Every composer film score has his signature tune whether it be the shrieking violins of the Psycho shower scene or the ominous double bass of the imminent shark attacks in Jaws but for composer Vangelis it was his swopping sonic soundscapes encapsulated and forever synonymous with slow-mo beach sequences of Chariots of Fire
Born Evángelos Papathanassíou on March 29th 1947 he was bought up in Athens where his father ran a property business but also had a keen interest in music too and his mother was an accomplished singer and both nurtured their sons interest in music. It was at only four years of age that he started playing the piano and taking lessons a couple of years later. And yet for a composer he had no interest whatsoever in writing down his scores regarding the composition of music being immediate and unpredictable.
Like most schoolboys he was in a band whilst in school forming a group in 1963 called Formynx and took the stage name of Vagos where the band performed cover versions as well as some of his own original music. The band became extremely popular in Greece yet by 1966 the band split and having met Demis Roussos in 1967 the pair teamed up to form Aphrodite’s Child and moved to Paris where they had several hits for a few years but by 1970 they too had split.
Throughout this time Vangelis had already been composing film scores and after the band had split it was a line of work that he pursued with a number of now long forgotten films. By the mid 1970’s he even auditioned to be a member of prog rock band Yes but work permit problems put an immediate end to that. By then he had already moved to London and made a couple of albums one of which reached the Top 20 and by 1979 he teamed up with Jon Anderson and the pair made four albums but Vangelis continued making film soundtracks this time for documentaries the album of one staying in the US charts for 39 weeks and was used on the soundtrack for The Year of Living Dangerously.
It bought him to the attention of British film director Hugh Hudson whom he had met briefly at the beginning of the decade. Hudson was working on a film about two British runners in the 1924 Olympics. It was an astonishing piece of work with its swooping synths seemingly at odds with a period film but actually complimented it excuisitely none more so than in the now iconic and much imitated scene of the athletes running across a gloomy British beach in slow motion. Vangelis played all the instrument himself and arguably the film might not have been the success it was without Vangelis music which would earn him an Oscar for Best Score and Chariots of Fire earning Best Film Oscar prompting screenwriter to proclaim, ‘The British are Coming!’ when ironically over the next few years the British film industry all but collapsed. Suitably the films theme would be used again in the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony
Vangelis distinctive music had him in demand and his score for Ridley Scott’s hugely influential Blade Runner was again as important as the director’s visuals. In the same year he would also score ‘Missing’ for director Costa Gravas which won the Palme D’or at Cannes. From then he scored a number of films that included Roger Donaldson’s The Bounty, Roman Polanski’s ‘Bitter Moon ‘ and for Ridley Scott’s ‘1492 Conquest of Paradise’. Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’ in 2004 would be his last score for a major Hollywood director.
Not wishing to be trapped doing film scores he branched out to symphonies and even a piece for NASA’s Mission to Mars and suitably he even had an asteroid named after him. He had always had an interest in space which influenced much of his work and he composed music for Stephen Hawking’s funeral in 2018 and his final album in 2021 was titled ‘Juno to Jupiter’.
His awards were numerous and apart from an Oscar he was also awarded the Max Steiner award in 1989, and in 1992 was made a Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and later in 2017 he was promoted to Commandeur. Despite his success he was an intensely private man and lived between homes in Paris, London and Athens rarely giving interviews preferring to just make music yet wary of commercial success regarding his work as far more than just entertainment
Vangelis died on 18th May 2022 aged 79.