The prize was created by Yehudi Menuhin in 1975 "to honor musicians or musical institutions whose activities have contributed to the enrichment and development of music and have served peace, understanding between peoples, international cooperation, and other purposes proclaimed by the United Nations Charter and UNESCO's Constitution."
An important composer since the 1950s, Theodorakis is also a major figure in modern Greek history: he led the resistance to the fascist military government that took control of Greece in 1967 and has served in several government positions since the junta fell in 1974. He is the composer of the scores for the films Zorba the Greek and Serpico and of songs, opera, symphonies, and chamber music.
Previous winners of the IMC UNESCO prize include Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, and Hebert von Karajan. Senegalese singer and composer Youssou N'Dour won in 2004.