“The Voice of the People” — ON THE DEATH OF MIKIS THEODORAKIS

Mikis Theo­do­ra­kis and Hart­mut König (centre) at the FDJ Whit­sun meeting in 1989

In memo­riam of Mikis Theo­do­ra­kis on Septem­ber 2, 2021, the IF DDR inter­viewed Hart­mut König, a former secretary for inter­na­tio­nal labour and culture in the Free German Youth orga­ni­sa­tion also known as FDJ, (German: Freie Deut­sche Jugend). König, an acclai­med song­wri­ter hims­elf, shared his remi­nis­cen­ces of Mikis, and the impact Theo­do­ra­kis had on the song move­ment in the former-GDR.

 

Inter­na­tio­nal soli­da­rity with Mikis Theo­do­ra­kis after the fascist coup d’état in Greece in 1967

 

On April 21st, 1967, the pall of a fascist regime loomed over Greece once again for the following seven years. A junta of brigands had seized power in a coup, and Mikis Theo­do­ra­kis, the hugely popu­lar compo­ser and commu­nist dissi­dent, became one of the most wanted persons by the mili­tary regime.

 

The junta, – as early as June 1st – via army order No° 13, had de-facto banned the repro­duc­tion, distri­bu­tion and the play­ing of his songs and music, crimi­na­li­zing it for “being at the service of communism.”

Mikis had mana­ged to work clan­den­sti­nely for a few months before being arres­ted, banis­hed, and finally depor­ted to the Oropos concen­tra­tion camp. There, he was tortu­red, and his tuber­cu­lo­sis relap­sed under the toll of previous incarce­ra­ti­ons. The bitter expe­ri­en­ces in Oropos revi­ved memo­ries of hardship from his early youth. At the age of 17, he fought in the Natio­nal Libe­ra­tion Front (EAM) and later as a member of the Commu­nist Party (KKE) against the fascist occup­a­tion, and subse­quently after the war, he strug­gled for a socia­list perspec­tive for his homeland.

 

The pro-resto­ra­tion, bour­geois, state-power repaid him with banish­ment and intern­ment, culmi­na­ting in his impr­i­son­ment on the concen­tra­tion camp island of Makronissos.

Even then, he regar­ded compo­sing as his life­b­lood, and this conti­nued to be the case during the post-1967 repres­sion. Some of his songs had been success­fully smug­gled out of Greece. Among them was “The Patri­ots’ Front Calls!”, which he had penned and compo­sed. Greek comra­des had handed me a tape in Berlin back then.  Only Miki­s’s voice could be heard, accom­pa­nied by the time-keeping percus­sion of the claves.  I trans­la­ted the lyrics into German and recor­ded the song, which was broad­cast the very same evening on GDR television.

 

That was only a frac­tion of the world­wide soli­da­rity shown to him that had since gathe­red momen­tum. Whilst in prison, Mikis recei­ved baskets with gree­tings and floral drawings made by East German schoolchildren.

World-renow­ned artists such as Arthur Miller, Dmitri Shosta­ko­vich, Leonard Bern­stein, Laurence Olivier and Paul Dessau had formed a commit­tee advo­ca­ting for his release.

In May 1970, the mili­tary junta permit­ted him to leave for Paris. In July of that year, I met him on the side­li­nes of the UN World Youth Confe­rence, at a large soli­da­rity event in New York’s Manhat­tan Center, which Arthur Miller and Pete Seeger, among others, had orga­nised. At the event, Pete Seeger played his guitar for me, and so I sang the German version of “Die Front der Patrio­ten ruft” (“The Patri­ots’ Front Calls!”), which Mikis got to hear live for the very first time.

 

 

Mikis in the GDR

 

Mikis Theo­do­ra­kis made his first big debut in the GDR with his “Canto Gene­ral” in Febru­ary 1980, during the 10th Festi­val of Poli­ti­cal Song in Berlin. This came into being by a chance re-encoun­ter with him in Berlin in 1979. I had run into him by coin­ci­dence in a hotel lobby and invi­ted him to take part at our song festi­val. He agreed on condi­tion that he’d be allo­wed to perform his “Canto Gene­ral” orato­rio there. The compo­si­tion, based on texts by Pablo Neruda, which Salva­dor Allende had commis­sio­ned from Mikis during his presi­dency, – but could­n’t be premie­red in the Central Stadium of Sant­iago de Chile due to the fascist coup, – was then perfor­med in the Great Hall of the Palace of the Republic.

