2.1.2. The Ballad of Mauthausen

A very recent survey of the Special Eurobarometer 399 on cultural access andparticipation (published in November 2013) concluded that the European culture loses groundand efforts should be concentrated to bring it at the heart of people’s interest. A Europedetached from its cultural background will face more difficulties to establish its politicalintegrity, since, according to Etienne Balibar, the invention of the form of a pluralistic statethat exceed the contrast between the “national sovereignty” and the “continental hegemony” along with an open cultural process, where all the European nations can indiscriminately takepart, are sine qua non elements30.Through the spectrum of cultural diplomacy, it has been already proposed aPan-European campaign concerning the return of culture at the forefront of the Europeanaffairs, where Greece can play a pivotal role 31 .

Based on the European CulturalConvention (1954), the article 128§1 of the Maastricht Treaty, the principle of subsidiarityand thus the principle of cultural equivalence that Greece has proposed during thenegotiations of this article as well as on Ioannis’s Kapodistrias vision of a united Europe thatcould establish global peace32, it is argued here that Europe has indeed common history andtherefore common historical memories, especially in modern times that could lead torealization and sensitization over the common culture of the European edifice, which canunite people on an emotional level. Such a view could be seen through the Ballad of Mauthausen by Iakovos Kampanellis and Mikis Theodorakis.This cycle of songs was composed in 1966, when Iakovos Kambanellis presented hissongs at Mikis’s Theodorakis home. The poems constitute an autobiographical chronicle,based on their writer’s experiences, when he was a political prisoner for two and half years inthe Nazi concentration camp in Austria during the Second World War. The composer,hearkening the elegiac character of Kambanellis’s work, decided to underpin it by the timbreof the violoncello, the flute and the tambours, while the use of new and modern musicalcolors, as the electric guitar is, was perfectly supported by Maria’s Farantouri voice, whoactually made her debut with these songs. As Theodorakis admits, he set the poems to music,since, apart from his own experiences of imprisonment during the Italian and the Germanoccupation, he realized that this was the only way to get close to young people and remindthem of a time of history we should not forget. Even if at first sight, the songs of Mauthausenseem to be destined to reach people who had suffered from fascism and fought against it, theirchief destination is to sensitize all people not to lose sight of the crime of the Nazis, as it is theonly way for such things never to happen again; besides Theodorakis still commits himself toprotect the younger generations from this danger and remains a leading example to follow33.

Kambanellis recounts events that do enliven the recent common European historical memoryand can unite people through emotions, since this work is not only a condemnation to war andthe violence or frenzy it implies, but also a hymn to love, which is able to flourish even in anightmarish environment and keep alive the hope for life34. It is noteworthy that in April1995, in the London Times Literary Supplement, the review over an anthology of poemsconcerning the Bible and the Holocaust (“Modern Poems on the Bible” by D.Curson), the“Song of the Songs” of the Ballad of Mauthausen was the one of the two summital poems onthe subject.

The Ballad of Mauthausen has already been presented in numerous concerts around theworld. In Israel, it is considered to be equivalent to the national anthem, while the mostmoving performance was undoubtedly its global premiere inside the German concentrationcamp “Mauthausen” in 1988, attended by the then Chancellor of Austria Franz Vranitzky,having at his side Iakovos Kambanellis. The later concert was held in three languages: MariaFarantouri sung the original songs in Greek, Elinoar Moav in Jewish and Gisela May inGerman; it was attended by tens of thousands of people from all over Europe, honoring thememory of the 122,797 victims of Nazi atrocities (3,700 Greeks among them), who had left  their last breath in the crematoria of Mauthausen during WWII35. In its current form, thesongs are performed by Maria Farantouri (Greek), Elinoar Moav – Veniadis (Jewish) andNandia Weiberg (English).The Ballad of Mauthausen could serve the purposes of an original Greek culturaldiplomatic proposal that shares a direct reference to the European affairs on the one side,underlying the principles on which Europe has been founded, while the questions this musicalcycle treats have international repercussions in any case. As History shows its menace facefor once again, the honest Greek contribution towards a friendly and peaceful world seemsmore than incumbent.

2.1.3. Axion Esti

In the end of 1959, Elytis brought out his monumental work Axion Esti, after a longabsence from the poetic scene that demonstrates the travails he passed through in order togive birth to such a poetic composition. Mikis Theodorakis has begun to elaborate on thissplendid poem since 1960 and after four years of incessant work, the first official presentationof the oratorio Axion Esti took place in 1964 at the Kotopouli Theater (“Rex”). This oratoriois written for a narrator, a chanter (a baritone), a popular singer, a mixed choir, a popular anda symphonic orchestra and constitutes an intersection point both in the Modern Greek Poetryand Music36; it has been characterized as the Bible of the Hellenism, since it runs through theentire historical period of the Greek nation, from the genesis ‘of this small, this great world!’up to the prophetic insight that stacked up during the dictatorship (1967-1974). Elytis writesthat when he was in Paris and Greece suffered by the war, he felt the need for a prayer (in theform of an ecclesiastical liturgy) to protest against this injustice. And so the Axion Esti wasborn37.

