One of film’s most iconic composers has died, with Variety reporting that Vangelis—a.k.a. Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou—died on Tuesday in France while undergoing treatment for COVID-19. Vangelis, a multi-instrumentalist who was best known for his synthesizer work, was nominated for three Grammys and won an Oscar for composing the score (and iconic theme song) for Chariots Of Fire. He was 79.
Vangelis was born in Greece in the ‘40s and was interested in creating his own music at a young age, to the point where he would reportedly put nails and pans inside the family’s piano to get it to make different sounds. He briefly took music lessons but preferred figuring things out on his own and eventually joined a short-lived rock band with friends from school called The Forminx. In the late-‘60s, he formed progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child, which went on to some success with hits like “Rain And Tears,” but the commercial aspect of being in a rock band didn’t interest Vangelis and he broke out on a solo career.
One of Vangelis’ solo albums, which were largely based around electronic music and thematic concepts that embraced different philosophies or political movements, caught the attention of Carl Sagan, who decided to use Vangelis’ a track from the composer’s Heaven And Hell as the opening theme to his Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series in 1980.
With Vangelis new gaining attention from American audiences, he was approached to do the soundtrack for director Hugh Hudson’s Chariots Of Fire. Vangelis was seen as an odd choice for a movie about the 1924 Olympics, an event that greatly pre-dated electronic music and synthesizers, but his score quickly became (and remains) more famous than the film itself. Even if you’ve never seen Chariots Of Fire, you’ve heard its theme used in a slow-motion montage at some point.
Not content with one film-defining score, Vangelis remained in the Hollywood system for the next two years to create what might as well be a genre-defining score for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The somber, ominous tone of Vangelis’ soundtrack to Scott’s cyberpunk dystopia is as unforgettable as the constant rain and impossible skyscrapers of the film’s visuals, and these days it seems impossible to separate them. It’s telling that, in the soundtrack to Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, the most impactful moments are when Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch directly reference Vangelis.
In more recent years, Vangelis continued composing, working on stage productions and more solo albums, occasionally returning to earlier works like his two iconic soundtracks to expand on their themes (like he did for the stage version of Chariots Of Fire). He also made it a career-long point to pay tribute to the culture of his home country, with Variety saying that Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis returned the favor this week in a statement that referred to Vangelis as “a pioneer of electronic sound.”