by Angelique Mouyis

When Theodorakis set the poem Epitaphios by Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) to music, he ‘changed the course of Greek music forever.’

Not only did he create a new type of music that would in time become a symbol of Greece, but he redefined existing social and cultural identities. Epitaphios, a song cycle of eight songs, was introduced to the public in 1960 and, owing to its performance at large public gatherings and extensive media coverage, it was talked about for more than a year. In fact it was at the centre of considerable controversy. Giannaris writes that ‘the work was too revolutionary, because it brought together too many opposing elements.’

What made this song cycle so ‘revolutionary’? The ‘revolutionary opposing elements’ of Epitaphios mentioned above refer to the following aspects of the song cycle: the subject-matter and authoring of the poem; the instrumentation and vocal performer; and the melodic material. In Epitaphios, Ritsos, a leftist and Marxist, dealt with the 1936 massacre of unarmed tobacco factory workers protesting for better wages in Salonica. It was inspired by a photograph of a mother bending over the body of her dead son killed by police who were repressing the tobacco workers’ strike. Holst-Warhaft explains that Ritsos had shocked the public by writing poetry that used imagery of the folk lament as well as of the Virgin’s lament for her dead son, and also by calling the poem Epitaphios:

He remained proud, all his life, of the fact that the poem was publicly burned by Metaxas and remained banned longer than any other piece of literature in modern Greek history.

Thus both the choice of poet and his subject-matter served to alert the Greek authorities to Theodorakis’ political intentions. The composer’s choice of performers was cause for further objection: Grigoris Bithikotsis was then a plumber by day and a bouzouki player by night. He had an untrained voice and was associated with the rebetika. Manolis Chiotis was also a bouzouki instrumentalist. The use of the bouzouki in itself constituted an outrage: ‘…no serious composer should waste his talent with the bouzouki, or debase good poetry by wedding it with such music.’

Piraeus, 1962: At a popular concert in the district of Nikaia.

Theodorakis linked his musical imagery to the poetic imagery by using melodic material from the liturgy for the Epitaphios, an Eastern ceremony that marks the death and the resurrection of Christ. Holst-Warhaft describes this as ‘the most solemn ritual of the Orthodox Church, so linking the young man’s martyrdom musically as well as poetically to the Passion of Christ.’

The composer combined ecclesiastical melodic material with demotic characteristics, as well, of course, as the rebetika. The demotic elements were absorbed from the different sound worlds around the Aegean Sea to which Theodorakis was exposed while moving around from Mytilene to Syros, and Ikaria to Crete. Prevalent are motifs from the laments/dirges of the Mani and Cretan demotic music or ‘rizitika,’ songs that Theodorakis considers revolutionary in themselves.

At this point, it is essential to understand the difference between the terms demotic and laik. The term laik (laikos, laiki, laiko) refers to the music, dance and song of the harbour areas and the cities, while the term demotic refers to the music and dance of the rural areas and the islands. The differentiation between the two types of music was made in Greece in the 1960s in the period of Theodorakis’ musical movement. Although the term ‘pop’ is sometimes used instead of laik, the English word does not convey all the connotations of the Greek term, either sociologically or musically. The words most often used to translate ‘laik’ is ‘popular’ or ‘folk,’ but when necessary, for the sake of specificity and direct reference to the sources, I will use the term ‘laik’ on its own.

Athens, 1964: Theodorakis in a peace protest

In the song-cycle Epitaphios, the melodic content in itself gained an even more laik character with the bouzouki-playing of Chiotis, a specialist in his craft: he contributed to the work by highlighting particular demotic dance rhythms (hasapikos dance is in 4/8 time; zeimbekikos dance is in 9/8 time). Theodorakis considers himself forever a student of these ‘geniuses’ of this kind of laik rebetik music. Even without taking into consideration the subject matter or instrumentalists, the melody in itself is a fusion of multiple Greek musical identities that formed an all-inclusive Greek sound – a musical ‘vernacular’ that was part of the soundscape of Greece. Theodorakis explains his motivation:

This [Epitaphios] was an outburst for me. It was as if all the styles I knew had to come out. It couldn’t just come out with the Western Music style influencing my compositions at that time.”

