9 Classical Music Works Inextricably Linked to the Olympics

Friday, August 05, 2016 - 12:00 AM

The Olympic Games haven't only inspired athletes to perform their best but artists as well. (lazyllama/Shutterstock)

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.

Produced by:

Michael Shobe


More in:

Comments [4]

Swati sharma from India

Hello, I'm from Bloomtimes. I also working on tech apps related website. I liked your way of explaining things in easy way and I really appreciate your hard work. I really want to feature tech bloggers like you on my blog. Thank you
garageband for pc

Oct. 20 2016 02:54 AM
George from belfast, northern ireland

I'm reminded of this special you all did before the London Olympics. Brilliant!


Aug. 16 2016 07:01 PM
David from Flushing

The opening section of the "Bugler's Dream" always reminded me of "Deck the Halls."

Aug. 07 2016 07:16 PM
Peter D Gardner from Australia

Thus is a fascinating piece by WQXR. As it happens I made a radio program about Olympian music in 2012 (London Olypics) for Vision Australia Radio which was re-broadcast on 3MBS Melbourne in 2013. Some of the music I chose is on WQXR's list but some is not. My list, in order played, was:
Vanghélis Papathanassiou (Vengelis) Chariots of Fire
Spyros Samaras, Olympic Anthem. 2012 closing ceremony. The London Welsh Male Voice Choir, The London Welsh Rugby Choir, the London Symphony Orchestra.
Michael Torke - Javelin. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra cond. Yoel Levi. Commissioned by the Atlanta Cttee for Olympics in celebration of ASO's 50th anniversary season. 1996 Games
Elena Kats-Chernin - Deep Sea Dreaming. Sydney Children's Choir and Symphony Orchestra, cond. Simone Young. Recorded in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. (for the Sydney 2000 Games)
David Stanhope - Games 2000 Fanfare. Sydney Symphony Orchestra, cond. David Stanhope. Recorded in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.
Sir Edward Elgar - Salut d'Amour (Love's greeting). Michael Hell, cello, Micaela Gelius (London 2012)
Evelyn Glennie - Shadow Behind the Iron Sun (Dame Evelyn Glennie who led more than 1000 drummers at the London opening ceremony but didn't really get a chance to shine as a musician.)
Evelyn Glennie was Co-Artistic Director of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002 and commissioned Greek born New Zealander John Psathas to write a double concerto for percussion, piano and orchestra for those games - View from Olympus.
Sir Hubert Parry Jerusalem (London 2012)
Xinghai Xian - Yellow River Yangqin Concerto for the forthcoming beijing games
Richard Strauss - Olympische Hymne (1936 Berlin)
Heitor Villa-Lobos - Bachianas Brasileiras no 2 - IV Toccata O Trenzinho do Caipira (Little Train of Caipira) to take us to 2016 in Rio

Aug. 05 2016 09:34 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About WQXR Blog

Read WQXR's coverage of classical music news, trends, commentary and more here at the WQXR Blog.