Merrin Lazyan produces weekly shows and features for WQXR, including Reflections from the Keyboard, the Young Artists Showcase, and the Classical Report (which recently featured her Music in the White House series). She is ...
9 Classical Music Works Inextricably Linked to the Olympics
Friday, August 05, 2016 - 12:00 AM
Athletic feats take center stage at the Olympics, but classical music has always been an important element of the games. From the tradition of playing national anthems to larger-than-life performances at the opening and closing ceremonies to accompanying events such as gymnastics and figure skating, Olympic music captures the energy and grandeur of the event. (You can listen to how music from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman buoyed Tenley Albright in her gold medal-winning performance in figure skating in the audio file above.)
However, during the first half of the 20th century, arts was not just an accompaniment to the Olympic experience, medals were awarded for works of art in five categories — architecture, literature, painting, sculpture and music — and the panels of judges included esteemed composers, including Stravinsky, Ravel and Fauré.
In recognition of this tradition, here are of some of the best-known pieces of classical music ever written for the Olympics:
A Greek composer known for his operas, Spyridon Samaras composed the Olympic Hymn, performed for the first time at the opening ceremonies of the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens. The anthem — a choral cantata with lyrics by Greek poet Kostis Palamas — begat a tradition of hosting nations commissioning a special anthem for the event.
Danish composer Rudolph Simonsen won the bronze medal in the music competition during the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam for his Symphony No. 2: Hellas (he was the only composer awarded a medal by the jury that year). He later went on to head the Royal Danish Academy of Music.
Although not originally written for the Olympics, Josef Suk’s Toward a New Life was submitted for consideration at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Suk first began writing this patriotic march in 1919, when the Czech army was called to protect the southern districts of Slovakia. He later extended the march and scored it for a symphony orchestra. It won the top prize in L.A. (silver).
Canadian composer Jean Weinzweig won silver during the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, the highest medal honored that year in the instrumental category, for his Divertimenti for Solo Flute and Strings. Weinzweig later joined the music faculty at the University of Toronto.
In addition to being America’s most iconic film composer, John Williams is also the most prolific Olympics composer, having created themes for four Olympic Games. His Olympic Fanfare and Theme, written for the 1984 Olympic Games in L.A., marked the first time a major American composer had contributed a lasting fanfare for the event.
In 1996, Williams's Olympic Fanfare was fused with Leo Arnaud’s equally recognizable Bugler’s Dream, a piece that was not initially written for the games but came to symbolize them when the Olympic telecasts adopted his stately tune in 1958.
Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis was inspired by the ancient Olympians (Zeus, Apollo) when he wrote his Canto Olympico for the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. A symphonic-orchestral suite in seven movements, it is both simple and timeless.
In addition to Theodorakis's contribution for the 1992 Games, Spanish opera star Montserrat Caballé was tasked with creating a song for the global event. She turned to Queen lead singer (and opera lover) Freddie Mercury. Together, they co-wrote and co-performed not just one song, but an entire album. The title track, “Barcelona,” with its full symphonic orchestration, was a pop-classical crossover hit.
Javelin, written by American composer Michael Torke, was performed during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Inspired by the track and field discipline, the piece is scored for a large orchestra, and its swift and playful pacing captures the movement in air of these light spears.