Mikis Theodorakis has played many public roles since his emergence in the mid-twentieth century, as Greece's most successful composer of serious music, a leader in the field of film music, and a symbol of resistance to oppression. Born Michalis Theodorakis on the Aegean island of Chios, he was a shy child who enjoyed poetry and music. His interest in music was shaped by his gypsy-like childhood, as his father, a government official, was continually transferred throughout the Greek islands; in the process, Theodorakis was exposed to a huge variety of traditional Greek music, all of which shaped his sensibilities as a composer. He also displayed a strong interest in liturgical music and took up the violin, which he studied at the Patras Conservatory of Music. Theodorakis began composing music as a boy. He did his best to continue studying music during the Axis occupation, but after he was refused admission to the Athens State Conservatory, Theodorakis turned to his other great passion, politics. He was converted to Marxism by his patriotism and the sacrifices he saw made by the communists fighting the occupying forces. He linked his musical and political passions, composing pieces such as his oratorio Third of December, a memorial to partisans killed by the British. Theodorakis' Communist affiliations led to his imprisonment twice by the postwar government, and he was held under brutal conditions for more than two years, until he was released with a case of advanced tuberculosis in 1949.
During the 1950s, Theodorakis began emerging as a composer and critic. He wrote and arranged scores for ancient dramas, composed a pair of ballets, Orpheus and Euridice and Greek Carnival, and began writing for movies. In 1954, he received a grant to study at the Paris Conservatory, where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen, and he composed twenty-one works during his four years in Paris. He continued his work in films as well, most notably in Ill Met By Moonlight (1956) directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and in Powell's Honeymoon (1959), which featured Theodorakis' ballet The Lovers of Teruel (which was later the basis for a separate film). He also became a critic of the musical establishment in Greece, insisting that composition could be invigorated by a return to their music's roots and the traditional sources he'd known as a boy. He continued composing for the theater and also in popular music, and in 1964 wrote the score for the movie Zorba The Greek, which was a huge hit and exposed a vast new audience to Theodorakis' music. Theodorakis' reputation was made among popular listeners as well as serious music circles, but his music career was soon overshadowed by politics.
As a member of the Greek parliament in the 1960s, he had built a reputation as a political activist and had a potent political organization behind him. When a group of Greek army colonels seized power in 1967, Theodorakis went underground and began organizing resistance to the junta, and was arrested twice; held for two years, he was released on humanitarian grounds following a massive international outcry. He'd continued composing, even smuggling compositions out of prison, and wrote a song cycle devoted to the cause of the resistance. Theodorakis returned to the Greek parliament after democracy was restored, but has been increasingly known for his music in the decades since. In 1988, the expanded version of his first symphony received its American premiere, and his works have comprised entire programs at such venues as Avery Fisher Hall in New York.