The Summer Olympics were originally scheduled to happen in Tokyo right now. They’ve been postponed until next summer, but we can still celebrate the spirit of the Olympic Games by exploring some of the music they’ve inspired over the years!
The Olympics have always used music to celebrate the achievements of the world’s greatest athletes. Often, the host country asks a composer to create a piece of music as the theme for that year’s Olympics, and maybe even music for the opening and closing ceremonies.
Some of the composers who have written Olympic music over the years include Richard Strauss, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Torke, Philip Glass, John Williams, and even Freddie Mercury!
Olympic Theme Music
For Americans, the most famous piece of Olympic music is probably this famous combination of themes:
John Williams wrote the second part (starting at 0:46) for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, but the first part, Bugler’s Dream, was first used at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The music is from a longer piece, called The Charge Suite, which Leo Arnaud composed in 1958. Arnaud did a little creative borrowing, though. The melody is based on a fanfare written by Joseph-David Buhl for Napoleon’s army in the early 19th century, called Salut aux étendards (“Salute to the Flag”). (Buhl also wrote other trumpet calls that are still in use today by the US Army, like “Reveille”.)
Take a listen to Napoleon’s version of Bugler’s Dream. What changes can you hear between this trumpet call and the Olympic theme?
What are some of the characteristics you think of when you imagine music for the Olympics? What instruments do you think of? Most Olympic music is very heroic, with lots of drums and brass, to make you think of the strength and skill of the athletes.
Sometimes, though, composers use a different approach. Because the Olympics are about friendship between countries, some composers have written stirring hymns filled with emotion, rather than exciting fanfares. In 1981, Leonard Bernstein was asked to write a piece that would inspire unity at the meeting of the International Olympic Committee. He created a majestic hymn for choir and orchestra to a German text by Günter Kunert that featured the lyrics “Fight as friends, not as foes!”
(And like Arnaud, Bernstein did a little musical recycling here— the melody came from “To Make Us Proud”, a song from his failed musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)
Music for Television
Some of the pieces we associate with the Olympics weren’t commissioned by the International Olympic Committee or the host country, but by television networks who need music to accompany their broadcasts. John Williams’ The Olympic Spirit, for instance, was composed for NBC to accompany their broadcasts of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Did you know?
From 1912 until 1948, the Olympics held competitions in the arts. Medals were given for architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, and music. Next time, we’re going to look at some earlier Olympic music that you might not know, including a piece that won a medal in the music competition!