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

Jul 26, 2012
Originally published on July 26, 2012 6:24 pm

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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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. If you plan to tune in to any coverage of the Summer Olympics in the coming days, you'll probably hear some of this...


CORNISH: ...and this.


CORNISH: And, oh, yeah, you might hear this too.


DURAN DURAN: (Singing) The reflex is an only child. He's waiting by the park. The reflex...

CORNISH: But that last song, you may only hear if you catch the opening ceremonies tomorrow night. A supposed playlist of the songs intended for that extravaganza showed up in the media a few days ago. We're going to talk about that in a little bit and give you enough information about the tradition of Olympic music to wow your friends with NPR's classical music producer Tom Huizenga. Hi there, Tom.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Hey, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: So what's the deal with all the different songs, playlists? Is there an official Olympic composition every time?

HUIZENGA: Well, not exactly every time, but, you know, we might want to go back a few years. And so, you know, if you're among history buffs or actually anyone claiming Greek heritage of any kind, you should be sure to mention the "Olympic Hymn" written by Spyridon Samaras. He got the ball rolling as far as writing music especially for the Olympics goes. And this will appeal to all Olympian purists, for sure, when you tell them it was performed for the first time at the 1896 Athens Olympics, and it will be heard this time around during the opening ceremony immediately following the raising of the Olympic flag.


CORNISH: Ah, what a chorus. So now, I want to bring in music that maybe the rest of us here in the U.S. will recognize, right?


HUIZENGA: Now, we're talking Olympic music, but can you name this piece?

CORNISH: Absolutely not.


HUIZENGA: OK. Everyone is going to be impressed with you, Audie, when you tell them that the real title to this beloved Olympic fanfare is actually the "Bugler's Dream." And, of course, they'll nod in affirmation when you remind them that it was the theme music for ABC's Olympic coverage beginning in the late 1960s.


HUIZENGA: The music is by Leo Arnaud, a French-born American composer, also a movie score composer. Now, if you're among classical music buffs, it's going to be crucial to point out that Arnaud was a pupil of Maurice Ravel. Also, you might want to take a risk and scoff at John Williams, the contemporary composer who actually co-opted this music of Arnaud by attaching it to his own Olympic fanfare and theme, which he composed for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Audie, let's hear this kind of unsightly scene that John Williams has imposed between Arnaud's music and his own.


CORNISH: Ah, they're sort of sewn together a little bit.

HUIZENGA: Yeah. It's - to me, it's like somebody dumping 7UP in your champagne. It's just not quite right.


CORNISH: Now, John Williams isn't the only contemporary composer who was, you know, called on to write Olympic music, right?

HUIZENGA: Oh, no. You mean, you should be ready to toss off a few names of other, you know, important composers who've written pieces related to the Olympics. There's Philip Glass. He's hip in almost any circle. So he's written two pieces, one for the torch lighting of the 1984 L.A. games, a piece called "The Olympian." And there's - I particularly like Michael Torke's "Javelin" for the Atlanta Olympics.

CORNISH: Now, Olympic music isn't always classical, though, right?

HUIZENGA: No. Remember this one?




HUIZENGA: Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: I recognize the voice, right? Freddie Mercury? It has to be.

HUIZENGA: That's right. You know, it's very impressive if you can succinctly these days point out the intersections between the pop and classical music world when there's no better place than with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which inspired an unlikely connection between two virtuoso singers: Freddie Mercury - he's the immensely gifted lead singer from Queen, of course - and Montserrat Caballe, one of the supreme opera singers of the 20th century. And you might think like many of us that this song was performed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but...

CORNISH: Oh, you'd be wrong there, right?


HUIZENGA: You'd be wrong. And you'd be so much smarter if you can quickly recount the devastating backstory, and that was that the duet, which we're hearing, was recorded and performed ahead of the 1992 games. It was slated for the opening ceremony. Freddie Mercury died eight months before, so TV audiences were shown a performance the two taped earlier in Barcelona.


CABALLE: (Singing) Now, my dream is slowly coming true.

CORNISH: Tom, hearing this music, it makes me wonder sort of how difficult it is to come up with music around the games. Is it that they're pulled in so many different directions between the host country and appealing to the whole world? Is it the modern and the new? How come sometimes it just seems cheesy looking back?

HUIZENGA: Well, it can, and I think you've hit on a good point that people are pulled in many different directions. For the 2004 Athens Olympics, Philip Glass was pulled in at least seven different directions because he has seven different composers to help him write this big music piece that was really, you know, it was overambitious. But along with the formerly composed pieces for the Olympics, there's the pop music, like we've just heard, and that becomes kind of the soundtrack, and that just reflects the style of music that we're hearing today.

CORNISH: So that leads us to this year's Olympic music because the British paper The Telegraph has published what it calls a leaked playlist of music...

HUIZENGA: Quote, unquote, "leaked."

CORNISH: Leaked, right.


CORNISH: So what's on it? What are the threads we see here?

HUIZENGA: Amazingly, as it turns out, the whole playlist reads like a Brit pop-retro night at your local dance club. It's filled with British music. You've got Duran Duran, whom we heard earlier, The Jam, Blur, Eurythmics, Soul II Soul, and there are a number of surprisingly strange bedfellows in the list too. Now, who knows what will be done with them, but there's the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen."


SEX PISTOLS: (Singing) God save the queen. She ain't no human being.

HUIZENGA: And the queen will be at the opening ceremony so...

CORNISH: That won't be awkward at all, yeah.

HUIZENGA: Of course not. Well...


CORNISH: I'm sure she's heard it before.

HUIZENGA: And then juxtaposing that with Elgar's "Nimrod" from the "Enigma Variations."


HUIZENGA: And then...


HUIZENGA: ...Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax."


FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD: (Singing) Relax, don't do it, when you want to go to it. Relax...

CORNISH: That's actually pretty awesome.


HOLLYWOOD: (Singing) ...don't do it, when you want to come. Relax, don't do it...

CORNISH: All right. Tom, in fairness, few people...


CORNISH: ...reportedly have attended the opening ceremony rehearsals, right? So we don't know for sure so...

HUIZENGA: We do not know, but they caught up with a few coming back on the tram, and they promised to be tightlipped about it. But one guy did say it was magnificently bonkers. You know, they're describing it as the British celebrating the British. And, Audie, that's in itself that's got to be funny.


HOLLYWOOD: (Singing) ...come.

CORNISH: Tom Huizenga, thank you so much for talking with us.

HUIZENGA: It's been a pleasure.


CORNISH: Tom Huizenga is NPR's classical music producer. More of his thoughts about Olympic music are at


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.