SONGS from the oratorio Axion Esti

A SOLITARY SWALLOW ενα το χελιδονι


The art of the song and the redemption of pop music

"I create means I am free - I become free. The message of art is a message of freedom." - Mikis Theodorakis

During the founding of a modern nation in an ancient land, pulverised by the World Wars and multiple civil wars. From imprisonment, torture and exile, these songs were born: a revolutionary pop music that would capture the spirit of the people and instill them with the strength to struggle against adversity and oppression and find their way to freedom.

 i - a solitary swallow ενα το χελιδονι

part I


This text is about pop music and the art of the song, making it also essentially about the art of lyrics and poetry – for there is no popular song without the power of the word.

At the core of this text there are three questions. Firstly, what is “pop music”? We now use the term pop to indicate a genre, but the origin of the word popular – of the people – goes far beyond our current use. The Vox Populi, the voice of the people, would be a music born out of the masses and not only made for the masses. Can it really be said that what passes for “pop music” today reflects the voice of the people, the very inner spirit of man unfolding itself into the world of song? Or is this “music” the product of an industry whose primary aim - aside from profit - is social and behavioural engineering?   This “music” that with each successive generation seems to descend further and further into simplicity and repetition, not to mention vulgarity… Is this really a true “pop” music, a music of the people? The next question then emerges: in our modern age, has there ever really been a true popular music? If not, what would a true “pop music” be? And what its effect?

Enter Mikis Theodorakis.  To assist us in answering these questions, let us look at his life and work.

Born in 1925, Mikis Theodorakis has been a leading figure in every major event in modern Greek history. Launched into the public sphere through his fame as a composer of symphonies, oratorios, operas, ballets and chamber music, he became an active and highly polemical political figure.  Aside from his classical compositions, his popular songs – of which there are over 1000 – topped the charts in Greece and abroad, fueled revolutions, and consoled the masses for the multiple tragedies of decades of nearly continuous war. He was awarded the IMC UNESCO International Music Prize in 2005 for “his constant struggles for freedom, social justice and human dignity, [which] rise above national boundaries and become a legacy for all humanity.”

Throughout his long life, Mikis Theodorakis has endured inconceivable trials of body and spirit – pushed to the brink of death on several occasions.  Multiple incarcerations, exile, torture… Many of his songs were penned on scraps of paper during his numerous periods of imprisonment. The accounts of the jailhouse performances of his works are legendary. The biographies of such pivotal figures are also a history of the time in which they have lived – to know Mikis Theodorakis is to know the history not only of Greece, but of the entire global climate of his age . 

“Therefore, the art that wants to express faithfully and sincerely a people that struggles for its freedom aspires to win not only the love of this people but also the hatred of its enemies.”

When in the late 1960s, a Military Junta took over in Greece and thrust the country into what is called the “Seven Years”, a hell of conflict during which exile, torture and assassinations were the norm, one of the first acts of the military regime was an official ban on playing any music by Mikis Theodorakis – either live or on the radio.

1 June, 1967: Army Order No. 13: 1. We have decided and we order that throughout the country it is forbidden (a) to reproduce or play the music and songs of the composer Mikis Theodorakis… 2. Citizens who contravene this Order will be brought immediately before the military tribunal and judged under martial law.”

This is the power of a true popular music - to affect the hearts and souls of a nation, to stir the spirit of the people and inspire noble action and even giving your very blood for truth. Songs of Resistance: that is how the popular songs of Mikis Theodorakis are known. They are songs of Freedom.

To get an idea of the breadth of Theodorakis’s artistic impact, British journalist Ron Hall wrote: “It was as if Benjamin Britten had set verses by Auden to be sung by the Archbishop of Canterbury - and the records had pushed the Beatles out of the charts.”  Obviously the West does not have any parallel movement with which to draw comparison.

In response to our second question - have we ever really had a true modern popular music? - during a period of exile mostly spent in France and England, Theodorakis wrote:

“Nonetheless there is no dearth of vast musical movements like pop music. These however have not been able to mount the barrier of spontaneity and to create complex works that aspire to embrace more than the senses - the mind, imagination, intellectuality, the aesthetic deliverance, and, finally, the moral and spiritual elevation, the internal liberation.”

It is of extreme interest that this was written during the early 70s, when “pop music'“, especially in England, was a thriving industry – with bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others reaching a fever pitch of popularity.  These heavily marketed crazes did not rise to the challenge of granting “aesthetic deliverance.” Theodorakis, in short, emphatically answers “no”, at least for American/English industry pop music. A cursory glance at the development of pop music from that time to the present only makes that “no” more resounding and absolute. So, if this is not a true popular music, what is it?

As for our third question – what would a true popular music be? – the differences between true pop music and industry music are not to be found in structure.  The basic layout of verse-chorus does not need a major overhaul; what is needed is for the song to be imbued with poetic content, as Theodorakis himself explicitly points out.

Regarding lyrical quality and content, industry music pales in comparison with great poetry, even for those whom some would consider poets – songwriters.  So poor is the lyrical content of the industry song as far back as we look into the radio age that I contemplated whether it was necessary to give examples… I concluded that even a short glimpse at any random selection of lyrics should be sufficient to prove this point.  Rather than reinforcing collective values, our current lyrics promote and elicit the most base behaviour, the most crude and narcissistic expressions of the ego, reducing the human being to little more than an animal in pursuit of money and loveless sexual gratification and “good times”. Poetry and lyrical content this will be more fully addressed in the third installment of this series.

In the next article we will deal with the nature of the industry and social and behavioural engineering.



On social engineering and pseudo-individualization