On your marks, get set, compose
When the Beijing Olympics open in August, to a heady mixture of sporting celebration and political controversy, music will play a huge part in reinforcing the image and message of the Games. The opening ceremony will feature a programme of world music, including new work by Giorgio Moroder.
Award ceremonies will feature national anthems, athletes will use music as a (legal) stimulant and motivational aid, and for events such as the much-maligned synchronised swimming, music will of course be integral.
A cultural olympiad for the 2012 London Games is already the subject of much debate, but it’s worth bearing in mind that music has always played an important role in the event.
In ancient Greece, singers received laurels for hymns composed for the various ceremonies, such as the elaborate sacrifice to Zeus. Athletes would be summoned by trumpets, while flautists accompanied the pentathlon.
According to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Parisian aesthete who at the turn of the 20th century revived the Games for a modern world: “The arts, in harmonious combination with sports, made the Olympic Games great.”
Coubertin believed sport and the arts had become artificially separated. He wanted to integrate music—and other art forms—into the competition itself. The 1912 Stockholm Olympics were thus the first to include a “pentathlon of the muses”: competitions for music, literature, painting, sculpture and architecture. Coubertin entered the literature contest under a pseudonym, winning gold with his inflated Ode to Sport (“O Sport, delight of the Gods, distillation of life!”).
Meanwhile, Italy’s now-forgotten Ricardo Barthelemy snatched the music gold with his Triumphal Olympic March. No silver or bronze medals were awarded.
This meanness on the part of the judges became a feature of the music Olympics over the following years. Competitors were urged by Coubertin to “study the main rhythms of athletics” but few, it would seem, succeeded.
Another problem was that composers of stature preferred to sit on the judging panel, rather than risk denting their reputations by winning an ignominious bronze (should one be deemed worth giving). Worse still was the prospect of an “honourable mention”.
At the Paris Olympiad in 1924, a vast panel of 43 judges—including Vincent D’Indy, Stravinsky, Bartok and Ravel—failed to reach a decision. Four years later, a measly bronze was awarded to Denmark’s Rudolf Simonsen for his Hellas Symphony. In 1932, the single award of a silver medal damned with faint praise the most eminent of all Olympic music competitors, the Czech composer Josef Suk, for his patriotic Into a New Life march.
At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, new categories were introduced: orchestral compositions, instrumental music, solo and choral works. The judges, predominantly German, were particularly generous to native entrants. Werner Egk won gold for his orchestral work Olympische Festmusik, while all three medals in the choral category went to host nationals—thus proving the musical superiority of the master race.
The Nazis also pulled off a coup by commissioning no less a figure than Richard Strauss to write a work for the opening ceremony.
After an oration by the Führer, a cannon salute and the release of thousands of white pigeons, Strauss led the Berlin Philharmonic and the National Socialist Symphony Orchestra through his rousing Olympic Hymn. He was far from enthusiastic about writing “sports music”. In a letter to the writer Stefan Zweig, he said: “I am whiling away the dull days of advent by composing an Olympic Hymn for the plebs—I of all people, who despise sports.”
The 1948 Games, hastily convened in war-torn London, opened with a performance of an ode by Roger Quilter and saw the Polish composer Zbigniew Turski take gold for his Olympic Symphony.
Coubertin would have glowed at the presence of Micheline Ostermeyer, the remarkable Frenchwoman who won gold in both shot-put and discus, as well as bronze in the high jump.
She celebrated her shot-put victory by giving an impromptu Beethoven recital at the French team headquarters. “Sport,” she said, “taught me to relax; the piano gave me strong biceps and a sense of motion and rhythm.” In 1950, she retired from athletics to resume her career as a concert pianist.
The 1948 Games saw the end of the Olympic arts competitions, due to the growing difficulty of proving the amateur status of participants, but they had at least fulfilled Coubertin’s ambition of enshrining music in Olympic culture.
As Beijing will show, many types of music play a part, but it is classical music that has traditionally set the Olympics apart from what Coubertin called “plain sporting championships”.
John Williams, the United States composer of film scores, wrote works for the 1984, 1988 and 1996 Olympics.
He explained the attraction of the Games thus: “The inspiration comes from the mythological idea we all seem to feel. It’s about deities and heroes that lived up in the mountain somewhere, that could do something we couldn’t do.”
Although Coubertin’s view of the Olympics now rings a little hollow, as drug-taking and rampant commercialism threaten to consume today’s games, he would doubtless have approved of Williams’ lofty sentiments.—