The internationally renowned Greek composer Yannis Markopoulos - best known to UK audiences for composing the chart-topping music for BBC television series Who Pays the Ferryman? - has died in Athens at the age of 84.
Born on March 18, 1939, in Crete, Markopoulos made changed the entire landscape in contemporary Greek music by encompassing traditional Greek instruments in the classical orchestra, a movement he named “return to the roots”.
His artistic output spans song cycles to large-scale orchestral, choral, and operatic music, as well as acclaimed work for theatre, dance, television, and film.
His memorable music for the BBC television series Who Pays the Ferryman? was a hit in Britain, staying in the Top 40 of the British charts for several months in 1977 and early 1978, bringing the composer international renown and invitations for his music to be performed all over the world.
Markopoulos began his formal musical training at the Athens Conservatoire, where he studied composition and orchestration. In 1967 a military dictatorship was imposed in Greece. Markopoulos left for London, where he enriched his knowledge under the English composer Elizabeth Lutyens. In London he composed the secular cantata Ilios o Protos (Sun the First) on the poetry of Odysseus Elytis (Nobel Prize 1979) and completed the musical ceremony Idou o Nymphios.
While in London he also composed Chroismoi (Oracles) for symphony orchestra and the Pyrrichioi Dances A, B, C (the first three of the 24 Dances he completed in 2001) that were performed in 1968 by the London Concertante Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to great critical acclaim. The London Evening Standard wrote: “Markopoulos is a giant of Greek music. But he displays not a titanic ego – rather an immense warmth.”
During the same year he was commissioned to write the music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed by the English National Theatre and directed by David Jones.
He returned to Athens in 1969, still in the grips of a military dictatorship. Empowered by a vision for democracy, he founded a musical ensemble composed of students and young intellectuals. The ensemble would go on to perform countless musical works combining Greek elements with international sounds with lyrics on the poetry of Greece’s Nobel laureates George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, as well as other important poets and lyricists. His songs were sung by people opposed to the regime, becoming a powerful tool of resistance and contributing to the restoration of democracy. His works often explored themes of love, loss, and the human condition, striking a profound chord with audiences.
From 1980, he entered a new phase in his music, immersing himself in his classical genre works. Among these are his Concerto-Rhapsody for lyre and orchestra, Mitroa for string orchestra, the Tetrades quartets as well as oratorios, sonatas, chamber works and song cycles. One of his most important works, the Liturgy of Orpheus was published in 1994 and first presented at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It was recorded with the world-renowned Bass Barytone Jose Van Dam and released internationally along with other of his symphonic works by the classical music label Naxos.
He is survived by his wife, singer and long-time collaborator Vassiliki Lavina and their daughter Eleni.
President of Greece, Katerina Sakellaropoulou said:
“It is with emotion that I say goodbye to a composer who sought inspiration from the multitude of our music and transformed her ethos into a modern, interesting, multidimensional, completely personal idiom.”
His family stated:
“The musical soul of Greece has been silenced.”
A major event to celebrate his life and work is now being planned to take place on 9 October at Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, at the 9th of October 2023. Further information will be available in due course.