Last time, we listened to some music written for recent Olympics. Some of those pieces were written for the opening or closing ceremonies, and some of them were composed for television broadcasts.
But did you know that the Olympics weren’t always just a sports competition?
From 1912 until 1948, there were arts competitions, as well! Artists could win medals in architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, and music. The Olympics called these five categories the “Pentathlon of the Muses.”
Eventually, the artistic competitions were discontinued. Because the Olympics were restricted to amateurs—people who had never made money with their art—most of the world’s most celebrated artists weren’t eligible, which meant that many of the works that won weren’t that impressive. Even though some of the music was pretty good, only two of the pieces that won Olympic medals have gone on to be performed more than once or twice in concert halls.
At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, Danish composer Rudolph Simonsen won a bronze medal for his Symphony No. 2 Hellas. This short symphony is written in the Romantic tradition and features three movements, each of which portrays a scene or character from Ancient Greece:
I. The Oresteia
based on the trilogy of tragic plays by Aeschylus
II. Solitude by the Temples
idyllic music which perhaps evokes the image of an Ancient Greek pondering philosophy on the Acropolis
III. Pallas Athena
a brass fanfare announces the beginning of contrapuntal music paying tribute to the Greek goddess of victory
Czech composer Joseph Suk took home the silver medal in music composition at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics with his piece Toward a New Life. One of Dvořák's favorite students, Suk even married the great composer’s daughter.
A noble trumpet fanfare introduces this joyous march, originally composed for chorus and orchestra (but often performed as a purely orchestral piece). The lyrics pay tribute to Suk’s native Czechia, calling on its people to be a light to the world, and the piece remains popular among the Czechs to this day.
The Modern Cultural Olympiad
Although the arts competitions were discontinued in 1948, their spirit lives on in the Cultural Olympiad. In each city that hosts the Olympics, a cultural festival celebrating art and music is held either before or during the games.
Several wonderful pieces have been commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad.
In 2002, John Williams premiered Call of the Champions with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The choir mostly sings a wordless melody, but they punctuate the more exciting moments with the Olympic motto: “Citius! Altius! Fortius!” (“Faster! Higher! Stronger!”)
Michael Torke was inspired by track and field athletes to compose Javelin for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The tuneful melodies and driving rhythms help convey the exciting spirit of the sport.
When Philip Glass was asked to compose a piece to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Olympics in 2004, he created Orion. Glass hoped that this musical celebration of the constellations would remind listeners that all humans, wherever they live, gaze at the same starry sky each night.
Orion is a 90-minute work divided into ten movements, each depicting a different region of the planet. Musical instruments from around the world are used to give each movement a distinct character. In this recording of the first movement (“Australia”), you can hear the low droning growl of the didgeridoo, an instrument invented by indigenous Australians.