A Know-It-All’s Guide To Olympic Music
by Tom Huizenga (via NPR) – In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, a friendly little assortment of international games called the Olympics begins in London Friday.
That means conversations at water coolers and cocktail parties will soon be overtaken by all things Olympic. So there’s precious little time to bone up on your Olympic fanfares and hymns.
Let’s start with the classic. People will be impressed when you inform them that the real title to this Olympic fanfare is actually “Bugler’s Dream.” They’ll nod when you remind them it was the theme music for ABC’s Olympic coverage beginning in the late 1960s.
The music was written by Leo Arnaud, a French-born American composer also known for his movie scores. He was nominated for an Oscar for arranging the music to the 1964 film The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
In strict classical circles, it will be important to point out that Arnaud, originally from Lyon, studied with Maurice Ravel. And it’s quite alright to scoff at composer John Williams, who co-opted the music by attaching it to his own “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” composed for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. (Williams’ music starts, jarringly, at 46 seconds into the video above.)
It’s All Greek To Me
If you’re among history buffs, or anyone claiming Greek heritage, be sure to mention the Olympic Hymn (below), written by Spyridon Samaras to words by poet Kostis Palamas. This will appeal to Olympian purists when you tell them it was performed for the first time at the 1896 Athens Olympics and will, again, be heard at this summer’s opening ceremony, immediately following the raising of the Olympic flag. It couldn’t hurt to memorize the hymn’s opening lines:
O Ancient immortal Spirit, pure father of beauty, of greatness and of truth,
Descend, reveal yourself and flash like lightning here, within the glory of your own earth and sky.
At running and at wrestling and at throwing, shine in the momentum of noble contests,
And crown with the unfading branch and make the body worthy and iron-like.
Another Greek, Mikis Theodorakis, was summoned to write music for the 1992 Barcelona games. In mixed company, commenting on the appropriateness of the “Greek chorus” aspect of the movement “Ode to Zeus,” will imply that you know the entire commissioned composition, Canto Olympico, like the back of your hand.
Samaras’ Olympic Hymn triggered the tradition of commissioning such music for each Olympics. The ability to casually toss out a few more modern Olympic commissions will aide in the appearance of expertise.
A little closer to our own time, don’t forget about Czech composer Josef Suk, whose soul-stirring Toward a New Life was written for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and won him a silver medal. Bonus points for interjecting, particularly among classical music pretenders, that Suk was the son-in-law of the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak.
Among the younger demographic, 1996 seems like an ice age ago, but it was indeed the year Atlanta hosted the Olympics, which inspired Michael Torke to compose the aptly titled Javelin (above). The music’s short flashes and sweeps, Torke says, reminded him of “something in flight, a light spear thrown, perhaps, but not in the sense of a weapon, more in the spirit of a competition.”
Philip Glass is hip in almost any context. The prolific and expeditious composer (who once worked as a cabbie and plumber) was tapped to write something for the torch lighting ceremony at the 1984 Los Angeles games. He came up with a five-minute piece called The Olympian (below), and later commented: “I can think of no event to compare with the Olympic Games which makes us so conscious of our shared humanity, our common fate.” Glass also composed music for the 2004 Greek Olympics. The overly ambitious Orion featured collaborations with seven other composers including Ravi Shankar and Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso.
If someone brings up Leonard Bernstein for whatever reason, be sure to interrupt, noting that while Bernstein (always poised for a party) didn’t write any music specifically for the Olympics, he did compose a piece for the 1981 International Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden. If appropriate, mention that the text Bernstein used (by Günter Kunert) contains the line “Fight as friends, not as foes,” which should be noted as useful advice around the office.