Like Theodorakis, Ritsos served time in prison camps before, during and after the civil war period (from 1947-1952), and after the 1967 military coup, he lived either under house arrest or surveillance. His poems were mainly political in content, his art in the service of communism. Some of his best known works include Tractor (1934), Pyramids (1935), Epitaph (1936) and Vigil (1941-1953). His early writing demonstrated a concern with classical style and themes; later he moved to a more personal lyricism. Theodorakis was himself forging a new cultural identity, expressing the experience of his Greek heritage. This song cycle marks the beginning of his conscious attempt to raise the standard of modern Greek music by combining melodic and rhythmic strengths of Greek popular music with the best of modern Greek poetry. In so doing, this new Greek music was always in direct dialogue with the people. Despite the shock waves that it created, Epitaphios was a great success, marking the birth of a song cycle type that was to be called Popular Art Song (entechno laiko tragoudi); it was the first of many to come. In fact it was to prove the vehicle through which a new conception of Greek identity was to be experienced, negotiated and represented. Theodorakis attributes its success to the Greek youth who were the first to embrace the style.

The resulting uproar from the different levels of society stemmed from the composer’s choice to combine the voice of Bithikotsis and sounds of the bouzouki with poetry. Holst-Warhaft emphasises the strong reactions of many Athenians:

It shocked not only the general public but also the intellectuals of Athens, many of whom thought he had taken leave of his senses, not because he had used elements of the rebetika but because he had used the low-class bouzouki and a nightclub singer to interpret high-class poetry.”

Musical aesthetes and literary scholars were also angered that the meter of Ritsos’ poetry was broken down when it was set to rebetik rhythms, particularly 9/8 and 4/8. However, using poetry was fundamental to Theodorakis’ aim of raising the standard of music in Greece, while starting a cultural awakening that would spread to the masses. Theodorakis explains:

The contemporary Greek folk-song of the mid-century had one great defect: it was unbalanced. The more passionate and profound was the music, the more banal the text… . My first efforts were directed therefore towards righting this imbalance. Poetry was without any doubt the most highly developed of Greek Arts; what, therefore, could be simpler than the association of these two great achievements of Greek modernity: poetry and popular music.” My Artistic Credo, 1970

Thus Epitaphios provoked many poets, and the trend of collaboration between (popular) composers and poets began – the 1960s was a time of cultural blossoming in Greece. As Theodorakis says: ‘Which of these poets did not want their poetry to reach the lips of the people on the wings of song?’ Setting poetry to music was not a new concept; it was its setting to a popular style that made this movement a cultural revolution.

Simon Frith theorises the fluidity or mobility of identity – it is a process, not an object, and in experiencing music, one is experiencing the ‘self-in-process.’ In listening to Epitaphios the people were experiencing themselves. In his studies, Charles Seeger observes that ‘music is not just a thing which happens “in” society’; ‘a society might also be usefully conceived as something which happens “in music”.’ Theodorakis’ music seems to anticipate the emergence of a new kind of Greek experience; it soon became generally popular across social class. Forged into it are layers of Greek experience and status: that is, the ecclesiastical (that represented the Greek faith/religion), rebetik (representing ‘low’ popular), demotic/folk (representing the rural), and poetic (representing intellectual/‘high’ art) elements.

Theodorakis’ creation of a new national music challenged Greek citizens to look at themselves. In its bringing together of poetry, musicians and melodic material, what emerged as a new genre, nevertheless, retained its different essences, allowing Greek people both to recognize their group identities and experience their new national identity. Frith observes that music not only reflects people but it ‘produces’ them; we experience music through both subjective and collective identities. Understanding the ‘self’ comes through reference in this case to the ‘other’, the collective: one rarely needs to define one’s personal identity unless the ‘self’ is challenged – this challenge usually occurs with the presence of a different identity, an ‘other.’

The Popular Art Song forced the masses and aesthetes to reevaluate who they were: suddenly the identity of the Greek intelligentsia was challenged by the act of listening to ‘bouzouki music’, a style that expressed another reality of the Greek nation – the demotic/popular/rebetik culture. In turn, the image of the Greek masses was now expanded to include the neo-Hellenic content of the intelligentsia that was previously not considered their own. The laik or seemingly popular style of the song cycle gave them access to the poetry and subject-matter, a major part of Greek culture which the masses would probably have never known. Thus the cycle also symbolised the possibility and potential for the attainment of knowledge usually reserved for the ‘learned’; the populace was able to access the ‘beauty and truth’ previously reserved for a small portion of the community. As a result, the poetry in this song cycle no longer was the property of the Greek elite, but it now belonged to the masses – it was relocated into their domain.

These new identities were processed and reimagined through the experience of music, particularly through Epitaphios, and the Popular Art Song. Separate class identities were brought closer together and linked in the same musical experience and space.