Theodorakis, through the musical setting of this poem, surprised the audience, since hemanaged to reconcile the purely popular song with the modern symphonic styles of popularmusic, trying not to betray the goal of the poet. In his writings and interviews, Theodorakisadmits that he probably had two models in mind: the first was the Bach’s oratorios with thearias, recitatives and choral techniques. The other was the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, wherethe chanting of the priests, the reading of the Gospels and the chants of the right and leftchanter rotate in dialogue; these three key elements in both cases guided his final option inorchestration, which had to be extended to the entire work so as not to lose its unity andespecially not affect its poet’s intention38.Axion Esti seems to culminate the contribution of the Modern Greek Poetry set to Musictowards the rest of the world; but how is this compatible to the principles of culturaldiplomacy? According to Yannaras39, the Orwellian world of nowadays can be rebutted by astrong inner need of self-determination, which will allow no space for cultural alienation;language represents one of the propelling cultural factors in order to implement such a vision.Rife with meanings, the richness of the Greek language is without doubt an unquestionableand fruitful cultural advantage, able to converse with other cultures, provided that itstreatment refrains from any rhetoric boasting of the linguistic potentials it embodies; besides,any reference should be accompanied by recent evidence and no space for anachronisticattitudes should be left.Axion Esti seems to summarize the very substance of Greek language both to its literaryand musical form, while it also addresses questions that still penetrate Modern Greece: the question of national identity and the actual presence of popular tradition40. These two keyelements, existentially related to the Greek adventure over time, can naturally get togetherwithin Orthodoxy and the Byzantine tradition, which should be incorporated in the newdogma of an effective Greek cultural diplomacy.

The Byzantine empire along with theOrthodox tradition have ingrained cultural roots with the Slavic world and are thecommunication channel with the rest people as they still set up a meaningful point ofreference, when culture is in question; besides, Orthodoxy stands as an equal component ofthe European culture, since it incorporates principles and structures of the Greco-Romantradition, while Russia and Diaspora meet their cultural soul mate thereto41.Furthering these arguments, Simon Mark42 notices that cultural diplomacy is notexercised only through “targeting audiences in other countries with manifestations of theculture of the ‘sending’ state”, but it also fulfills its mission when reciprocal manifestationstake place and help to advance both parties’ interests. Such an instance took place in Pretoriain 1998 in honor of Nelson Mandela, where Axion Esti demonstrated what high values reflectsas a work.Nelson Mandela, the great African leader and the staunch fighter for human rights andthe liberation of the people, spent almost all his life in prison and became the symbol ofliberty around the world.

However, two Greeks marked forever his struggle: the first citizenof South Africa, the lawyer George Bizos and the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis.George Bizos gave great battles against the racist policy of “apartheid” and stood alongsideMandela at risk of his life, while Mikis Theodorakis, as Chairman of the Committee for therelease of Mandela, fought in his own way through the concerts he gave in the countries hewas visiting, inviting the international community to help the freedom of Greek and SouthAfrican people. Soon after the political change and as a result of the excellent relationsbetween Greece and South Africa, the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad, in cooperationwith the Greek Embassy in Pretoria, organized two concerts with Mikis Theodorakis inNovember 1998. The presence of the composer and the presentation of the oratorio Axion Estiin Pretoria was an unforgettable experience for all those people who attended it. Particularlymoving moments were offered by the choir of white and black faces singing, “all children ofthe same country” as Mikis Theodorakis called them after the concert43.As matter of course, Axion Esti seems to condense all aforementioned goals, principlesand efforts cultural diplomacy should focus on. The sense of ‘Greekness’ it exudes togetherwith the ideals for Struggle and Culture that penetrate the whole composition, can bringpeople together.

Mikis Theodorakis encourages us to “let out the soul of our music to emergeintact, dressed with hoar-frost and dew […] and sing the sorrows and hopes of Hellenism”44.Let’s embrace the souls of people, committed to shield their uniqueness, we could add.


Μaria Athanassiou

M.A. in Art, Law and Economy, International Hellenic University. Ph.D. candidate,
International Center for Music Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.


30 (Eleni Tzoumaka 2005, 96-97)

31 (Ibid, 35)

32 (George Christoyannis 2006, 154-155 and 200

33 (Yannis Flessas 1994, 11-12,23).

34 (Andreas Brandes in Mikis Theodorakis 1997, 148-149)

35 (George Logothetis 2004, 92)

36 (Yannis Flessas 1994, 21)

37 (Odysseas Elytis 2000, 19-20)

38 (Mikis Theodorakis 1997, 135)

39 (Christos Yannaras 2001, 76 and 156-157)

40 (George Bramos 1993, 12)

41 (Giagkos Andreades in Eleni Tzoumaka 2005, 64)

42 (Simon Mark 2009, 11)

43 (George Logothetis 2004, 201-204)

44 (Ibid, 89)

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