Vangelis, Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire Composer, Dead at 79

Photo: Rob Verhorst/Redferns

Vangelis, the Oscar-winning Greek composer and progressive rocker, has died at the age of 79. He died on the evening of May 17, his assistant Lefteris Zermas confirmed. Although the cause of death was not specified, the Greek newspaper OT reports that Vangelis was being treated in a French hospital for COVID-19. “Vangelis Papathanassiou is no longer with us. For the whole world, this sad news demonstrates that the world music scene has lost the international ‘Vangelis,’ the protagonist of electronic sound, of the Oscars, of Mythology and the hits,” Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a tweet translated by Rolling Stone. “For us Greeks, who know his second name was Odysseus, it means that he’s begun his long trip to the Chariots of Fire. From there, he’ll always send us his notes.”

Born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou in Volos, Greece, in 1943, the self-taught pianist rose to prominence with his pop band Forminx. The band, formed in 1963, played Beatles covers and rock and roll. Following the band’s split, Vangelis pivoted to film scoring and worked for hire on Greek films. A coup attempt in 1968 forced Vangelis to move to Paris, where he formed the progressive-rock quartet Aphrodite’s Child and earned a U.K. Top 30 hit for their single “Rain and Tears.” Although Vangelis enjoyed success with Aphrodite’s Child, he ultimately chose to leave the band to return to scoring for film and TV.

Known for his ambient, electronic synth sounds, Vangelis produced scores for films that would become famous in their own right. His theme for Chariots of Fire (1981) sold 3 million copies, spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year, and won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. His electronic score for Blade Runner in 1982 is universally acknowledged as a landmark achievement. Other notable scores include Costa-Gavras’s Missing (1982), Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Antarctica (1983), and Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). Most recently, he scored the Greek biopic El Greco (2007), which tells the story of Renaissance painter Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos. “We are part of the universe, and the music is the code,” Vangelis told NPR in 2016. “Music is science more than art, and it is the main code of the universe.”

Vangelis, Blade Runner Composer, Dead at 79