Best Olympic music of all time
From national anthems to the Olympic hymn, music has always been a prominent feature of the Olympic Games. To celebrate Tokyo 2020 Michael Beek delves into the history of this iconic sporting event to find the best music inspired by the Olympic Games
In the early years music was quite literally an Olympic event, with medals awarded to new compositions in a handful of categories –though Josef Suk is the only familiar name to have ever taken part (see below).
Today the ‘Cultural Olympiad’ sees artists play their part in the Olympics, with commissions and events taking place in the lead up to the opening ceremony and ending at the closing ceremony.
Music has always had a ceremonial role in the games, right back to its ‘modern’ roots in 1896 and surely, too, in the ancient games that inspired them.
There have been countless official songs, opening ceremony performances and alike, replete with bands (both of the brass and rock variety), but there have also been some notable orchestral and choral works written for or inspired by the Olympic Games.
Human endeavour, the spirit of competition, triumph over adversity…such mythic concepts have been a draw for many a composer over the years. Here’s a short guide to some notable efforts.
Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade (1734)
Okay, so this opera pre-dates the Modern Olympics, but an ancient games is the backdrop to the drama set in Olympia.
Spyridon Samaras: Olympic Hymn (Athens 1896)
The first Olympic Games (of the ‘modern’ variety anyway) saw the commissioning and premiere performance of this choral cantata. It features a libretto by Kostis Palamas and wasn’t officially recognised as an Olympic Anthem until 1958. Several other ‘Olympic Hymns’ have been composed since…
Suk: Toward a New Life (Los Angeles 1932)
Suk’s short orchestral work, which has a fabulous opening fanfare, won a silver medal in the orchestral composition category at the 1932 Olympics. He’s the only familiar name to have taken part in one of the Olympics’ early art competitions.
Walter Bradley-Keeler: Hymne Olympique (Los Angeles 1932)
The Samaras Hymn appeared to fall out of favour in the years following its premiere, so the International Olympic Committee launched a competition to find a new anthem. American pianist Walter Bradley-Keeler won and the result went down well when it was performed at the 1932 opening ceremony.
R Strauss: Olympische Hymne (Berlin 1936)
Bradley-Keeler’s Hymn was still warm when the German Olympic Committee approached Richard Strauss to compose another for the Berlin Olympics. The IOC, however, had decided the American’s Hymn would be adopted as the official anthem moving forward… That didn’t stop them, though, and a separate German anthem was permitted. The Berlin Phil (one of the best orchestras in the world) did the honours at the opening ceremony.
Leo Arnaud: Bugler’s Dream (Winter Olympics, Innsbruck 1964)
Arnaud was a French-American film composer and this very familiar short piece wasn’t actually written with the Olympics in mind. It was actually commissioned by Felix Slatkin for a 1958 album called Charge! and forms part of a larger work called The Charge Suite. In 1964 ABC Television utilised it for its coverage of the 1964 Winter Olympics, and it has been used widely ever since.
Shostakovich: Festive Overture (Moscow 1980)
Written in 1947 to mark the 30th anniversary of the ‘October Revolution’, Shostakovich’s colourful work was adopted as the official theme of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The event itself is remembered with some controversy, thanks to a boycott in relation to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
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Leonard Bernstein: Olympic Hymn (Olympic Congress, Baden Baden 1981)
Bernstein was commissioned to write this work for the 1981 International Olympic Congress, which took place in Baden Baden, Austria in September 1981. The Hymn, which features words by Günter Kunnert, premiered at the opening of the congress – which was attended by Pope John Paul II, HRH Prince Philip and the Secretary General of the United Nations.
Philip Glass: The Olympian (Los Angeles 1984)
The full title of Glass’s five-minute work is The Olympian: Lighting of the Torch and Closing, and it was commissioned as a key part of the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
John Williams: Olympic Fanfare and Theme (Los Angeles 1984)
Also commissioned for the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, it was premiered on 28 July by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the composer. John Williams’s own later arrangement added Arnaud’s Bugler’s Dream as an opening fanfare, confusing some listeners into thinking it, too, was written by Williams. This commission marked the beginning of a long partnership between John Williams and the Olympic Games.
We named John Williams one of the greatest film composers ever
Vangelis: Chariots of Fire (Winter Olympics, Sarajevo 1984)
Of course this was composed for a film, which featured the 1924 London Olympics, but it was officially adopted as the theme for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Vangelis’s work has become synonymous with sport, and races in particular. Oft-used, referenced and lampooned over the decades.
John Williams: The Olympic Spirit (Seoul 1988)
After the success of his official theme for the 1984 Olympics, American broadcaster NBC approached John Williams for music to accompany its coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The composer was no stranger to NBC, though, having written its Nightly News music (known as The Mission) in 1985.
Mikis Theodorakis: Canto Olympico (Barcelona 1992)
This six-movement symphonic oratorio was commissioned by the IOC for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was perhaps somewhat overshadowed by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé’s epic song‘Barcelona’ that year and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song ‘Amigos Para Siempre’ (recorded by Sarah Brightman and José Carreras).
John Williams: Summon the Heroes (Atlanta 1996)
The Olympics returned to the US in 1996 for the Centennial Olympic Games, and so the IOC commissioned John Williams once again for an American anthem. The result is one of the composer’s most thrilling. Dedicated to trumpeter Tim Morrison, the work was performed for the press in London earlier in 1996, but officially premiered at the opening ceremony on 19 July 1996 by the Atlanta Symphony and Williams.
Michael Torke: Javelin (Atlanta 1996)
This was actually commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad to mark the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony and was premiered by the orchestra in September 1994. The title of the work connects with how the composer saw him music, a vision of something taking flight.
John Williams: Call of the Champions (Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City 2002)
Once again John Williams was brought on board by the IOC, this time for the Winter Olympics which took place in Salt Lake City, Utah. Williams composed this exciting piece for choir and orchestra, the words based on the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger). He added a forth word, Clarius (Clarity), for the finale. The work was premiered on the composer’s 70th birthday (8 February 2002) by the Utah Symphony and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Philip Glass: Orion (Athens 2004)
Glass returned to the Olympics in 2004, with this dynamic commission for the Cultural Olympiad. It brought together musicians from all over the world, and each section titled for different countries. The premiere, on 3 June 2004, included Ravi Shankar, UAKTI, Mark Atkins, Michael Riesman and The Philip Glass Ensemble.
James MacMillan: Fanfare Upon One Note (London 2012)
MacMillan’s short fanfare was first performed at Music Nation: A Sporting Fanfare, a special concert held in Glasgow in March 2012. Commissioned ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, it was next performed at the BBC Proms by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.
Elbow: First Steps (London 2012)
This catchy six-minute anthem was penned by Guy Garvey and his bandmates from Elbow for the BBC’s coverage of the London 2021 Olympics. It brings together the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, NovaVox gospel choir and the band and became a familiar presence during the games.
Love watching the Games and singing to the national anthems? You can find some national anthem lyrics here
About Michael Beek
Michael Beek is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He joined the team in May 2018, following ten years as a freelance film music journalist and fifteen years at St George's Bristol – where he was everything from Box Office Supervisor to the venue's Content & Engagement Manager. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of Music from the Movies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records. Also a presenter, Michael has hosted concerts and live events for Bristol Film Festival and St George's Bristol, plus Debbie Wiseman's 'Music and Words from Wolf Hall' at venues across the UK.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.