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Vangelis, the Greek composer of Chariots of Fire’s legendary electronic theme music, dies aged 79

Vangelis, the Greek composer of Chariots of Fire's legendary electronic theme music, dies aged 79 2

Vangelis, the legendary Greece-born electronic composer and musician who was best known for his electronic theme song for Oscar-winning ‘Chariots of Fire’, has died at the age of 79.

According to the Athens News Agency, Vangelis, born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, died on Wednesday 18 May, his lawyers’ office said, but gave no cause of death.

Greek media reported that Vangelis died in a French hospital. 

The reclusive, mostly self-taught keyboard wizard was a lifelong experimenter, switching from psychedelic rock and synth to ethnic music and jazz.

In a career spanning over five decades, Vangelis drew on space exploration, wildlife, futuristic architecture, the New Testament and the 1968 French student riots for inspiration.

He played in several bands and solo, but his huge breakthrough came with the score for Chariots Of Fire, a 1981 film that told the story of two British runners in the 1920s. 

Vangelis’s score received one of the four Academy Awards the film won – but he was fast asleep in London when the Oscars result was announced on March 29, 1982 – his 39th birthday.

‘I’d been out late celebrating,’ he later told People magazine.

His theme for ‘Chariots of Fire’ beat John Williams’ score for the first Indiana Jones film in 1982. It reached the top of the US billboard and was an enduring hit in Britain, where it was used during the London 2012 Olympics medal presentation ceremonies.

The signature piece is one of the hardest-to-forget film tunes worldwide – and has also served as the musical background to endless slow-motion parodies. 

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and other government officials expressed their condolences Thursday. ‘Vangelis Papathanassiou is no longer among us,’ Mitsotakis tweeted. 

Vangelis, the legendary Greek composer and musician who was best known for his electronic theme song for Oscar-winning 'Chariots of Fire', has died at the age of 79. Pictured during a press conference in Athens in 2001

Vangelis, the legendary Greek composer and musician who was best known for his electronic theme song for Oscar-winning ‘Chariots of Fire’, has died at the age of 79. Pictured during a press conference in Athens in 2001

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

‘I’ve never studied music,’ he told Greek magazine Periodiko in 1988, in which he also bemoaned the increasing ‘exploitation’ imposed by studios and the media.

‘At one time there was a craziness… now it’s a job.’

‘You might sell a million records while feeling like a failure. Or you might not sell anything feeling very happy,’ he said.

Born in 1943, near the city of Volos in central Greece, Vangelis started playing the piano at age 4, although he got no formal training and claimed he never learned to read notes

Born in 1943, near the city of Volos in central Greece, Vangelis started playing the piano at age 4, although he got no formal training and claimed he never learned to read notes

The young Vangelis developed an early interest in music and experiments with sounds produced by banging pots and pans or fixing nails, glasses and other objects to the strings of his parents’ piano.

He absorbed the tones of Greek folk songs and Orthodox Christian choral music, but he had no formal musical training, which he later said had helped save his sense of creativity.

After studying painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts, Vangelis joined popular Greek rock group The Forminx. But success was cut short in 1967 by the arrival of a military junta that clamped down on freedom of expression.

As he found his feet away from home, he was attracted by the then-new field of electronic synthesizers which allowed him to create the lush melodic colours that became his trademark sound.

Trying to get to England, he found himself stuck in Paris during the 1968 student movement, and joined fellow Greek expatriates Demis Roussos and Lucas Sideras in forming progressive rock group Aphrodite’s Child.

The group achieved cult status, selling millions of records with hits such as ‘Rain and Tears’ before disbanding in 1972. Vangelis and Roussos both moved on to successful solo careers.

Despite enjoying success in the European ‘prog rock’ scene of the early 1970s, he was uncomfortable with the expectations on a commercial performing artist and largely retreated to the recording studio he created for himself in London. 

Relocating to England’s capital in 1974, Vangelis created Nemo Studios, the ‘sound laboratory’ that produced most of his solo albums for over a decade.

His work on over a dozen soundtracks included Costa-Gavras’ ‘Missing’, ‘Antarctica’, ‘The Bounty’, ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’, Roman Polanski’s ‘Bitter Moon’ and the Oliver Stone epic ‘Alexander’.

He also wrote music for theatre and ballet, as well as the anthem of the 2002 FIFA World Cup.

The young Vangelis developed an early interest in music and experiments with sounds produced by banging pots and pans or fixing nails, glasses and other objects to the strings of his parents' piano. Pictured during a concert at the Temple of Zeus in Athens on June 28, 2001

The young Vangelis developed an early interest in music and experiments with sounds produced by banging pots and pans or fixing nails, glasses and other objects to the strings of his parents’ piano. Pictured during a concert at the Temple of Zeus in Athens on June 28, 2001

He absorbed the tones of Greek folk songs and Orthodox Christian choral music, but he had no formal musical training, which he later said had helped save his sense of creativity. Pictured is the Temple of Zeus in Athens during a concert by Vangelis in 2001

He absorbed the tones of Greek folk songs and Orthodox Christian choral music, but he had no formal musical training, which he later said had helped save his sense of creativity. Pictured is the Temple of Zeus in Athens during a concert by Vangelis in 2001

It was there that he wrote the score for ‘Chariots of Fire’, the story of the triumph of a group of British runners at the 1924 Olympic Games.

Unashamedly non-contemporary, its pulsating synthesizer beats and soaring melody made the slow motion opening sequence of a group of athletes running along a beach a model for the way the cinema portrayed sport.

Vangelis once said the score, which earned him an Academy Award and topped the charts for weeks, was in part a tribute to his father, who had been a keen amateur runner. But he was also slightly dismissive of the enormous popularity it enjoyed.

‘It’s only another piece of music,’ he told an interviewer. 

