Friday, 27 July 2012

Melodies from Mount Olympus

Today is the opening day of the London Olympics 2012. What will we Brits do with the opening ceremony? Tune in tonight and find out!

There will doubtless be a part for classical music in the event. Classical music has had quite an interesting history of association with the modern Olympics and from 1912 through until 1948, there was even a music competition complete with gold, silver and bronze medals for the best pieces. 

"Complete with..." isn't perhaps the right phrase. In 1912 only a gold medal was awarded to the Italian Riccardo Barthelemy for his Olympic Triumphal March. In 1920 it was gold for the Belgian Georges Monier for Olympique and silver for the Italian Oreste Riva for his Marcia trionfale but no bronze. In 1924 the jury  (which included Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and d'Indy!) couldn't reach a decision, so no medals were given at all. In 1928 they did give out a medal but, bizarrely (and rather insultingly, I'd have thought) it was a mere bronze, awarded to the (suitably damned-with-faint-praise) Rudolph Simonsen of Denmark for his Symphony No.2, Hellas (a substantial piece, not remotely what you might be expecting - so please try it!). So far you will have noticed that none of these composers is a familiar name. The familiar names (as in 1924) sat on the juries. The Olympics used to take the idea of the Games being a competition for amateurs very seriously. The one exception to win an Olympic medal was the great Czech composer Josef Suk for his toe-tapping patriotic march Into a New Life (a delightful piece) in 1932. In another bemusing snub, Suk was merely given a silver medal. No gold was given that year! 

Things changed in 1936 when the Nazis took charge of the Olympics - more music competitions, more medals, more music. Guess what? Germany won 4 out of the 6 medals awarded by the largely German jury! Paul Höffer (who?) of Germany won gold for his Olympic VowKurt Thomas (who?) of Germany won silver for his Olympic Cantata and Harald Genzmer (who?) of Germany won bronze for his The Runner. A slightly more familiar name, Werner Egk of...well, I'm sure you can guess where!...won gold in the Orchestral category for his Olympic Festive Music, while Lino Liviabella of fellow Axis power Italy won silver for The Victor and Jaroslav Křička of Czechoslovakia got the bronze with his Mountain Suite. The Berlin Olympics of 1936, incidentally, saw a very great composer enter the scene with Richard Strauss providing an Olympic Hymn for the opening ceremony. Strauss wasn't exactly enthusiastic about it, writing to his friend and librettist, the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, "I am whiling away the dull days of advent by composing an Olympic Hymn for the proles - I of all people, who despise sports." I'd say the piece is pure hack-work, though the ending is not bad. 

The last London Olympics of 1948 opened with an ode, Non Nobis Domine, by Britain's very own Roger Quilter (plus a blast of the Hallelujah chorus) and saw the Pole Zbigniew Turski vault into the gold medal position in the competition for his Olympic Symphony, with a Canadian Jean Weinzweig and a Finn  Kalervo Tuukkanen winning silvers and the three bronzes going to two Italians and a Dane.

At that point the difficulty of deciding if an artist was an amateur or a professional got too much for the Olympic organisers and the competition was dropped. 

In 1958, the International Olympic Committee decided to adopt a piece originally written for the 1896 Games (the first modern Olympics) by the Greek opera composer Spyridon Samaras, the Olympic Hymn ("Immortal spirit of antiquity"), as its permanent anthem. It's a thoroughly grand operatic chorus.

In researching this post, I kept reading mentions of a Hymn to Apollo written for the 1894 Olympic Congress by one of my favourite composers, Gabriel Fauré. I never knew such a piece existed as it never appears in work lists for the composer. Was it lost? Apparently not, as the IMSLP site has a score of it. Having just played it through on the piano, it sounds like a real beauty - a modal piece in 5/4 time. The tune is not Fauré's own. It's a melody that was written in Ancient Athens:

Hopefully someone will record it one day and someone else will add it to his list of works.

In the 1960s American T.V. companies began using a piece called Bugler's Dream by the French-American Leo Arnauld in their coverage of the Olympic Games. John Williams co-opted this theme and used it in his own Olympic Fanfare and Theme, written for the 1984 Los Angeles games. He has written music for others Olympiads - Olympic Spirit for Seoul in 1988 and Summon the Heroes for Atlanta in 1996. John Williams is made for the Olympics! Other music that came out of L.A. includes Philip Glass's The Olympian and out of Atlanta sprang Michael Torke's bright-eyed Javelin. Glass must have caught the bug as he was back for Athens in 2004, with the ambitious, multi-movement Orion.

So will there be any music by a living British composer at tonight's opening ceremony in London? We'll see. Presumably it won't just be Elgar's Nimrod. We have to be more original than that!

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