Mikis Theodorakis describes A Greek Childhood
No one who has heard the wonderful bouzouki melodies written by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis for Zorba the Greek or his theme music for two other noted films, Z and Etat de Siege, will ever forget them. Theodorakis has infused the soul and spirit of the Greek people into all his musical works. He is also a militant who today, as a member of his country's parliament, continues a struggle for freedom and justice which began when he joined the wartime resistance as a teenager and has taken him more than once to prison or into exile. Here he looks back on the circumstances that gave rise to his musical vocation and his political commitment.
Tell us something about your early life.
I was born on 29 July 1925 on the island of Chios, opposite the native village of my mother on the mainland of Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. My father was from Crete. He had volunteered to serve in the first Balkan War, in which he was wounded, and had then entered the civil service. When the Greek army occupied Smyrna, he was posted to the small town of Bourla, where he met my mother. She came from a very poor family. Her father was a farmer during the winter and went out fishing in the summer. Her brother, who had had an education, later became a Director in the Ministry of Economic Affairs. My family therefore came from the lower middle class of government officials who instilled a sense of discipline in their children.
I was born after the military defeat which Greece suffered following the Turkish revolution of Kemal Ataturk. It was a real tragedy for the country. I think that Greece lost its soul when it lost Ionia. Greece and Turkey have been in conflict with one another over long periods of their history. The first Greek nationalist revolution was directed against the Ottomans, in 1821. And Crete remained under Turkish domination until 1912.
Many of our relatives, on both my father's and my mother's sides, were victims of these confrontations and made great sacrifices. My father used to say that our two families had shed a river of blood. I therefore grew up in an atmosphere of patriotic stories and the stirring revolutionary songs known as Rizitika, which had a very great influence on me.
Even so, you have memories of a happy childhood.
I also remember evenings we spent with my father, stretched out on the ground gazing at the stars. He knew a lot about the stars and he explained them to me and made me follow them, telling me their names and their history.
Another of those childhood memories that leave an indelible mark on you came from my uncle, just before he was posted to Alexandria as consul, he came back to the village to get married and brought me a gramophone as a present, together with records of Greek classical and popular music and of jazz, which was then at its height. I was only four years old and there I was discovering music! We used to hold social evenings at which young people danced the Charleston and the foxtrot and I was put in charge of the gramophone. Moments like those have meant a lot to me throughout my life!
My uncle also gave me a set of recordings of operatic anas, which for a long time made me afraid of opera. I think that this was probably because, for a child of my age, there was something frightening about the voices of those famous tenors and prima donnas. I was sixty before I made up my mind to tackle opera. The music I heard on that gramophone in my childhood certainly contributed to developing my tastes for a long time to come.
What sort of child were you?
I had some crazy ideas. I wanted to fly like a bird. I climbed a tree and flung myself into the air and almost broke my neck. Then I did it again, because I was sure that I would be able to fly.
One day, I wanted to take off from the top of a three-metre-high wall, because I thought that I would be able to fly down to the beach below. I was just about to jump when my grandfather suddenly came out of nowhere and tried to catch me and stop me from hurting myself. I fell on top of him and he lost his balance. I broke my wrist, but the old man broke his leg. There was utter panic all around me. Everybody was obsessed with my wrist, but nobody bothered about my grandfather. He was very embittered, and started to refuse his food. It was this, coupled with the after-effects of his broken leg, that eventually ruined his health. He died not long afterwards. That was the first time I had seen a dead person and I didn't realize what it was all about.
The period from 1928 to 1930 was a very stormy one in Greece. There was one government after another, which meant that civil servants didn't have a very easy time of it.
My father was from Crete and was therefore a liberal and a supporter of Venizelos. He was not only my father's idol, but was actually a relative. When he became prime minister, my father was appointed Vice-Governor or Epirus. It was a very poor and backward region, where the children were dirty and went barefoot. I was the only child to have a pair of shoes, but I was so ashamed that I used to take them off.
Then Venizelos was deposed and my father was transferred to a less highly rated and above all less well paid post in Cephalonia, which was very hard for us.
The cultural atmosphere in Cephalonia was completely different from that in Epirus. The island had never been occupied by the Ottomans and the influence of the Venetians, and later of the British, could still be perceived, even in the way people spoke.
