Vangelis, Oscar-winning ‘Chariots of Fire’ composer, has died aged 79

19 May 2022, 20:22 | Updated: 19 May 2022, 20:28

Vangelis, Oscar-winning ‘Chariots of Fire’ composer, has died aged 79
Vangelis, Oscar-winning ‘Chariots of Fire’ composer, has died aged 79. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Today we farewell a giant of the music world, as electronic music maestro and film composer Vangelis has died aged 79.

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The Greek composer Vangelis, who wrote the music for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, has died aged 79.

Athens News Agency reported that he died on Wednesday, in a French hospital where he was being treated. No cause of death was given.

Born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou in 1943, near the city of Volos in Greece, Vangelis didn’t study music in the traditional sense, but grew up surrounded by the sound of Greek folk songs and Orthodox Christian hymns. He started to play the piano aged four, but claimed he had no formal training and never learned to read music.

Aged 20 he formed his first band, The Forminx, a pop and rock band with Vangelis on organ and keys. A few years later, the band split and Vangelis shortly formed a new band, Aphrodite’s Child, bringing western pop music to Greece and reaching the UK Top 30. Vangelis’ most successful band venture was with his friend Jon Anderson, lead singer of the ‘prog rock’ group Yes.

Finding success in prog rock, but ultimately dissatisfied with the life of a performing artist, Vangelis took on a new challenge, turning his hand to scoring film and TV. At first he straddled the film and rock world, his 1975 studio album Heaven and Hell reaching the UK top 40 and being used as the soundtrack for the TV series Cosmos.

But then came Vangelis’ breakthrough: the Chariots of Fire (1981) soundtrack, for which he scooped that year’s Academy Award for Best Original Score and reached No. 1 in the US charts.

Vangelis was best known for scoring 'Chariots of Fire' (1981)
Vangelis was best known for scoring 'Chariots of Fire' (1981). Picture: Alamy

Director Hugh Hudson took a leap of faith when he took on Vangelis to compose a strikingly modern score, which sat in stark contrast with the film’s narrative which followed a rivalry between two athletes in the 1920s.

Using a synthesiser as a soloist, with a backdrop of orchestral sounds, Vangelis produced one of the most stirring film themes of the 1980s. The main track has become synonymous with slow-motion athletic sequences over the past four decades.

Vangelis’ sound spanned genres, from jazz and classical to prog rock and electronica. He once said: “I don’t always play synthesisers. I play acoustic instruments with the same pleasure. I’m happy when I have unlimited choice; in order to do that, you need everything from simple acoustic sounds to electronic sounds. Sound is sound and vibration is vibration, whether from an electronic source or an acoustic instrument.”

After Chariots of Fire came Blade Runner (1982) and another hit for the Greek composer, who used an enormous synth to create one of the greatest scores in sci-fi film history, perfectly capturing the mood of the dystopian Los Angeles in which the film is set. Evocative and melancholy, Vangelis’ score is as much a star of the film as leading actor Harrison Ford.

Other film scores in Vangelis’ roster include The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon, and Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise. His last film score was in 2007 for a Greek biopic of Renaissance painter known as El Greco.

Vangelis at his home in Queensway London UK, in 1982
Vangelis at his home in Queensway London UK, in 1982. Picture: Alamy

In the latter years of his career, Vangelis was commissioned to soundtrack major sporting events, including the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He also wrote theatre and ballet scores for stage productions of Medea and The Tempest.

In 2012, Vangelis topped the UK classical singles chart with the London Symphony Orchestra’s recording of his Chariots theme, following the LSO’s famous performance alongside Rowan Atkinson at the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics.

Vangelis was also deeply fascinated with space. NASA made his 1993 piece Mythodea the official music of the Mars Odyssey mission of 2001, and his final album, Juno to Jupiter (2021) was inspired by a NASA probe.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, said on Twitter [translated from Greek]: “Vangelis Papathanassíou is no longer with us. For the whole world, the sad news states that the world music firm has lost the international Vangelis. The protagonist of electronic sound, the Oscars, the Myth and the great hits. For us Greeks, however, knowing that his second name was Odysseus, means that he began his long journey in the Roads of Fire. From there he will always send us his notes.”

Classic FM’s Composer in Residence Debbie Wiseman, composer of Wilde and Wolf Hall, told UK radio: “He had such a distinctive sound, and combined music and technology together. He kind of thought of music as science and created his own soundworld,” which Wiseman describes as a “distinctive, modern, ambient palette of sound that was his own.”

Rest in peace, maestro.