Epitaphios was also given a political identity by the state: the rightists thought it was politically threatening and banned it from national broadcasting while the leftists regarded setting this poetry to music as blasphemy and attempted to destroy Theodorakis’ records. They even removed Theodorakis’ recordings from jukeboxes. However, these political actions impelled the youth (and the masses) towards rather than away from the music; the banning was taken up as a challenge and Theodorakis’ music was played enthusiastically in taverns and night clubs. According to the composer, young Greeks even asked Theodorakis to record another version so that clients in different taverns and other places could hear his songs – the masses were in line with the ideology of the Lambrakis Movement, a movement for socio-cultural change.

Creating Epitaphios was a step towards creating or rather reaching the ‘free’ Greek, the Greek who wanted access to ‘beauty and truth’, and Theodorakis felt that with Epitaphios, he had done so: ‘For the first time there existed reconciliation, love, and a deep spiritual connection with the entire nation.’

So Epitaphios projected the identity of the modern Greek who was free – culturally, politically and socially. By taking part in the cultural activity of listening to or singing Epitaphios, the youth were not only expressing these ideas of ‘freedom’ and ‘beauty and truth’, but they were also living these ideas. This feeling was to be engraved onto the new conception of what it meant to be a Modern Greek.

Setting a poem of this calibre to music was already a groundbreaking step and the simultaneous release of two forms of this song created further interest. In fact, the two recordings were described as having created a ‘small civil war’ between their supporters, highlighting their different aesthetics and social representation.

There needs to be some clarification on how the two recordings came about. In 1959 the recording company Lyra was looking for new music and asked Theodorakis to record the songs of Epitaphios. Nana Mouskouri had heard about the cycle and wanted to sing it, and because she was Hadjidakis’ vocalist, he also wanted to be involved. They all entered the recording studio with mandolins, guitars and piano, but with no bouzouki. Hadjidakis played the piano while Theodorakis conducted, but it was the composer’s first time in a studio, and so Hadjidakis offered to swop places with him, which he happily accepted. However, Theodorakis was not completely happy with this recording. He wanted a more laik sound and intended to use the bouzouki and the voice of Grigoris Bithikotsis whom he had heard on the loudspeakers of Makronissos where he was imprisoned during the civil war. So he recorded his own version of Epitaphios with Bithikotsis and Chiotis, who both contributed their knowledge of rebetik rhythms and style. Both versions were released in September 1960, one week apart, and both were a success.

Contrary to popular belief, there was no antagonism at all between the composers Theodorakis and Hadjidakis. They were merely expressing their personal styles. In fact Theodorakis considered himself fortunate to have two released versions of Epitaphios. The two different orchestrations reflected the division of Greek opinion on the song cycle, a division which created difficulties for Theodorakis when preparing for the premiere. The director of the radio orchestra agreed to let the composer use his orchestra along with his own choice of singer, Grigoris Bithikotsis, and bouzouki instrumentalist Manolis Chiotis. He did so, however, without taking into account the hostility of the orchestral musicians. During the first rehearsal, the symphonic instrumentalists refused to play with ‘a nightclub singer and the bouzouki,’ and walked out.

Theodorakis attempted to substitute the bouzouki with the guitar, but on finding the result completely different to what he had intended, he protested to the director, who in turn told the orchestral musicians that they would be fired if they did not cooperate. The latter had no choice but to comply, and rehearsals proceeded smoothly, including bouzouki and Bithikotsis. However, on the night of the performance, Bithikotsis suffered chronic stage fright and could not sing; he had never before performed in a formal concert hall. Theodorakis, who was conducting, took hold of the microphone and acted as soloist. Remarkably, at the end of the concert, Hadjidakis joined in and played one of the songs at the piano.

Xanten, 1992: Performance of the Zorba ballet by the Warsaw State Opera.

Much of the disagreement concerned the voices of the two vocalists: The voice of Hadjidakis’ vocalist, Nana Mouskouri, has been described as ‘saccharine,’ contrasting completely to Bithikotsis’ untrained rebetik style voice. Some argued that a man’s voice could not be used to interpret a mourning mother. According to George Giannaris, the intentions behind each orchestration differed completely: Hadjidakis wanted to create a chamber piece whereas Theodorakis wanted the bouzouki as the focal instrument of the song cycle. ‘Mikis’ intention… was to use the bouzouki as a solo protagonist, supported by the forceful natural vibrancy of the voice of a man who had suffered, even as the mother in the poem had suffered.’