The music played on the island was more Western in style. It was there that I heard a philharmonic orchestra for the first time. It used to play on the main square and whenever I went by I was transfixed, spellbound with admiration. I was very impressed with the conductor. When I asked my mother what he was doing, her reply was: "That man is suffering". For me too that music meant suffering.
I was still at primary school when the Metropolitan of Cephalonia came to inspect my class and asked the other children and me to sing the national anthem, so that he could judge what our voices were like. After that, twenty of us were chosen to sing canticles in a small local church on Good Friday. The tunes were very old and beautiful — two of them were in modal form and one was tonal.
I joined the church choir just to be able to keep on hearing them. About ten years ago, I used those three canticles in my third symphony, in memory of those times I shall never forget.
After Cephalonia, we were sent to Patras, which was a more affluent middle-class town, although it was not such a pretty place. It was there, when I was buying some books, that I found out what a musical score was. My father explained to me that that was how music was written, and gave me my first lesson. There was a very good choir at school, conducted by a teacher who was also a violinist. Every morning we used to sing a hymn by Haydn, with a solo part which I must have sung well, since the teacher regularly invited people to come and listen to it. One day, he offered me a violin, which I bought from him.
We left Patras for a poorer town further south. It was summer and in the afternoons everybody strolled about on the main square. I was already very tall and thin and people tended to look at me, with my lanky frame, as if I was a bit of an oddity. In the end, I shut myself up in the house and, as a result, I made considerable progress with my music.
In the house opposite, there was a beautiful girl with green eyes and I fell madly in love with her. All alone in my room, I watched the girl, who couldn't see me, and composed a large number of songs on my violin. I taught them to my mother, who had a beautiful voice and sang well. In the evenings, after supper, when my father asked us what we had been doing
during the day, we used to sing our songs for him. He in turn started singing and later on my brother joined in, so that we formed a family quartet which I accompanied on the guitar or violin, while also singing myself.
My father began to invite his friends, along with the prefects and sub-prefects and a whole small world of civil servants, to come and listen to us. It was like having a job, since I had to prepare a concert every evening for my father's guests.
The following year, we changed towns yet again. I was more and more on my own and I spent a lot of time reading. My father had a library of more than 1,600 books, which followed us wherever we went.
Later on, in Tripolis, I started to learn the piano and harmony. We couldn't afford to buy a piano and there were only three in the entire town. I practised the scales on the piano of a rich American, who allowed me to study at his house on Sunday mornings when people were at mass. But I had to stop playing as soon as he got back.
For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of hatred for rich people who could afford a piano but who didn't use it, whereas I really needed a piano but was deprived of the opportunity. If I became a Marxist, it was because of that piano, which to my eyes was the embodiment of social injustice. I eventually hired a harmonium, which I found very useful. But all these setbacks taught me to write music from memory, without any instruments, and I was therefore later able to go on composing in exile and prison
Where and when did you decide to devote yourself to music?
At Tripolis, in the Peloponnesus, which was a poor region where life was very hard. Many people emigrated to the United States or went to seek their fortunes in Athens.
This was during the occupation, when our only diversions were poetry and philosophy. We translated classical authors such as Aristotle, Plato and Homer into modern Greek. There was also the cinema, which only showed German films, although we sometimes got to see splendid musical films instead of military propaganda. For example, I saw German films which ended with the finale from Beethoven's ninth symphony, which had an absolutely stunning effect on me. I was so shaken that I actually fell ill and ran a high temperature. In the end, I told my father and the maths teacher that all I was interested in was music.
In 1942, my father went to see the director of the Athens conservatory with my music. The director asked to meet me and I went to his home, where we had a talk and he listened to me play the piano. The upshot was that he offered me a scholarship to the conservatory, which I was due to enter in 1943.
But I am jumping the gun. Before that, there was another important stage in my life, when I joined the resistance and discovered Marxism.
It was wartime. We were deeply religious and fervent worshippers. The love of Christ, Christian charity and religious feeling catered for a real need when we had to face up to the violence surrounding us and the ugliness of the world at that time. Reading the Gospel was itself a form of resistance, but it was not enough. We had to do something. We had to react.