Vangelis once said the Chariots of Fire score, which earned him an Academy Award and topped the charts for weeks, was in part a tribute to his father, who had been a keen amateur runner. Pictured at the French Culture Ministry after receiving a decoration in October 1992

Vangelis once said the Chariots of Fire score, which earned him an Academy Award and topped the charts for weeks, was in part a tribute to his father, who had been a keen amateur runner. Pictured at the French Culture Ministry after receiving a decoration in October 1992

The success of ‘Chariots of Fire’ overshadowed his other scores but he wrote the music for a number of major films including ‘Missing’, directed by his compatriot Costa-Gavras, and Ridley Scott’s futuristic thriller ‘Blade Runner’.

He was a prolific composer over many decades, his work ranging from advertising music and film scores to elaborate symphonic-style compositions and ‘Jon and Vangelis’, his duo with Jon Anderson, lead singer of the prog rock group Yes.

But he remained wary of commercial success and valued his independence over record sales, once telling an interviewer he never saw music as just an entertainment. 

‘Success is sweet and treacherous,’ the lion-maned composer told the Observer newspaper in 2012. ‘Instead of being able to move forward freely and do what you really wish, you find yourself stuck and obliged to repeat yourself.’

Vangelis readily admitted to the Los Angeles Times in 1986 that ‘half of the films I see don’t need music. It sounds like something stuffed in.’ 

‘When I saw some footage, I understood that this is the future. Not a nice future, of course. But this is where we’re going,’ he said.

Vangelis wrote the score for 'Chariots of Fire' in London, the story of the triumph of a group of British runners at the 1924 Olympic Games (pictured)

Vangelis wrote the score for ‘Chariots of Fire’ in London, the story of the triumph of a group of British runners at the 1924 Olympic Games (pictured)

The success of 'Chariots of Fire' (pictured) overshadowed his other scores but he wrote the music for a number of major films including 'Missing', directed by his compatriot Costa-Gavras, and Ridley Scott's futuristic thriller 'Blade Runner'

 The success of ‘Chariots of Fire’ (pictured) overshadowed his other scores but he wrote the music for a number of major films including ‘Missing’, directed by his compatriot Costa-Gavras, and Ridley Scott’s futuristic thriller ‘Blade Runner’

Vangelis, who had a minor planet named after him in 1995, had a fascination with space from an early age.

‘Each planet sings,’ he told the LA Times in 2019. He said he saw parallels with the dystopian world depicted in ‘Blade Runner’ for which he also wrote a score. 

In 1980, he contributed music to Carl Sagan’s award-winning science documentary Cosmos. He wrote music for NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey and 2011 Juno Jupiter missions, and a Grammy-nominated album inspired by the Rosetta space probe mission in 2016.

In 2018, he composed a piece for the funeral of Stephen Hawking that included the late professor’s words, and was broadcast into space by the European Space Agency.

Vangelis, who had a minor planet named after him in 1995, had a fascination with space from an early age. Pictured greeting fans at the end of his historic concert at ancient Athens' Temple of Zeus in June 2001

Vangelis, who had a minor planet named after him in 1995, had a fascination with space from an early age. Pictured greeting fans at the end of his historic concert at ancient Athens’ Temple of Zeus in June 2001

In later years, Vangelis moved between homes in Paris, London and Athens, carefully guarding his privacy. Little is known of his personal life. Pictured answering a question during a press conference in Athens in June 2001

In later years, Vangelis moved between homes in Paris, London and Athens, carefully guarding his privacy. Little is known of his personal life. Pictured answering a question during a press conference in Athens in June 2001

Vangelis was a recipient of the Max Steiner film music award, France’s Legion d’Honneur, NASA’s Public Service Medal and Greece’s top honour, the Order of the Phoenix.

In later years, Vangelis moved between homes in Paris, London and Athens, carefully guarding his privacy. Little is known of his personal life.

‘I don’t give interviews, because I have to try to say things that I don’t need to say,’ he told the LA Times in 2019.

‘The only thing I need to do is just to make music.’

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CAST OF CHARIOTS OF FIRE?  

Ian Charleson, who played Olympic athlete and missionary Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, was also known for his portrayal of Rev. Charlie Andrews in the 1982 Oscar-winning film Gandhi.

He was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and died four years later at the age of 40.

His was one of the first British celebrity deaths to be publicly attributed to AIDS.

A short time before his death, while ill with AIDS, Mr Charleson performed his second run of Hamlet, this time at the National Theatre.

Director Richard Eyre, with some initial misgivings based on Charleson’s health, had brought him in to replace Daniel Day-Lewis, who had abandoned the production.

The day after his final Hamlet performance, when Ian McKellen was given the Evening Standard Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Iago in Othello, McKellen said that, having seen ‘the perfect Hamlet’ at the National Theatre, he thought that Charleson was truly the Best Actor of 1989.

Nigel Havers, who played Lord Andrew Lindsay, went on to play Lewis Archer in Coronation Street intermittently between 2009 and 2019.

In November 2010 he became a contestant on series ten of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

A week after the first episode was aired, it emerged that Mr Havers had walked from the jungle.

In July 2012, he presented the ITV programme ‘The Real Chariots of Fire’, a documentary about the runners who inspired the film.

Alice Krige, who played the Gilbert and Sullivan singer Sybil Gordon, joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and played Cordelia in King Lear, among other parts in Shakespeare productions.

She won Best Supporting Actress at the 1997 Saturn Awards for her role in Star Trek: First Contact, as the Borg Queen, who tries to assimilate Earth into the Borg collective.

In 2011, she made an appearance in the BBC’s final season of Spooks, playing Russian agent Elena Gavrik.

More recently, she appeared in films Solomon Kane, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Thor: The Dark World.

 

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