Vangelis, the Greek composer and musician whose synth-focused work brought huge drama to film soundtracks including Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, has died at the age of 79. His representatives said he died in hospital in France where he was being treated.
Born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou in 1943, Vangelis won an Oscar for his 1981 soundtrack Chariots of Fire. Its uplifting piano motif became world famous and reached No. 1 on the US charts, as did the accompanying soundtrack album.
Self-taught mostly in music, Vangelis grew up in Athens and formed his first band in 1963, called The Forminx, playing the pop music of the day: uptempo rock’n’roll, catchy ballads and Beatles covers, with Vangelis supplying the organ lines.
They separated in 1966 and Vangelis became a writer and producer for hire, working for other musicians and contributing scores to Greek films. Two years later, he left for Paris to pursue his career, where he formed the progressive rock quartet Aphrodite’s Child with Greek expatriates, including Demis Roussos. Their single Rain and Tears was a hit across Europe, topping the French, Belgian and Italian charts and reaching the UK Top 30.
After their separation – Vangelis deeming the world of commercial pop “very boring” – he returned to film and television music. Refusing an invitation to replace Rick Wakeman on keyboards in Yes, he moved to London and signed a solo contract with RCA Records: his LPs Heaven and Hell (1975) and Albedo 0.39 (1976) each reached the British Top 40, the first also used for the soundtrack of Carl Sagan’s popular TV series Cosmos. The connection with Yes finally came to an end later in the decade, when he teamed up with the band’s Jon Anderson for the duo Jon and Vangelis, whose debut album entered the Top 5.
Vangelis had continued his film music work throughout the 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that it reached its commercial heights. Chariots of Fire became inseparable from the timeless Vangelis theme, and the music became synonymous with slow-motion sports montages. “My music doesn’t try to evoke emotions like joy, love or pain from the audience. It just goes with the image, because I work in the moment,” he explained more late.
His score for Blade Runner is also celebrated for its evocation of a grim future version of Los Angeles, where robots and humans live awkwardly next to each other through the use of long malevolent synth notes; saxophones and lush ambient passages enhance the film’s romantic and poignant moments. “It turned out to be a very prophetic film – we now live in a sort of Blade Runner world,” he said in 2005.
Later in the decade, he scored Costa-Gavras’ Palme d’Or-winning political drama Missing, starring Jack Lemmon; the Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins drama The Bounty; and the Mickey Rourke with Francesco. He worked again with Blade Runner director Ridley Scott on the 1992 film 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and elsewhere in the 1990s composed the soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Jacques Cousteau documentaries. .
Vangelis drew inspiration from Greek instrumentation alongside the typical orchestras used in the film score to Oliver Stone’s 2004 classic epic Alexander.
His most recent score is for El Greco, a 2007 Greek biopic about the Renaissance painter. The Greek artist, who moved to Spain and acquired his nickname there, was much admired by Vangelis, who composed albums in 1995 and 1998 inspired by him and bearing his name.
Always celebrated for his evocative Chariots of Fire theme, Vangelis has also been commissioned by sports bodies to soundtrack major events, including the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. South and the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. He also wrote ballet scores and music for stage productions of Médée, La Tempête and other plays.
Solo releases remained steady alongside his commissioned work and occasionally included collaborations with singers such as Paul Young.
A fascination with outer space found a voice in 2016’s Rosetta, dedicated to the space probe of the same name, and Nasa named his 1993 piece Mythodea (which he claimed he wrote in an hour) as the music official release of the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission. His latest album, Juno to Jupiter from 2021, was inspired by the Nasa Juno probe and featured recordings of its launch and of the probe itself operating in space.
Among those paying tribute to Vangelis was Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who hailed “a pioneer in electronic sound”.