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A Know-It-All's Guide To Olympic Music

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 (above). 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.

It's always impressive to succinctly connect the pop and classical worlds, and there's no better place to do that than with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. For the opening ceremony, rocker Freddie Mercury, the immensely gifted lead singer for Queen, was slated to pair off with Montserrat Caballé, one of the supreme opera stars of the 20th century, for the Olympic theme song "Barcelona." Sadly, Mercury died in 1991 and the video (below) was shot in Barcelona to celebrate the arrival of the Olympic Flag. Mercury and Caballé's performance was broadcast during the 1992 television coverage. Sure, the song itself is pure camp, but it provides a perfect excuse to casually throw out a reference or two to Lawrence Levine's book Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America.

Music At The 2012 Games

It's important to be up on the latest. As in Olympics past, music will again play a significant role in this year's proceedings. The age of instant gratification has caught up with the ancient games, as this year the music for both the opening and closing ceremonies will be released online promptly after each event. Thank goodness.

Filmmaker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), the artistic director of the opening ceremony, and the DJ duo known as Underworld designed and compiled a "soundtrack" for the opening ceremony. The Telegraph reports that Boyle's 86-song playlist has been leaked.

Never mind that it reads like retro Britpop night at your local dance club, with songs like Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax," New Order's "Blue Monday" and Soul II Soul's "Back to Life." There are a number of surprising juxtapositions among the other British selections, including the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen" (yes, she will be there), Elgar's "Nimrod" and Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" (also known as the theme to The Exorcist).

The closing ceremony, backed by the excellent London Symphony Orchestra, presents a vaguely titled program called "A Symphony of British Music." I haven't seen that playlist, but something tells me that, alas, the classic Bugler's Dream won't be on it.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.