Vangelis, the Greek ‘Chariots of Fire’ composer, dies at 79

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ATHENS, Greece — Vangelis, the Greek electronic composer who wrote the unforgettable Academy Award-winning score for the film “Chariots of Fire” and music for dozens of other movies, documentaries and TV series, has died at 79.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and other government officials expressed their condolences Thursday. Greek media reports that Vangelis, born Evangelos ODYSSEAS PATANASIOU, died Tuesday in France.

“Vangelis Papathanassiou is no longer among us,” Mitsotakis tweeted, calling him an “electronic sound trailblazer” whose death is “sad news for the entire world.”

The opening credits of “Chariots of Fire” roll as a bunch of young runners progress in slow motion across a glum beach in Scotland, as a lazy, beat-backed tune rises to a magisterial declamation. It is one of cinema’s most recognizable themes. The host of parodies it has been sung has confirmed its place in pop culture.

The 1981 British film made Vangelis, but his initial encounter with success came with his first Greek pop band in the 1960s.

He evolved into a one-man quasi-classical orchestra, using a vast array of electronic equipment to conjure up his enormously popular undulating waves of sound. He was a private and humorous man, tall with a beard and shoulder length hair. Although he was fascinated with space exploration, he wrote music to celestial bodies. He denied that a stardom is what drew him in.

Still, a micro-planet spinning somewhere between Mars and Jupiter — 6354 Vangelis — will forever bear his name.

Born on March 29, 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.

“Orchestration, composition — they teach these things in music schools, but there are some things you can never teach,” he said in a 1982 interview. “You can’t teach creation.”

At 20, Vangelis and three friends formed the Forminx band in Athens, which did very well in Greece. He wrote music for many Greek movies and became an early member of Aphrodite’s Child, along with Demis Roussos, an internationally-respected Greek musician. Based in Paris, the progressive rock group produced several European hits, and their final record “666,” released in 1972, is still highly acclaimed.

Aphrodite’s Child also broke up, and Vangelis pursued solo projects. In 1974, he moved to London, built his own studio and cooperated with Yes frontman Jon Anderson, with whom he recorded as Jon and Vangelis and had several major hits.

But his huge breakthrough came with the score for “Chariots of Fire” that told the true story of two British runners competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Vangelis won the best picture Academy Award and one of four Academy Awards. Vangelis’ signature tune is an iconic movie song that has been used as the soundtrack to many slow-motion parodies.

Vangelis later wrote music scores for Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) and “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (1992), as well as for “Missing” (1982) and “Antarctica” (1983), among others.

He refused many other offers for film scores, saying in an interview: “Half of the films I see don’t need music. It sounds like something stuffed in.”

Vangelis was wary of how record companies handled commercial success. With success, he said, “you find yourself stuck and obliged to repeat yourself and your previous success.”

His interest in science — including the physics of music and sound — and space exploration led to compositions linked with major NASA and European Space Agency projects. When British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking died in 2018, Vangelis composed a musical tribute for his interment that the ESA broadcast into space.

Vangelis brought forth his symphonic swells playing alone on a bank of synthesizers, while flipping switches as his feet darted from one volume pedal to another.

“I work like an athlete,” he once said.

He avoided the lifestyle excesses associated with many in the music industry, saying that he never took drugs — “which was very uncomfortable, at times.”

Vangelis said he didn’t ever experiment with his music and usually did everything on the first take.

“When I compose, I perform the music at the same time, so everything is live, nothing is pre-programmed,” he said.

Decca, the record label for his last three albums, called the composer “a genius.”

“Vangelis created music of extraordinary originality and power, and provided the soundtrack to so many of our lives,” it said. His music will live on forever. “Decca was blessed to have had the opportunity of working with Vangelis’ team for three albums. We will be greatly missing him.” 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 he never dolled up, even when his street became one of the most desirable pedestrian walks in town. The neoclassical building was nearly demolished in 2007 when government officials decided that it spoilt the view of the ancient citadel from a new museum built next door, but eventually reconsidered.

Vangelis received many awards in Greece, France and the U.S. Little was known of his personal life besides that he was an avid painter.

“Every day I paint and every day I compose music,” he said — in that order.

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John Leicester in Paris contributed.

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