Aug 4, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Tomorrow, the world will watch as Rio de Janeiro opens the 31st Olympic Games. For Americans viewing the ceremony through the television screen, the music of Leo Arnaud and John Williams will play heavily into the way we experience the Olympics.

The role of music in the Olympics has a long history. The games have often provided a chance for a host country to champion some of its greatest composers on an international stage, and everyone from Richard Strauss to Philip Glass have answered that call.

Though as ingrained as music is in the ceremony and broadcast of the games, early on it was conceived as a part of the competition itself. The ancient Greek games often involved musical accompaniment to the athletic events. Pierre de Coubertin, who was founder of the Olympics in the modern era that started in 1896, wanted to continue that tradition with the inclusion of music and art in the revived games.

Olympic PotAn Ancient Greek pot showing a flute player accompanying athletic competition

According to William K. Guegold’s 100 Years of Olympic Music, de Coubertin wrote after the 1896 games in Athens, “Fashions have undergone many changes over 2,000 years, but music has remained the factor which best conveys the emotion within a crowd, and which best accompanies the amplitude of a great spectacle.” In 1910, de Coubertin wrote that he wanted future games to embody refinement and beauty. The end result was the inclusion of arts competitions starting in 1912, nicknamed “The Pentathlon of the Muses,” where artists were invited to present and earn medals for their work in architecture, music, literature, sculpture and painting.

Judging a painting or a piece of music is inherently more subjective than awarding the fastest sprinter. Whether any submission was medal worthy was left to the discretion of the judging panel. During the 1924 games, the judges decided to not give out any medals, and in 1932 they awarded only one, a silver medal, to Czech composer Josef Suk.

Following the 1948 Olympics, the arts competitions were halted. Guegold writes that the expense of the music competitions, which required hiring a full orchestra to perform all of the submissions, had become too expensive for the Olympic Committee. Additionally, most of the more established composers preferred to be on the judging panel rather than submitting a piece for competition, which left the field watered down.

The arts contests were rethought and replaced by the Cultural Olympiads, which are a showcase of art and music that runs concurrently with the games. While no medals are at stake, the Olympics continue to be a musical showcase for some featured composers and an inspiration for others. Below is a look at some the familiar names in the concert hall whose music has played a role in Olympic history.

Gabriel Fauré: Hymn to Apollo

The “Hymn to Apollo” melody was one of the Ancient Greek Delphic Hymns. These hymns were discovered by French archaeologists inscribed on stone tablets and are believed to be the oldest surviving notated musical composition where the composer is known by name. The melodies were uncovered in 1893, just one year before the first Olympic Committee met to discuss reviving the Ancient Greek games in a modern format. At that meeting in 1894, the attendees listened to Gabriel Fauré’s arrangement of the melody, undoubtedly for the symbolic linkage.

Richard Strauss: Olympische Hymne

Ahead of the 1936 Olympics, German Olympic Committee President Theodor Lewald was offered the musical theme written for the Los Angeles games. Lewald rejected the offer, believing that Germany as a cradle of great music could produce a better anthem for the Berlin games. Lewald turned to Strauss, Germany’s most esteemed living composer.

By most accounts, Strauss wasn’t much of a fan of the project and was ambivalent towards the Nazi leadership who spent time revising the libretto they selected for him so that it reflected more “National Socialist spirit.” In his book Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936, David Clay Large notes that the fact Strauss completed the piece in about six weeks “suggests that he did not take undue pains with the work at hand.” More than a few music critics and historians have suggested Strauss phoned it in. In writing to one of his regular collaborators, the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, Strauss writes, “I’m killing time during the slack Advent season by composing an Olympic hymn for the proletarians.”

Nonetheless, German leadership championed the piece and proclaimed that they wanted to make it the official Olympic hymn of all time. However, none of the host countries of the post-WWII Olympics seemed to think that was a very good idea. 

Jean Sibelius: Song of the Athenians

Jean Sibelius’ musical contribution to the Olympic Games was not the result of a commission like many on this list. In 1952, the Finnish capital Helsinki hosted the Summer Games. Ever the patriot, Sibelius took it on himself to arrange an existing piece of his, “Song of the Athenians” for marching band during the games. The arrangement was used in the closing ceremonies as the flag of nations left the stadium.

Carl Orff: Salute to Youth 

For the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the Munich-native Carl Orff was tapped to write music for the opening ceremony. Orff created a miniature opera called Gruss der Jugend, which was based off an old English canon, Rota. The 1972 games were actually the second Olympics for which Orff wrote music, as the composer scored largely incidental and accompanying music for the 1936 games.

Leonard Bernstein: Olympic Hymn

Like Gabriel Fauré’s contribution to this list, Leonard Bernstein’s Olympic Hymn was not composed for use in the ceremonies and games but was instead written to be performed at a very important meeting of Olympics officials. In 1981, the International Olympic Congress was meeting in Baden-Baden, West Germany to discuss the future of the games. In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Moscow games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There was also fear that the Soviet Union would return the boycott in 1984 when the games were held in Los Angeles. The Olympic Congress feared the credibility and viability of the games was at stake going into that meeting. As part of a symbolic call for unity and peace, the Congress included music by Leonard Bernstein written for the occasion.

Philip Glass: The Olympian - Lighting of the Torch and Closing

The Olympian was the result of a commission by the 1984 Olympic Committee for the opening of the 1984 games in Los Angeles. “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 writes in a note about the commission. “The torch lighting ceremony strikes me as the essential symbol, the summing up, of this, our shared consciousness.”

The Olympian is actually one of two works Glass set out to compose that would accompany the 1984 Olympics. Glass was one of six composers from six countries that collaborated on a daylong, five act opera called the CIVIL warS that would accompany the Los Angeles Olympics. The piece was based on text written by Robert Wilson about the American Civil War, and the international group of composers coming together was meant to embody the aspirations of international unity to which the Olympics appeal. However, funding became a stumbling block for the project, though “The Rome Section” written by Glass was completed and later recorded.

In 2004, the Athens Cultural Olympiad commissioned Glass to write a work for a global audience for the occasion of the Summer Games. The resulting concert work was a 10-movement piece called Orion, which combined musical traditions and instruments from across the world. The name references the star constellation, and Glass writes “It seems that almost every civilization has created myths and taken inspiration from Orion… In this way the stars unite us, regardless of country, ethnicity and even time.”