The FDJ invi­ted Mikis to perform again at a concert at the Rosa Luxem­burg Square to mark Berlin’s 750th anni­ver­s­ary of the foun­ding of the city. At the concer­t’s end, he sang and danced with the audi­ence, as he had habi­tually done the world over. Great concert halls and orche­s­tras of the GDR perfor­med his work.  The “Orato­rio Axion Esti” was perfor­med in the Leip­zig Gewand­haus,; the premiere of the “Saddu­cee Passion” was perfor­med by the Berlin Symphony Orches­tra and the Berlin Radio Choir; and his “Third Symphony” was perfor­med for the first time by the Komi­sche Oper Orches­tra. All three works had been released on the GDR record label ETERNA and the “Canto” had been issued as a live record­ing from the Festi­val of Poli­ti­cal Song as a double LP on the AMIGA label. In 1989, a dance version of the “Great Song” poem was perfor­med in the Palace of the Repu­blic, in Berlin.

 

 

So what was the signi­fi­cance of his work for the song move­ment in the GDR?

 

The song move­ment held his lyri­cal work in high esteem. We knew how much Mikis Theo­do­ra­kis tried to bring great Greek poetry into the verna­cu­lar through music, – through a convey­ance of sing-along. This worked fantasti­cally in Hellas, because in this way, what would other­wise have remai­ned in the domain of the educa­ted bour­geoi­sie suddenly sett­led along­side wine, bread and olives at the ever­y­day tables of ordi­nary people, at their work­pla­ces and picket lines. The great Greek poet Jannis Ritsos, who was a friend of Mikis, once raved about this effect.

I always think of his lyric “The whole earth to us!” which ends with the corol­lary: “…and not one bit to our enemies”.

The song had found its way into the reper­toire of many singing clubs, which is why I also reci­ted it at the Manhat­tan Centre along­side “The Patri­ots’ Front Calls!”. But it wasn’t just concrete songs –  like the beau­ti­ful rendi­ti­ons from the Maut­hau­sen Cantata – that inspi­red us. It was also the lyri­cal, comba­tive gesture in the unity of text, compo­si­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion that was a model for us, for our own themes. Inci­dent­ally, Mikis greatly appre­cia­ted the Festi­val of Poli­ti­cal Song, which had emer­ged from the GDR (song) move­ment and had been orga­nised by many volunteers.

Retur­ning to Athens from the 10th festi­val, he descri­bed his parti­ci­pa­tion there as “one of the most moving and wonder­ful expe­ri­en­ces” of his life. “The child­ren who had sent us thousands of pain­ted flowers to the junta prisons…were there, present in the Hall. Our struggle and sacri­fices hadn’t t been in vain. The seeds have sprouted.”

 

 

Theo­do­ra­kis in the further deve­lo­p­ment of Greece

 

Mikis was a comba­tive person who follo­wed his moral precepts on free­dom and justice. This also left him in doubt and fatigued. He had always testi­fied to his anti-impe­ria­list princi­ples, had spoken out against the NATO bombing of Yugo­s­la­vian cities and the US war in Iraq, and yet at times he thought hims­elf worn out from poli­tics and could only find fulfill­ment in his music. His charac­ter preclu­ded him being away from poli­tics for long. When a troika with an EU mandate went out to ruin Greece’s economy and the social status of its people, he came back once again to the fore­front of the demons­tra­ti­ons. In the end, you could see him struggling against the decline of his strength while direc­ting in his wheelchair.

 

Now the “Great Greek”, compo­ser and peop­le’s tribune has died at the age of 96. It is hard to believe; we cling stead­fast to our cheris­hed remi­nis­cen­ces of him and his opulent oeuvre. No less to his poli­ti­cal legacy; which he recently wrote to the Gene­ral Secretary of the Commu­nist Party of Greece (KKE): “Now at the end of my life…I see that in my most decisive, stron­gest and most mature years I was under the banner of the KKE. That is why I want to leave this world as a communist.”

His avowal will make the rounds and warm the hearts of comra­des. Worldwide.

Because: We are ever­y­where on earth!

Inci­dent­ally, –  this is also a song of the GDR song movement.