ATHENS, Greece – Vangelis, the Greek electronic composer who wrote the unforgettable Oscar-winning score on Chariots of Fire and music for dozens of other films, documentaries and TV series, has died at the age of 79.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and other government officials expressed their condolences Thursday. Greek media reported that Evangelos Odysseus Papathanasiou, born in Vangelis, died in a French hospital late Tuesday.
“Vangelis Papathanasiou is no longer among us,” Mitsotakis tweeted, calling him an “electronic audio pioneer” whose death is “sad news for the entire world.”
The opening credits of Chariots of Fire roll as a group of young runners advance in slow motion across a dreary beach in Scotland, as the slow, rhythm-backed melody rises to a commemorative speech. It is one of the most instantly recognizable musical themes in cinema – and its place in popular culture is only confirmed by the array of ridicule it evokes.
British film Vangelis was produced in 1981, but his first encounter with success came with his first Greek pop band in the 1960s.
It has evolved into a semi-classical one-man orchestra, using a wide range of electronic equipment to evoke its hugely popular undulating sound waves. A special, humorous man – burly, with long hair on the shoulder and a trimmed beard – he borrowed from ancient Greek philosophy and saw the artist as a conduit for an essential universal power.
He was fascinated by space exploration and wrote music for celestial bodies, but said he did not seek stardom himself. However, a small planet orbiting somewhere between Mars and Jupiter – 6354 Vangelis – will forever bear his name.
Vangelis began playing the piano at the age of four, although he had no formal training and claimed he never learned to read notes.
“Orchestra, composition – they teach these things in music schools,” he said in a 1982 interview, “but there are some things you can never teach.” “You cannot teach creation.”
At the age of twenty, Vangelis and three friends formed the Forminx band in Athens, which did well in Greece. After its dissolution, he wrote scores for several Greek films and later became a founding member – along with another world-famous Greek musician, Demis Roussos – of the progressive rock band Aphrodite Child.
The Paris-based Progressive rock group has produced many European songs, and their last record “666”, released in 1972, is still very much welcomed.
Aphrodite’s child also broke up, and Vangelis continued his solo projects.
In 1974, he moved to London, built his own studio and collaborated with Yes Frontman Jon Anderson, with whom he scored the role of Jon and Vangelis and had many successes.
But his monumental achievement came with the score of Chariots of Fire, which tells the true story of two British runners competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Vangelis’ score won one of the film’s four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The featured piece is one of the hardest hits in movies around the world – and it also served as the musical backdrop to this endless slow-motion parody.
Vangelis later wrote music tracks for Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) and “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (1992), as well as “Missing” (1982) and “Antarctica” (1983), among others.
He turned down several other offers for film scores, saying in an interview: “Half of the films I see don’t need music. Sounds like something stuffed.”
Vangelis has been wary of how record companies handle commercial success. Successfully, he said, “You find yourself stuck and having to repeat yourself and repeat your previous success.”
His interest in science – including the physics of music and sound – and space exploration has led to compositions associated with major projects for NASA and the European Space Agency. When British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking died in 2018, Vangelis composed a musical tribute to his burial that the European Space Agency broadcasts into space.
Vangelis brought on his symphonic spells playing solo on a bank of synthesizers, flipping keys as his feet darted from one volume pedal to another.
He once said, “I’m an athlete.”
He has avoided the lifestyle excesses associated with many in the music industry, saying he’s never taken drugs – “which is very uncomfortable, at times”.
Vangelis said he never really experimented with his music, usually doing it all on the first shot.
“When I compose, I play the music at the same time, so everything is live, nothing is pre-programmed,” he said.
Decca, the record company for his last three albums, called the composer a “genius”.
“Vangelis created music of extraordinary originality and strength, and provided soundtracks for so much of our lives,” she said. “Decca has had the pleasure to partner with Vangelis and his team on his past three albums and we will miss him dearly. 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 that never really got dressed, even when his street became one of the city’s most desirable pedestrian paths. The neoclassical building was nearly demolished in 2007 when government officials decided it spoiled the view of the old castle from a new museum being built nearby, but it was eventually reconsidered.
Vangelis has received numerous awards in Greece, France and the United States. Little is known about his personal life besides that he was an avid painter.
He said – in this order: “I paint every day and every day I compose music.”