Music & Politics


MUSIC AND POLITICS: John Lucas reviews Gail Holst-Warhaft’s invaluable study of the life of Mikis Theodorakis


Mikis Theodorakis, His Music and Politics
Gail Holst-Warhaft,
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2023
ISBN 978-1-5275-0168-3

‘Men like me should live a thousand years,’ Kazantzakis’s Zorba famously proclaimed. The subject of Gail Holst-Warhaft’s book died a good deal younger, at the age of 96, though it’s something of a miracle that he should have lasted anywhere near that long. Born in 1925, by the end of the second world war, Mikis Theodorakis, eager like many of his compatriots and contemporaries to embrace radical causes, had as a result been beaten up so many times – by Italians, Germans, Greek Royalists, and, then, British soldiers – and so often imprisoned and virtually starved, various bones broken, illnesses encountered, at one point hospitalised in a psychiatric ward, at another ‘beaten unconscious, then beaten again,’ (this was on the island prison of Makronnisos), at yet another, having hoped perhaps to end his sufferings by swallowing gunpowder, transferred to a mainland military hospital to recuperate from injuries so severe that his own father failed to recognise him, then sent back on Makronnisos and buried alive for several days ‘with only his head protruding as a target for the guards,’ with, according to his own account, music alone ‘to save him … from going mad,’ that you wonder not merely at his capacity to endure such treatment but at his determination to survive.

Yet not only did he survive, he found in music the means to triumph over all odds. As the author of this superb study of a true Greek hero reveals, from the unpropitious circumstances of his youth Theodorakis began to emerge as a musical maestro. At an early age he became an accomplished pianist, and for a period in the post-war years studied at the Conservatoire in Paris, where he composed his First Symphony, in which, he later said, ‘I recognise the shadow of Dimitri Shostakovitch, the composer who, with Igor Stravinsky, marked me more than any other.’ They were by no means his only spiritual mentors. Far from it. Holst-Warhaft has an illuminating chapter, ‘The Search for a Musical Language,’ in which she explores Theodorakis’s debt to the musical modernists, significantly pointing to how ‘the great figures of early twentieth-century composition were faced with the problem of restoring to music a sense of direction, a purposefulness which it seemed to have lost in the post-romantic period …. Theodorakis was more naturally drawn to the works of Stravinsky and Bartok than to those of Schoenberg. Both composers offered him the example of sophisticated use of national elements in modern music …’ Theodorakis, she goes on, ‘was aware of the superficial use of folk material,’ but his own use of such material was to be anything but superficial. He was deeply indebted to music’s roots in popular culture, and out of this comes his early ballet suite, ‘Greek Carnival.’ Although he will do far better work in later years, Holst-Warhaft pays proper tribute to the young composer’s desire to draw on folk, popular and liturgical music, and going with this is his rejection of any ‘superficial injection of national material.’ (Not for him, the appeal to anything like Land of Hope and Glory, that thudding oom-pah hymn to imperialism.)

Hence, Theodorakis’s deep commitment to ‘Bouzouki, Joy of the World,’ as the fourth chapter of Holst-Warhaft’s book is called. (The title comes from a rembetika song by Markos Vamvarakis). In this fascinating chapter she braids together Theodorakis’s growing interest in Greek folk music with the difficult period of the 1950s, when he and his wife, back in Athens from Paris, had to cope with the riven politics of post-war Greece. And here it should be said that throughout her book Holst-Warhaft never loses sight of the complex actuality of Greek life even when she is absorbed in detailed discussion of her subject’s musical work. Nor does she isolate Theodorakis from consideration of work by his musical contemporaries. As she says, ‘Theodorakis was by no means alone in realising the value of rembetika.’ But he was virtually unique in recognising that ‘the raw material … was the most powerful force in Greece and that, by harnessing its strength to the most advanced art form in Greek society, modern Greek poetry, you had the potential for creating something unique in Western music – popular music that would reach across all classes of society.’

