Vangelis, Oscar-winning composer for Chariots of Fire, dies at 79

Vangelis, the electronic-music pioneer who won an Oscar for Chariots of Fire and composed such other landmark film scores as Blade Runner, died on Tuesday, the Athens News Agency reported. He was 79. Greek media reports say he died in a French hospital while being treated for COVID-19.

The self-taught musician enjoyed a long career in European pop music before the magical colors and textures of his 1970s solo albums brought him to the attention of film and TV producers.

The use of a track from his 1975 album Heaven and Hell as the theme for Carl Sagan’s 1980 PBS series Cosmos brought his name and music into prominence in America.

But it was his music for the 1981 film Chariots of Fire that brought him worldwide fame. Producer David Puttnam made the unorthodox choice for his period sports drama after hearing Vangelis’s music for the French nature documentary Opera Sauvage and the studio album China.

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As he often did, Vangelis performed all of the instruments, including synthesiser, piano, drums and percussion. His memorable theme not only entranced moviegoers but the soundtrack reached no. 1 on the Billboard charts and was nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy.

He declined to attend the Academy Awards, where he won in March 1982.

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“They put a lot of pressure on me to go to America for the Oscar,” he told a British journalist at the time, “but I don’t like to be pushed, and especially for that. I hate the idea of competition.”

The Oscar for Chariots of Fire made him immediately bankable as a film composer. Ridley Scott hired him for his science-fiction film Blade Runner and Costa-Gavras engaged him for the Jack Lemmon drama Missing, both in 1982 and both nominated for BAFTA awards. The Mel GIbson remake of The Bounty followed in 1984.

Subsequent scores, also for historical dramas, included Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), both less celebrated but still musically compelling for their mix of electronics with conventional orchestra and choirs. He also scored Roman Polanski’s erotic thriller Bitter Moon (1992).

Vangelis was born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou on March 29, 1943, and raised in Athens. A self-taught pianist, he formed a rock band, the Forminx, in 1963, playing pop music and Beatles covers, but began working on film scores and sessions a few years later.

After relocating to Paris, In 1968 he formed the progressive-rock quartet Aphrodite’s Child with a group of Greek expatriots, including Demis Roussos. The group enjoyed chart success in several European countries, particularly the single ‘Rain and Tear.’

After that group dissolved, he declined an offer to replace Rick Wakeman in progressive-rock legends Yes and instead focused on solo work and film scores. However, after moving to London in 1975, he began collaborating with Yes singer Jon Anderson, with whom he released four albums as Jon and Vangelis between 1980 and 1991, one of which reached the British top 5.

Increasingly reclusive, he gave few interviews, preferring music-making to publicity and promotion. Yet in one 1980s interview, he said this: “People say that a synthesiser is a machine, not a natural sound. Everything is natural. The first instrument built – a flute or maybe a tom-tom – was a machine to create sound. Acoustical conventional instruments, like a guitar, are fantastic, but they are restricted and always give the same sort of sound. It allows us to go beyond what we have known. You can start from a beep, and develop a whole range of sounds with endless variations. It is incredible.”

Vangelis composed for the Greek theater (Elektra, 1983, and Medea, 1992, both with Irene Papas), for ballets in London (Modern Prometheus, 1985, and Beauty and the Beast, 1986), and for documentaries by undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau (Rediscover the World, 1992).

The restless artist moved from solo albums to music for nature films and sporting events throughout the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. His choral symphony ‘Mythodea’ was adopted by NASA as the theme for its 2001 Mars Odyssey mission and he penned original music for the European Space Agency’s 2014 expedition to Comet 67P.

He composed music for the funeral of physicist Stephen Hawking in 2018. His last studio album, 2021’s Juno to Jupiter, was inspired by NASA’s Juno space probe. Two of his later solo albums, 1996’s Oceanic and 2016’s Rosetta, earned Grammy nominations as Best New Age Album.

Details of his personal life remain mysterious. Some reports suggest that he was married twice but had no children.

Vangelis’ stature in his home country is evidenced by a statement from Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who called him “a pioneer of electronic sound.”

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