Mikis’s talent created thousands of superb melodies in his hundreds of works. Handel’s and Mikis’ creations differ, but they are of the same quality. They differ first because there are almost 3 centuries between them. Second, Handel was restricted in his operas by unreasonable arbitrary “laws” (of the Ashcroft type) that dictated the structure of the opera. Yet, although he followed those “laws”, through his sheer talent he created masterpieces. Mikis was free to create his own “laws”. Also, he chose the words (lyrics) of great poets (3 nobelists), besides his own poetry, to set to music. Again, Mikis’ huge talent produced a “mighty river “or an “ocean” of magnificent melodies. Composers like Verdi, etc who wrote operas have no more than a couple of second-rate melodies in each opera!
However, this comparison of Mikis to Handel is simply my opinion. There is only one way for the reader to test its truth and that is to make the comparison himself. We urge the reader to listen to some works by Handel, e.g. “Xerxes”, “Rinaldo”, “Julius Caesar”, “Alcina”. And then listen and compare them to some works by Mikis, e.g. “Canto General” (poetry by Pablo Neruda; a paean to the peoples of Latin America), “Axion Esti” (an oratorio of the people), “The Ballad of Mauthausen” (a hymn to the Holocaust), “The Hostage” (poetry by Brendan Behan on the brutality of the British in Ireland), “The Spiritual March” (poetry by Angelos Sikelianos).
“The Spiritual March” (or “March of the Spirit”) was composed by Mikis in a matter of hours while under home arrest on a Peloponesean mountain in 1968. Its premiere was given in Albert Hall in London on June 29,1970 under his direction, after he was allowed to get out of Greece. This is a major work in the music of the world.
[Note: I think that the translation of the title into English is wrong. The use of the (rather) metaphysical word “spirit” does not represent the intention of Sikelianos, the poet. Sikelianos’ words: “Giagantic thoughts…burn in my mind” refer to the human intellect. Therefore, the title should have been: “The March of the Intellect”. Also, this work could have something to do with Sikelianos’ “muse” Eva, the girl from New York who became his wife.]
Let us return to the table where those Greek men and women were celabrating Mikis’ 80th birthday. These were composers (half a dozen of them of Dylan calibre) and singers who were inspired by Mikis’ work. They were honoring Mikis as a composer, as a poet, and as a thinker of Chomskyan depth. But also they were honoring him for his Resistance to the cultural onslaught by the world elites, espesially the US elites (who made various efforts to buy him off).
The lifelong struggle of Theodorakis for Cultural Resistance should be an example for all the peoples of the world but especially for the people of Iraq. Even if they drive the US military out of their land, the Americans will be back with their cultural “weapons” of Hollywood and of Madison Avenue aimed at the Iraqi youth, which will result in a society whose members will have the quality of the Rumsfelds, the Roves, the Cheneys, et al.