Yannis Markopoulos was born in Heracleion, Crete, on 18 March 1939. Both his mother, from the town of Sfakia, and his father, from the town of Ierapetra, were descendants of old Cretan families. His father practised law and later in life served as Prefect in the districts of Lassithi, Chania, Eurytania and Preveza. At the age of eight, Markopoulos began to learn to play the violin and the clarinet in the local band of Ierapetra. The traditional Cretan music in conjunction with the symphonic music he would hear from the radio at that time as well as the music of nearby Egypt formed his earliest and most decisive musical experiences.
After leaving high school in 1956, he went to Athens to study music at the Athens Conservatory, where he attended theory classes with the composer Yorgos Sklavos and violin classes with the violinist Joseph Bustidui, while at the same time he entered the Panteio University of Political and Economic Sciences. Later, he pursued his musical studies under the instruction of the composer Yannis Papaioannou, completing them in London in 1967 under the English composer Elisabeth Lutyens. It was here that he would compose "Sun the First" and the music for Shakespeare's "The Tempest", featuring Sir John Clemens and directed by David Jones, as well as the composite musical ritual "Behold the Bridegroom" (for two choirs, symphony orchestra, female singer and actors).
When he first arrived in Athens from Crete, Markopoulos brought with him a number of compositions he had written as an adolescent in his hometown. Those early melodies were later to become highly successful songs such as "Beyond the Sea", "Shattered Homes" and "Golden Words".
He continued to work on his musical compositions, at the same time coming into contact with the most vibrant elements of modern-day music, of Byzantine hymnography and of traditional songs from all over Greece and the Mediterranean, elements which set the composer's works apart. His youthful symphonic works were performed in London, Paris and Tokyo. Among the works of this period are "Three Dance Sketches", the first of the "Pyrrichioi Dances Á, Â, Ã, Ä," (out of the definitive 24), and "Oracles", all for symphony orchestra.
Markopoulos has also written music for the theatre, collaborating with many of Greece's directors such as Karolos Koun, Alexis Solomos, Minoas Volonakis, Spyros Evangelatos and others. He has also composed the music for plays by Aristophanes and Euripides (performed by the National Theatre of Greece), for plays by Shakespeare and Kazantzakis (performed by the Popular Theatre), for plays by Euripides and Menander and works from the Cretan Renaissance (performed by the Amphitheatre Theatre Company), for plays by Aristophanes and Chekhov (performed by the Art Theatre) and for plays performed by the Theatre Companies of Anna Synodinou, Manos Katrakis and others.
For the cinema, he composed the music for Nikos Koundouros' film "Young Aphrodites" (1962), for which he was awarded prizes in Germany and Japan as well as at the International Film Festival of Thessaloniki. He collaborated with the same director on the films "Vortex" and "Byron". He has collaborated with the director Jules Dassin in the films "Rehearsal" and "Women's Cry". In addition, he has composed the theme music for both Greek and foreign films including "Fear" by Kostas Manousakis, "The Olive Trees" and "Alexander's Death" by Dimitris Kollatos, "The Seventh "Day of Creation" by Vassilis Georgiadis, "Persecution", "No, Mr Johnson" and "The Fate of an Innocent" (the Music Award of the Thessaloniki Film Festival) by Grigoris Grigoriou, "Operation Apollon", "Queen of Spades" by Yorgos Skalenakis, "Beloved" by Yorgos Pan Kosmatos, and others.
From early in his career, Markopoulos has carved his own personal path through the ways of Greek music, fervently and dynamically proposing a "Return to the Roots". His proposal gradually took on the dimensions of an art movement. The parameters of this musical movement concurrently underpinned his philosophical views connected with his social propositions regarding life and art. The composer defines this movement as "a project for the future, consisting of elements drawn from the indestructible sources of our living tradition in combination with selected contemporary art data". Today, the most forward-looking creations in art-forms in Europe share the basis of this very same movement proposed by Markopoulos, with notable artists drawing their inspiration from the traditional, artistic products of the people with the aim of rendering new trends in their art.
During the 70s, Markopoulos formed an orchestral ensemble which did not exclude traditional Greek instruments. Thus, the piano was combined with the lyra for the first time. He staged performances in the "Lydra" and "Kyttaro" music-studios. He chose new singers (then unknown to the Greek public) mainly from the field of traditional music and others from the field of modern music and taught them meticulously to interpret his works. New life was breathed into the Greek "entechni" (art) musical creation, endowing it with a totally distinctive sound in combination with a fresh look at the poetry of Solomos, Seferis, Elytis, and with powerful lyrics by writer-poets such as Myris, Eleftheriou, Skourtis, Chronas, Virvos and others.
The works of that period include: "Sun the First", "Chronicle", "Nativeland", "Stratis Thalassinos", "Lifetime Service", "Emigrant Workers", "Independent Songs", "Thessalian Cycle". For many of his compositions the composer has written his own verses, among which "Zavara-Katra-Nemia" and "Hellada-Lengo". He began an arduous struggle against the military dictatorship and his songs were on the lips of everyone, becoming one with the rallying cry of the Youth Movement. The seat of this struggle was the "Lydra" music-studio. A significant role was played by the "rizitika" (traditional Cretan folksongs), specially arranged and orchestrated as they were by the composer, and particularly the song entitled "When Will There Be Fair Skies?".