The best classical music featured in winter sports throughout history

To celebrate Beijing 2022 we name the best pieces of music linked to winter sporting

Torvill and Dean
Published: February 4, 2022 at 1:34 pm

Over the next two weeks the Winter Olympics will be taking place in and around Beijing. To celebrate this fortnight of skiing, skating, curling and all, we recommend six pieces that, in one way or another, have a Winter Olympics connection.

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Ravel’s Boléro

Though Great Britain has since tasted Winter Olympic gold medal success in curling and the skeleton bob, back in the 1970s and ’80s, hopes rested entirely on figure skating: John Curry in 1976; Robin Cousins in 1980; and, most famously, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in 1984. The music that accompanied them as they glided graciously to gold in Sarajevo was a shortened version of Ravel’s Boléro, whose climax saw the pair collapse dramatically onto the ice. An unprecedented number of sixes from the judges followed.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol

Though everyone remembers Boléro, no-one wins an Olympic figure skating gold with just routine. In 1984, Torvill and Dean prefaced their Ravel with a paso doble danced to the sound of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol – a sythesised version, though, with no violin solo. In this instance, Dean played the part of a bull-fighter with Torvill as his cape. The judges loved this one too.

Fonteyn’s Pop Looks Bach

Ask people who Sam Fonteyn is, or get them to whistle Pop Looks Bach and you’ll probably get blank looks and shrugged shoulders. Ask them to sing the BBC Ski Sunday theme tune, however, and you’re in business. Fonteyn wrote his catchy piece for bustling strings and triumphant timps for Boosey and Hawkes in 1970, eight years before Ski Sunday brought downhill and slalom to our TV screens. As a choice for a theme tune it was inspired, however, instantly conjuring up images of snowy alpine slopes.

Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony

And talking of alpine slopes… Though he himself hated sport, Richard Strauss boasted Winter Olympic credentials in different ways. His home, for instance, was in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, host of the games in 1936. And then, there’s the fact that he both wrote and composed the Olympic Hymn for that year’s Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. As has there been any finer musical depiction of all things mountainous that his dramatic and atmospheric Alpine Symphony, composed in 1915? We think not.

Waldteufel’s The Skaters’ Waltz

The most famous work actually to depict a winter sport has to be this charming short waltz written in 1882 by the French composer Emile Waldteufel. Admittedly, it has the feel more of a family enjoying a jolly afternoon on a frozen lake than short-track speed skaters haring round and crashing into each other at fast speeds on an Olympic rink, but the ‘weee bonk’ motif heard regularly in the strings, as skaters fall on their backsides, could apply equally to both.

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Sibelius’s Lonely Ski Trail

For skiers, meanwhile, there’s Sibelius’s Lonely Ski Trail for strings, harp and narrator, composed in 1925. Cross-country rather than downhill skiing is very much what the Finnish composer had in mind, as his softly lugubrious music accompanies words that tell us about a trail that leads ‘away into the depths of the forest’ and ‘over hills and steeps, over bogs where the new snow flies’, with the skier’s thoughts similarly heading into deeper, darker recesses. A world away from the snow flurries and fast action of Pop Looks Bach.

Authors

Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.

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