Vangelis, Greek composer of Chariots of Fire score, dies at 79

Greek musician and composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, known as Vangelis, on October 20, 1992. The Oscar winner died at the age of 79.GEORGES BENDRIHEM/AFP/Getty Images

Vangelis, the Greek electronic composer who wrote the unforgettable Oscar-winning music for the film chariots of fire and the music to dozens of other films, documentaries and television series, has died at 79.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and other government officials expressed their condolences on Thursday. Greek media reported that Vangelis – born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou – died in a French hospital on Tuesday evening.

“Vangelis Papathanassiou is no longer with us,” Mr Mitsotakis tweeted, calling him an “electronic sound pioneer” whose death is “sad news for the whole world”.

The opening credits of chariots of fire roll as a group of young runners slow down a dreary Scottish beach as a lazy, rhythmic tune rises to a masterful declamation. It’s one of the most instantly recognizable musical themes in cinema – and its position in popular culture has only been confirmed by the multitude of parodies it has spawned.

The 1981 British film made Vangelis, but his first encounter with success came with his first Greek pop group in the 1960s.

It evolved into a near-classical one-man orchestra, using a vast array of electronic equipment to conjure up its hugely popular undulating sound waves. A private, humorous man – burly, with shoulder-length hair and a trimmed beard – he cited ancient Greek philosophy and saw the artist as a conduit for a basic universal force. He was fascinated with space exploration and wrote music for celestial bodies, but said he never sought fame himself.

Yet a micro-planet revolving somewhere between Mars and Jupiter – 6354 Vangelis – will forever bear his name.

Born on March 29, 1943, near the city of Volos in central Greece, Vangelis began playing the piano at the age of 4, although he received no formal training and claimed that he had never learned to read notes.

“Orchestration, composition – they teach those things in music schools, but there are things you can never teach,” he said in a 1982 interview. creation.”

At 20, Vangelis and three friends formed the band Forminx in Athens, which did very well in Greece. After its disbandment, it wrote scores for several Greek films and later became a founding member – together with another internationally renowned Greek musician, Demis Roussos – of Aphrodite’s Child. Based in Paris, the progressive rock band has produced several European hits, and their latest album 666released in 1972, is still very popular.

Aphrodite’s Child also broke up, and Vangelis pursued solo projects. In 1974 he moved to London, built his own studio and cooperated with Yes frontman Jon Anderson, with whom he recorded as Jon and Vangelis and achieved several major hits.

But his huge breakthrough came with the score of chariots of fire which told the true story of two British runners competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Vangelis’ score won one of four Oscars captured by the film, including Best Picture. The signature track is one of the world’s hardest-to-forget movie melodies – and has also served as the musical background for countless slow-motion parodies.

Vangelis went on to write scores for Ridley Scott’s blade runner (1982) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), as well as for Faded away (1982) and Antarctic (1983), among others.

He turned down many other offers of film scores, saying in an interview, “Half the movies I see don’t need music. It looks like something stuffed.

Vangelis was suspicious of the way record companies handled commercial success. With success, he says, “you get stuck and forced to repeat yourself and repeat your previous success.”

His interest in science – including the physics of music and sound – and space exploration led him to compositions related to major NASA and European Space Agency projects. When British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking died in 2018, Vangelis composed a musical tribute for his burial which the ESA broadcast in space.

Vangelis pumped out his symphonic swells while playing a bank of synthesizers on his own, while flipping switches as his feet moved from volume pedal to volume pedal.

“I work like an athlete,” he once said.

He avoided the lifestyle excesses associated with many in the music industry, saying he had never done drugs – “which was very uncomfortable at times”.

Vangelis said he never experimented with his music and usually does everything from the first take.

“When I compose, I perform the music at the same time, so everything is live, nothing is pre-programmed,” he said.

Decca, the label for his last three albums, called the composer a “genius”.

“Vangelis created music of extraordinary originality and power, and provided the soundtrack to so many of our lives,” he said. “Decca has had the pleasure of partnering with Vangelis and his team for his last three albums and he will be greatly missed. His music will live on forever.

The composer lived in London, Paris and Athens, where he bought a house at the foot of the Acropolis which he never embellished, even when his street became one of the city’s most popular pedestrian promenades. . The neoclassical building was nearly demolished in 2007 when government officials decided it spoiled views of the ancient citadel from a new museum built next door, but was eventually reconsidered.

Vangelis has received numerous awards in Greece, France and the United States. Little was known about his personal life other than that he was an avid painter.

“Every day I paint and every day I compose music,” he said – in that order.

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