Out of this recognition came Theodorakis’s setting of Ritsos’s ‘Epitaphios’, a pre-war poem of lament and protest written after the police killing of striking tobacco workers, and a work that for decades made Ritsos a marked man. A plinth to him raised at Nafplion, where he had for a while been imprisoned, has been repeatedly vandalised by right-wing thugs, including most recently members of the Golden Dawn. The plinth, situated not far from where the 269 steps up to the prison cave in which a significant number of Greek heroes were immured – they include Kolokotroni, who led the army against Turkey in the 1820s, as well as Ritsos himself – carries Ritsos’s words, which in my own translation read:

                                       May this place be sacred
                                       to the memory of those who suffered
                                       who trod here barefoot on the snake of tyranny
                                       and with their blood wrote its history.

Of Theodorakis’s setting of ‘Epitaphios’, Holst-Warhaft remarks that it ‘in no way degraded the text but rather made it accessible to Greeks who would never have read Ritsos [an achievement] both daring and unexpectedly successful.’ I myself can bear witness to the success of this achievement. In the early autumn of 1984 I was living in Athens, at the beginning of a wondrous year as Lord Byron Visiting Professor at the University of Athens – and as I always remember to say, the glory was all in the title. The wonder lay elsewhere, including the particular occasion I have in mind. That evening a newly-met colleague, a lecturer in Drama at Athens, had invited me to accompany her to the opening night of the Greek National Theatre’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Shortly before the curtain rose on what would prove to be an at best mediocre performance (Greek actors are not remarkable for the kind of restraint which Checkhovian drama demands) two ageing men entered the stalls, stage left, you might say. One was tall, the other short, and as they made their appearance so the audience rose and began to applaud. The applause rose to a crescendo of rapturous cheers which must have lasted for many minutes. As it subsided, I turned to my companion to ask who the men were. Theodorakis and Ritsos, she told me. Enough said.

But imagine any serious poet and/or musician receiving such acclaim, such recognition, in an English theatre.

Still, the question of national recognition is a fraught one. Chapter Seven of the monograph under review is called ‘The Bible of the Greek Nation’, and it begins with Holst-Warhaft noting that Theodorakis’s setting of Odysseas Elytis’s Axion Esti (The Blessed) marks ‘almost the last attempt by Theodorakis to synthesise his knowledge of contemporary European compositional techniques with Greek popular and folk material.’ Elytis was in 1979 awarded the Nobel Prize for Poetry largely on the basis of a poem which I find almost impenetrably difficult, and although Holst-Warhaft writes attentively and illuminatingly about both poem and Theodorakis’s music, I have to admit to being nevertheless in the dark about much of what she has to say, though (for a reason I’ll return to) this is by no means her own fault. Nor is it altogether the fault of either poet or composer.

First, though, I need to draw attention to Holst-Warhaft’s chapter on what she calls ‘The Great Song Cycles of the 1960s,’ which is followed by an equally illuminating chapter on the coup d’etat by the infamous thuggish colonels (with CIA backing), after which she considers in detail ‘Songs of Prison and Exile,’ and ‘Works of the Dictatorship’; and she then considers further song cycles before paying attention to Theodorakis’s ‘Return to Symphonic Composition, and his operas, ‘From Karyotakis to Lyrical Tragedies and Lysistrata.’ ‘For a composer approaching seventy, who had never composed an opera’ Holst-Warhaft remarks, the promise Theodorakis now made, to compose three operas, ‘one for Verdi, one for Puccini and one for Bellini’ must have seemed either vainglorious or plain daft, though she is quick to point out that his decision ‘was neither a vain gesture nor a revolutionary step for a man who had always composed for the human voice as well as for orchestra, and who had been writing for theatre, ballet and film for almost forty years.’ Reading which, I begin to feel a little faint. Was nothing beyond him?

Well, precious little. And when you think of the injuries he had to carry, the appalling brutality of prison life of which he had experienced all too much, it’s well-nigh impossible not to think of him as something of a superman, though emphatically not the kind whom generals and official spokesmen for the State like to imagine as loyal to their cause, whatever that happens to be. In his late years, indeed, Theodorakis became increasingly disenchanted with and separated from certain aspects of Leftist politics as, more regrettably, he did from members of his own family. Holst-Warhaft sets out the rifts and disagreements that opened up during the last decade of the great man’s life, but as she says they are not the concern of her book, any more than grubbing around in the murky undergrowth of Dickens’s last years is of any relevance to his achievement as the greatest of all English novelists. And if such grubbing is what biographers think ought to occupy their attention then so much the worse for biographers. (And biography.) But Mikis Theodorakis, His Music and his Politics isn’t that kind of book. It is, after all, written by someone who not only knew him well, an accomplished musician who for a while toured Europe as part of his orchestra, playing the spinet which he himself paid to have brought from Australia, and who, as an equally accomplished poet and writer (she has translated his poetry into English), is deeply committed to producing a sympathetic yet scrupulous account of a very remarkable and creative human being.