In 1960 a public performance of music organised by the Association of Cretan students at the Venizelos Hall turned into an open debate between Theodorakis and Hadjidakis supporters. The two composers and a musicologist took the platform. Both sides of the argument were aired. Theodorakis justified his interpretation by explaining that the bouzouki expressed the ‘elegiac threnody found in the klephtic dirges of the Mani, the songs and dances of the islands, and the Cretan rizitika,’ thus making the performance completely ‘laik.’

He described the Hadjidakis’ version as a different kind of Epitaphios: ‘…lyrical, nuptial; it is the epitaph of a sister to her brother and a lover to her lover, rather than a mother to her son. But if the first [Hadjidakis’] Epitaphios is lyrical and nuptial, the second [Theodorakis’] is of the market-places and the alley-ways, where the brave youth gasped and loved just before he got a bullet in his heart.’

Theodorakis also defended the use of the bouzouki:

The bouzouki is to Greek popular music what the guitar is to flamenco, the balalaika to Russian songs and the accordion to Parisian waltzes. It is, from one point of view, the national popular instrument. It is what gives us a separate, national and individual stamp. If there exists against it an enormous prejudice, one can hardly blame the instrument itself, only those who make use of it. The thing itself is, as you know, a combination of worked wood and strings. No morality, no prejudice, no social disease is contained in these simple materials.”

Theodorakis was thus determined to break down previous associations and meanings attached to the bouzouki. In a way, he was in the process of giving it a new identity, as a national instrument that stood for all Greece, rather than representative of the urban underworld of Athens.

However, attacks on Theodorakis continued. He was accused of using beautiful poetry to ‘cleanse a low and degrading music instrument’ and told that such collaborations would perpetuate the ‘bad psychology’ (namely, the weariness, escapism and fatalism) of the rebetika.

Theodorakis made the impassioned rejoinder that everyone from the sailor to the taxi driver and the salesman wanted to sing and to understand the poetry of Ritsos, because it was now presented in their own musical language. The rebetika songs, Theodorakis insisted, also expressed the real plight of the people and were thus part of a genuine cultural expression and art form.

Along with attacks on Theodorakis’ use of the bouzouki, there were accusations that the composer had disrespected Ritsos by choosing Bithikotsis to sing. Theodorakis responded by stating that it was ‘unthinkable’ that there was a class ‘worthy’ to sing and a class considered unworthy to do so. The people on the street who sang these songs did not care to which class the poet belonged, or what colour or creed they were; they only cared if the song or poem moved them sufficiently to cause them to sing it. ‘He insisted that Bithikotsis’ voice, and the way he trained him to sing, would become the collective voice of Greece.’

Paris, 1971: The composer in a reflective mood. This was the period of the Junta in Greece.

Theodorakis also explained how he had carefully composed every syllable and worked out the poem’s internal rhythm, relating it to demotic or laik dance rhythms. Still his critics repeated: the bouzouki was associated with the urban underworld of the hashish dens. This continuing saga is captured in a letter from the poet Manos Eleftheriou, printed in the newspaper Anexartitos Typos in December 1960:

A small civil war is raging these days in the musical sector of our intellectual life… . They call Theodorakis’ Epitaphios, composed to the verses of our first-rate poet Yannis Ritsos, a product of the brothels and an apotheosis of the bouzouki establishments. So they prolong endlessly one musicological difference between the interpretation of the famous threnody by Hadjidakis and Mouskouri and that of Theodorakis-Bithikotsis, until it becomes a fuse about to ignite national dissension.”

Lectures and interviews were held throughout the music world in Greece, and the interpretation and performance of Bithikotsis and Chiotis on the bouzouki were also taken up on the radio. The Mouskouri version would be followed by the Bithikotsis version, initiating heated debate and popular response. Giannaris writes that the Kolonaki aristocratic crowd embraced the former; the proletariat neighbourhoods of Athens and Piraeus, the latter. At the same time, magazines and newspapers welcomed comments and conducted interviews to present the ‘Theodorakis camp’ and the ‘Hadjidakis camp.’

This strong reaction from different social classes convinced Theodorakis that this was the kind of music that the populace had been waiting for. He claimed that the only instrument that could be embraced by the majority of people was the bouzouki. He also discussed the Popular Art Song and insisted that the rebetik tradition should be respected, as it had within it the potential for development into ‘a more sophisticated art, the embodiment of a genuine Greek musical form.’

He substantiated his claim by referring to Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, ‘who had also been inspired by common roots but arrived at different creations.’