On 25 March 1942, we organized a demonstration against the Italians in Tripolis. The National Liberation Front, which had been set up in Athens and was communist-inspired, sent representatives to help us. During the demonstration, we were surrounded by the Italians. I got into a fight and apparently struck an Italian officer. Along with other demonstrators, I was arrested and beaten and was taken to a barracks, where we were tortured in an attempt to force us to reveal the names of our leaders.
I was then thrown into prison, where I met the first resistance fighters, who were communists. I was then a member of the nationalist youth movement formed by Metaxas and we abhorred communism. The very word conjured up the
image of a hideous monster for me.
But when I started talking to these people and learnt that they had been the first to rise against the occupying forces, it made me think. When I came out of prison, I joined the resistance.
I was entrusted with the first resistance cell at school. I had to explain my ideas and justify the proposals I put forward. I therefore had to read about Marxism and brief myself on the ideology with which we were going to fight the enemy.
Was this a sudden change of attitude of yours? By that time, your only interest was music, yet there you were becoming a member of the political resistance.
No, the change was not all that sudden. It is true that I was still interested in music, but we were spurred on by deeply held patriotic feelings. We suffered terribly during the occupation.
The country was divided between the Germans, the Italians and the Bulgarians. There was talk of torture and the population was reduced to famine. The Germans surrounded Athens for four months and 300,000 people died of hunger. My family had always been very nationalistic and it was only natural, therefore, that I should join the resistance.
At that period, I gave a public concert, attended by Italian officers, who were surprised to find a young musician and composer in front of them. From then onwards, I became something of a celebrity among the occupation authorities, since Tripolis was a small town where everybody knew everybody else. The head of the Italian garrison was a terrifying colonel whose excesses put the fear of death in us. One evening, when people were taking their evening stroll on the main square, he suddenly came up to me, took me by the shoulder and started singing La donna e mobile! People looked at us in amazement. Then, all of a sudden, his mood changed and he pushed me all the way to the hospital that was requisitioned for Italian soldiers and had me searched. Since they found nothing on me, he ordered me to report to his office the next morning. When I entered, he got up, gave a military salute and said: "I hail the patriot and hate the communist!"
He then told me that the Italians were due to withdraw from the town on the following day and hand it over to the Germans, who had demanded a list of twenty resistance fighters to be executed. So in order to save my life he had to arrest me and send me to Athens! That's how I came to leave for Athens. Only a few days later, the colonel was killed in battle.
In 1944, I was arrested by the Gestapo. Then the Germans pulled out and there was a breathing-space which the communist patriotic front used to its advantage.
After that, the British arrived and were at one time in favour of the formation of a government of national unity under Papandreou, but soon urged confrontation with the communists. Papandreou was caught between two fires and eventually resigned, whereupon we organized a demonstration against the British in Athens, in the course of which the police killed seventy demontrators in Constitution Square. The partisans then rose up in mass against the British, who had come with heavy weapons and warships. The communist party was reluctant to put its most seasoned fighters in the front line and withdrew them from Athens. Instead, we reservists, who were students in the daytime and soldiers after lectures had ended, were sent into action. Even so, we managed to resist for thirty-three days, after which the British occupied the country.
I was arrested for the first time in 1947. Then there was a change of government and I was granted an amnesty. I returned to Athens, but had immediately to go into hiding. I was arrested again and sent into exile on the island of Ikaria, interned on Macronisos with other political prisoners, taken to a military unit and tortured for several days before being sent to hospital, and then brought back to Macronisos. At the end of the war, I was just like a ghost, walking on crutches.
I think that it was during these difficult years that I wrote my most important works. I also recopied the scores of the great classical composers and studied them from beginning to end. This was how I analysed Beethoven's nine symphonies. I don't think that anybody has ever composed anything
quite so all-encompassing.
My own compositions were confiscated at Macronisos, but I had committed them to memory and was able to reconstitute them afterwards.
In 1949, I was able to return to my father's village in Crete. It was a horrifying experience: all my cousins who had been in the national army were there and they, like
me, had been wounded. Some of them had had arms or legs amputated. We belonged to the same family, yet we had torn each other apart and had all lost out in the end. It was a lesson I would never forget. In a sense, it marked the end of my childhood.
Published in UNESCO Courrier, July / August '92 - We scanned and issued the interview on Internet to allow interested people to know this very important statements of Mikis Theodorakis