This is no doubt why, in the final section of her work, Holst-Warhaft concentrates on what she calls Theodorakis’ Legacy. Here, she mentions the memorial concerts in which people, including young Greek Americans, sang the composer’s settings of words by, among others, Elytis, Seferis, Ritsos, and Varnalis. ‘Few were first generation immigrants,’ she notes. ‘And yet they knew these songs and these poems by heart. This struck me as a remarkable legacy. Whatever else he achieved, and there were many musical and cultural achievements, this was enough to make Theodorakis a great man.’ And yet, she adds, ‘you won’t find the songs, or the string quartets for that matter, on any musical syllabus.’

Perhaps not, but then for the best part of a hundred years after Dickens’s death you wouldn’t have found any novels by the greatest of all English novelists on the syllabus of many courses in English literature. I remember first reading Dombey And Son in 1960, under plain wrappers it almost felt, and being thunderstruck that so stupendous a work of fiction could be widely dismissed with a shrug or patronising smile by those who, obedient to such critics as F.R. Leavis and his many acolytes, knew that Dickens wasn’t for ‘the mature mind,’ as the phrase went, that he ‘recognised no higher responsibility than to entertain.’ God help us.

Well, never mind those who regard themselves as arbiters of taste for a cultural moment. True greatness lasts far longer than the approving nod or reproving shudder of (con)temporary fashion. This outstanding book will, I have no doubt, act as a lasting endorsement to the work of one of the age’s great creative spirits. And it is, moreover, a significant work of scholarship, given that it not only provides a detailed chronology of Theodorakis’s life from birth to death, but also lists his compositional works as well as his writing, and gives a most helpful Glossary of Musical Terms and Dances. What more could anyone want?

Unfortunately, I have to say that I myself want more, and I am certain that anyone opening Mikis Theodorakis will feel similiarly. Given the absolute importance of Holst-Warhaft’s work, I am truly shocked by how badly it has been produced. This is emphatically not the fault of the writer. The publishers, however, should be ashamed of themselves. It’s bad enough that the photographic reproductions, including ones of Theodorakis and members of his family, are so clumsily printed that we are forced to look as through a glass darkly. Worse, far worse, is the fact that reproductions of pages of Theodorakis’s musical manuscripts are frequently illegible. You can make out neither notation nor the words of songs the notation accompanies. And this, though Holst-Warhaft wants to offer what ought to be illuminating commentary on the manuscript material. It is for this reason that I complained earlier about her account of the setting for Elytis’s Axion Esti leaving me in the dark. For here, as elsewhere, it was literally impossible to decipher lines of music or of words.

I was so taken aback by the publisher’s flagrant abandonment of responsibility for seeing the work into the world in acceptable format that I asked Five Leaves, my local independent bookshop, to enquire into details of the book’s availability, because despite my criticisms of Cambridge Publishing’s production values I most certainly think Holst-Warhaft’s study should be required reading for anyone with a serious interest in modern culture. But how to recommend it, let alone urge people to buy it, when I could see that no price was given on the book’s (clumsily bound) hard cover? Five Leaves said they would make enquiries. Half an hour later they came back to me with the information that Mikis Theodorakis: His Music and Politics is not currently available in print form but that an e book edition can be purchased for £118.

ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTEEN POUNDS! WHAT! WHY? Absurd, no, inexcusable. Here is a book that deserves the widest possible readership, and yet quite apart from its physical weight – and picking it up in the format Cambridge Scholars has devised for it is like lifting a slab of asphalt – Holst-Warhaft’s work is being put beyond most readers’ pockets by publishers who, if I had my way, would be packed off to Makronnisos, there to break stones or, as Ritsos was required to do, count the flies clustering in their prison cell for the remainder of their miserable lives.