As mentioned in Chapter One, Theodorakis only began listening attentively to the rebetika when he was in prison in Makronissos. This was also when he began notating the songs.

Epitaphios was a major topic of conversation for some time to come, and universities and schools invited Theodorakis to lecture and perform his music in a ‘teach-in’ method that involved teacher and student participation. These discussions were not restricted to academic institutions, and soon gained the participation of working-class people, as well as labour unions; ‘… even the police did not want to be left out.’

Epitaphios and the song cycles that followed changed the face of music in Greece – firstly, the song cycle was an accepted serious and popular form; secondly, the bouzouki and rebetik singer were accepted to interpret and perform poetry; thirdly, a new form of performance was created, namely, the ‘popular concert’ (laiki synavlia). This broke away from the traditional forms of performance – previously, popular or laik music was performed only in taverns or night clubs and broadcast on the radio. Therefore this new means of communication ‘brought the creators and interpreters into direct contact with the masses.’

There was no longer a barrier between the creator and interpreter on the one hand, and the people on the other.

Hadjidakis’ orchestration was vital in the process of re-experiencing existing socio-cultural identities; it can be considered the catalyst in opening the discussion of the existence of separate social and musical identities. With the existence of Hadjidakis’ ‘chamber’ orchestration, a version that at that time represented the high classes and perhaps belonged to them, there were two concrete musical forms that represented the ‘self’ and the ‘other.’ These musical opposites (significantly only in terms of orchestration) fuelled the debate around high art versus popular. With Theodorakis’ orchestration, poetry was a tool that brought what was considered ‘lower class’ music or ‘music of the masses’ into high-class territory, and in turn took the intellectual property to the masses in a (musical) language that they could understand. The acceptance of the new musical form by the high classes did not happen instantly: with the help of Theodorakis’ educational seminars, his unique representation of ‘music of the masses’ would in time transcend its class barriers. Thus this new musical language would no longer belong to one social level in Greek society, but to all strata of the society, to the laos.

It is interesting to interrogate Theodorakis’ intentions and his awareness of issues of identity in his conceptualisation of Epitaphios. When Theodorakis made the decision to leave behind the serial tradition of Western classical music, he could not wait to delve into the music of the laik composers. He felt that this music was alive, even if it did not have the complexity and majesty of Western classical music. He saw the laik songs as consolidated works of ‘aesthetic delight’ that are integrated with the people and the era out of which they are borne. Theodorakis writes: ‘I once wrote that popular songs help us forget. Laik songs, however, make us remember. It was exactly this sort of folk memory – as Elytis also expressed it – that I mainly intended to awaken, to sharpen.’

With his conscious desire to transcend class barriers, he tapped into various Greek histories and traditions and synthesized them, creating a cultural well and a new experience of national identity, one that was first embraced by the masses and eventually by all Greeks. Thus national memory or rather ‘folk memory’ was reawakened every time the people listened to and sang these songs which contained elements that represented national stories: By experiencing these through the Popular Art Song, none of these histories and stories could be ignored. All these narratives and traditions moulded the Modern Greek.

That this new song genre permeated all Greek society is amply documented; whether or not it appealed to Greeks from all walks of life depended on their ‘ethics and aesthetics.’ The self (which is always an imagined self) can only be imagined ‘as a particular organization of social, political and material forces.’

Simon Frith theorises that ‘music, like identity, is both performance and story, describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social, the mind in the body and the body in the mind; identity, like music, is a matter of both ethics and aesthetics.’ If music is a metaphor for experiencing identity, the Popular Art Song gave modern Greeks the opportunity to experience themselves in society, their place in the Greek community, as well as their social beliefs, ethics and aesthetics. So the genre offers a sense of both the self and others, the subjective in the collective. The components making up Epitaphios challenged questions of ‘ethics and aesthetics,’ as they were previously associated with different, separate identities within the Greek nation: the rebetik culture had never before been related to neo-Hellenic poetry, nor were the performers and the melodic material. Consequently, questions that arose went to the core of Greek cultural identity: What is ‘Greek’? What is genuine ‘Greek’ music? What makes one performer more ‘Greek’ than another? How does the music reflect the identity of the poetry? The synthesis revealed that the different components (that is music, poetry and performance) were all part of Greek history and tradition in one way or another and could no longer be denied.


This text, chapter “REIMAGINING THE GREEK, THROUGH THE POPULAR ART SONG” is an abstract from the book Mikis Theodorakis: Finding Greece in His Music by Angelique Mouyis, Kerkyra Publications, 2010.

The books is available here.