Vangelis, who has died aged 79, was a musician best known for his stirring Oscar-winning score to Hugh Hudson’s 1981 film Chariots of Fire, and was regarded in his native Greece as something of a national icon.
The film dealt with British Olympic endeavour, and the pulsating high-gloss synthesiser melody which Vangelis wrote and recorded became a backdrop to several Olympic Games, most notably the 2012 London Olympics, where it encouraged carriers of the Olympic flame on its journey around Britain and featured during medal ceremonies.
Most memorably, it was performed at the opening ceremony by the London Symphony Orchestra, and featured an appearance by Rowan Atkinson in character as Mr Bean.
The success of the score (in 2018 it was named by Classic FM listeners as the UK’s top sporting classical music) tended to overshadow Vangelis’s other work, which included acclaimed scores for Costa-Gavras’s Missing and Ridley Scott’s futuristic dystopian thriller Blade Runner, and he was somewhat dismissive of its enormous popularity, calling it “only another piece of music”. When he won his Academy Award, he refused to attend the awards ceremony.
The older of two sons of a property developer, Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou was born on March 29 1943 in Agria, a coastal town in Magnesia, Thessaly, central Greece, and brought up in Athens.
He developed an early interest in music, but had no patience with formal piano lessons, preferring to teach himself and develop techniques and experiment with new sounds on his own, including attaching nails to the strings of his parents’ piano.
He played by ear and never learnt to read or notate music without assistance: “When the teachers asked me to play something, I would pretend that I was reading it and play from memory. I didn’t fool them, but I didn’t care.”
Aged 16 he got himself a Hammond organ, painted it gold and, after studying painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts, adopted the name Vangelis and founded a rock band called Formynx. They enjoyed huge success in Greece until the military coup of 1967, when their members fled into exile.
In 1968, Vangelis arrived in Paris where, with his fellow Greek expatriates Demis Roussos and Lucas Sideras, he formed Aphrodite’s Child, a prog-rock band who found success with hit singles like Rain and Tears (with Vangelis on keyboards and Roussos on vocals), which reached No 1 throughout Europe.
Their final record, the psychedelic double album 666 (1972) – inspired by the Book of Revelation – is often included on best-ever lists, and included the stand-out track The Four Horseman, but Vangelis tended to dismiss this period of his life as just “a rite of passage”, and by the time the album appeared the band had gone their separate ways.
By 1974, when he moved to London, Vangelis had developed a passion for synthesisers, and he went on to turn a former school near Marble Arch into Nemo Studios, an electronic “sound laboratory” as avant-garde as anything to be found on the Continent.
He wrote symphonic poems and released solo albums such as Heaven and Hell (1975), which he performed live to a sold-out Royal Albert Hall. Reaching the fringes of the UK Top 30, it featured his first collaboration with Jon Anderson, singer with the prog band Yes (whose invitation to replace Rick Wakeman on keyboards was declined by Vangelis).
They went on to make several records together, including their 1980 debut album Short Stories, which reached No 4 in the UK, and the Top Ten singles I Hear You Now and I’ll Find My Way Home.
Vangelis’s move into the world of film music started gradually, early commissions including wildlife documentaries and a sex education film called Sex Power.
His soundtrack for Chariots of Fire, mixing symphonic orchestral grandeur and epic strings with more intimate interludes, established the Vangelis style and marked his breakthrough into mainstream film work. “I try to put myself in the situation and feel it,” the composer said of his score. “I’m a runner at the time, or in the stadium, or alone in the dressing room … and then I compose.”
He found himself bombarded with offers, but was selective, not wanting to become “a factory of film music”.
The film director Tony Palmer described his score for Blade Runner (1982 – it was nominated for Bafta and Golden Globe awards) as “one of the best ever written... Ridley Scott didn’t think he had a film at all until he heard the score because the cut seemed incoherent. Vangelis’s music is what holds it together.”
That was true of many of Vangelis’s other scores, from Costa-Gavras’s Missing (1982), which won the Palme d’Or and was nominated for a Bafta, and Roger Donaldson’s The Bounty (1984) to Ridley Scott’s Columbus epic 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), which won Vangelis a Golden Globe nomination. Other notable scores include Roman Polanski’s romantic thriller Bitter Moon (1992) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2005).
Vangelis also wrote music for theatre and ballet, as well as the anthem of the 2002 Fifa World Cup, and he continued to release groundbreaking albums as an electronic solo artist.
He had a fascination with outer space (Vangelis had a minor planet named after him in 1995), and some of his music was used in Carl Sagan’s award-winning science documentary Cosmos (1980), while for Nasa’s 2001 mission to Mars he wrote the choral epic Mythodea, which was performed at the Temple of Zeus in Athens. His 2016 album Rosetta, inspired by the eponymous space probe mission, was nominated for a Grammy.
In 2018 Vangelis composed a piece for the funeral of Stephen Hawking that included the late cosmologist’s words and was broadcast into space by the European Space Agency.
Though Vangelis enjoyed national-treasure status in Greece, where the government declared him a great composer, Peter Culshaw, who was granted a rare interview for The Daily Telegraph in 2005, noted an element of the “prophet not being honoured in his own land”.
Some accused him of being bombastic, and there was considerable negative publicity over the state-sponsored $7 million cost of Mythodea.
The interview with the Telegraph was the first Vangelis had given to an English-language newspaper for more than a decade, and although he claimed he disliked interviews because he did not have much to say, Culshaw found him “voluble, thoughtful and opinionated”.
He was, however, reticent about his private life, explaining only that he was on his third long-term relationship and that he had no children because the “nonsense of the music business” meant that he could not “take care of a child in the way I think it should be taken care of”.
Vangelis’s many awards and honours included the Legion d’honneur in France, Nasa’s Public Service Medal and the Greek Order of the Phoenix.
In later years, Vangelis moved between London, Athens, and Paris, where he died.
Vangelis, born March 29 1943, died May 17 2022