Culture

Vangelis obituary

The Greek composer Vangelis, who has died aged 79, always avoided becoming a trained, academic musician, and had an almost superstitious fear of analysing the nature of his gifts. “I don’t know how it happens,” he said. “I don’t try to know. It’s like riding a bicycle. If you think, ‘How am I going to do it?’ you fall down.”

However he did it, he created a string of enduring and hugely varied works, ranging from pop and semi-classical compositions using a mixture of synthesisers, electronica and traditional instrumentation to some of the most memorable film scores in cinematic history. He became a pop star in his native Greece in the late 1960s with Aphrodite’s Child, zooming up European charts with their single Rain and Tears and playing to stadium-sized crowds, and formed a successful partnership with Jon Anderson, the vocalist with Yes. His solo albums covered countless musical bases, from classical and jazz to electronic and ambient.

But the music that instantly springs to mind when his name is mentioned is his soundtrack for Chariots of Fire (1981), Hugh Hudson’s film about the 1924 Paris Olympics. It won Vangelis an Oscar, and its epic, soaring title theme has enjoyed an independent life ever since: for instance, featuring in medal ceremonies at the London 2012 Olympics.

Equally significant was his score for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner (1982). Vangelis created a stunning sonic panorama of the fragmented, alienated world that Scott depicted on the screen, where advances in technology were matched by the decay of human emotions. His music became almost like an extra character in the development of the story.

Runners on a beach in Chariots of Fire
The 1981 film Chariots of Fire won Vangelis an Oscar for his soundtrack. Photograph: Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy

Vangelis was born Evángelos Papathanassíou in the coastal town of Agria, Thessaly, and was brought up in Athens. His father, Odysseus, was in the property business, and was an enthusiastic amateur runner as well as a music lover. His mother, Foteini Kyriakopoulou, had trained as a soprano though she did not sing professionally. Vangelis began playing the piano and other instruments from the age of four, and his parents sent him for music lessons when he was six.

However, he had no interest in learning to read or write music. “Music is not something that’s written,” he said. “Everything that’s noted down comes after the music is created … Music is immediate, wild, unpredictable, multidimensional.” Nonetheless he later took some piano lessons with the Greek composer Aristotelis Koundouroff.

While at school, he began to play in bands, and in 1963 he joined Forminx (sometimes spelt Formynx), playing cover versions and some of his own compositions. At the time his stage name was Vagos. “It was just our idea of having fun,” he recalled, but Forminx became one of Greece’s best-known bands.

They split in 1966, and Vangelis met Demis Roussos the following year. They formed the psychedelic pop outfit that would become Aphrodite’s Child. The group attempted to move to London but were not able to get any further than Paris, thanks to their lack of work permits and the chaotic events of May 1968 in France. They signed to Mercury Records and scored a major pan-European hit with their debut single Rain and Tears, which borrowed heavily from Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.

Aphrodite’s Child enjoyed further chart success, particularly with their 1970 single It’s Five O’Clock, but by the time they came to record their third album, 666, the group were beginning to suffer internal tensions. A progressive concept album devised by Vangelis, 666 was based on the Book of Revelation. His bandmates were not enthusiastic about this new direction and the members went their separate ways.

Vangelis had begun composing film soundtracks as early as 1963 with My Brother, the Traffic Policeman, and he now pursued this line of work with scores for Sex Power (1970), Salut, Jerusalem (1972) and Amore (1974). He released his first solo album, Fais Que Ton Rêve Sois Plus Long Que la Nuit (Make Your Dream Last Longer Than the Night), in 1972 and a follow-up, Earth, in 1973. In 1974 he auditioned for the British prog-rockers Yes at the instigation of Anderson, but turned down the job after problems with work permits.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) featured a Vangelis score that reflected the film’s fragmented, alienated world. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy

In 1975 he moved to London and set up his own 16-track recording studio, Nemo. Signed to RCA, he released Heaven and Hell (featuring Anderson), and Albedo 0.39 (1976), based on the theme of astrophysics, which was his first Top 20 album in the UK (it included the much-covered track Pulstar). He followed up with Spiral (1977) and Beaubourg (1978).

In 1979 he formed Jon and Vangelis with Anderson, who reached the UK Top 5 with their album Short Stories, the first of four they would make together. “Making music with Vangelis was always a simple pleasure, and then it became very successful,” said Anderson. “It was very spontaneous and very joyful.”

By 1979 Vangelis had moved to Polydor, and his globe-trotting instincts were reflected in the albums China and Odes, the latter a collection of traditional Greek folk songs recorded with the Greek singer and actor Irene Papas. The pair collaborated again on Rapsodies (1986).

Vangelis struck up another fruitful partnership with the wildlife documentary maker Frédéric Rossif. The first of his soundtracks for the director was L’Apocalypse des Animaux (1973), followed by La Fête Sauvage (1976) and Opéra Sauvage (1979). The last of these was one of Vangelis’s most successful releases in the US, lodging itself on the Billboard album chart for 39 weeks. Its combination of warm, accessible melodies and conventional instruments alongside a Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser helped bring Vangelis to the attention of mainstream film-makers (Peter Weir used music from it in The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982). It set the stage for Vangelis’s pivotal partnership with Hudson, whom he had first met in Paris in the early 70s, on Chariots of Fire.

His theme for Chariots of Fire, mixing a formal classicism with the rhythmic and tonal possibilities of synthesisers and electronic percussion, reached No 12 in the UK and became a No 1 hit in the US in 1982, while the soundtrack album topped the Billboard chart. Vangelis, who played all the soundtrack instruments himself, won the 1982 Academy Award for best original score, and the fact that Chariots of Fire won the best picture Oscar probably owed much to the impact of Vangelis’s music.

“My main inspiration was definitely the story itself,” he reflected. “The rest I did instinctively, without thinking about anything else other than to express my feelings, using the technological means that were available at the time.”

The film world became his oyster. His score for Costa-Gavras’s Missing (1982) won him the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, and other notable works included scores for The Bounty (1984), Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) – the soundtrack album would sell 4m copies – and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004).

However, Vangelis was keen to avoid being trapped on a treadmill of soundtrack work. “The more successful that you become in any form of music, the more you become a product that generates a lot of money,” he observed. “Instead of being able to move freely and do whatever you wish, you find yourself stuck and obliged to repeat yourself and previous successes.”

There seemed nowhere Vangelis could not go. His choral symphony Mythodea, which he performed in Athens in 2001 with the operatic sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, was adopted as the official music for Nasa’s Mars Odyssey space mission. In 2014 he composed three pieces for the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, and these appeared on his album Rosetta (2016). He even had an asteroid (no 6354) named after him by the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union.

Fascinated by space exploration and science, he also composed a score for Stephen Hawking’s memorial at Westminster Abbey in 2018. His final studio album was Juno to Jupiter (2021), named after Nasa’s Juno spacecraft.

Vangelis received the Max Steiner award in 1989, and in 1992 was made a Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (he was promoted to Commandeur in 2017). In 2003 Nasa awarded him its public service medal.

Vangelis (Evángelos Papathanassíou), composer and musician, born 29 March 1943; died 17 May 2022

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