Vangelis, who composed the Academy Award-winning score for “Chariots of Fire,” dies at 79

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

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and other government officials expressed their condolences on Thursday. Greek media reported that Vangelis, born Evangelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, died in a French hospital on Tuesday night.

“Vangelis Papathanassiou is no longer with us”, Mitsotakis tweeted.

Greece Obit Vangelis
Composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, right, answers a question during a news conference in Athens, June 27, 2001.

Aris Messinis/AP

The opening credits of “Chariots of Fire” play as a group of young runners make their way in slow motion along a bleak Scottish beach, while a lazy, rhythm-accompanied melody rises into a masterful declamation. It’s one of the most instantly recognizable musical themes in cinema, and its standing in popular culture has only been confirmed by the myriad of parodies it has spawned.

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

It evolved into an almost classical one-man orchestra, using a wide range of electronic equipment to conjure up its hugely popular undulating waves of sound. A reserved and humorous man, stocky, with shoulder-length hair and a trimmed beard, he cited ancient Greek philosophy and saw the artist as a conduit for a basic universal force. He was fascinated by space exploration and wrote music for the heavenly bodies, but said he never sought stardom himself.

Still, a microplanet spinning somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, 6354 Vangelis, will always bear his name.

Born on March 29, 1943, near the city of Volos in central Greece, Vangelis began playing the piano at age 4, though he received 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 band Forminx in Athens, which did very well in Greece. After it disbanded, he wrote scores for several Greek films and later became a founding member, along with another internationally famous Greek musician, Demis Roussos of Aphrodite’s Child. Based in Paris, the progressive rock group produced several European hits, and their final album “666”, released in 1972, remains 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 breakthrough came with the score for “Chariots of Fire,” which told the true story of two British runners competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Vangelis’ score won one of the four Academy Awards the film won, including best picture. The signature piece is one of the world’s hardest-to-forget movie tunes, and has also served as the background music for endless slow-motion skits.

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

Greek composer of electronic music, Vangelis, January 28, 1976.

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He turned down many other offers of movie soundtracks, saying in an interview, “Half the movies I watch don’t need music. It sounds like something stuffed.”

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

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

Vangelis brought out his symphonic surges playing solo on a bank of synths, flipping switches as his feet darted from one volume pedal to another.

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

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

Vangelis said that he never experimented 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.

The composer lived in London, Paris and Athens, where he bought a house at the foot of the Acropolis that he never adorned, even when his street became one of the most desirable pedestrian walkways in the city. The neoclassical building was nearly demolished in 2007 when government officials decided it spoiled the view of the ancient citadel from a new museum built next door, but they eventually reconsidered.

Vangelis received numerous awards in Greece, France and the United States. Little was known of his personal life, apart from the fact 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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