Philip Barker: From Chariots of Fire to Non Nobis Domine, the Olympics have always had a soundtrack
Thursday, 28 June 2012
The Olympics have always had a soundtrack, although in early years, it was very formal.
In 1894, when Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin organised a meeting at the Sorbonne to revive the Olympics. Gabriel Faure's "Hymn to Apollo" was performed.
"The playing of this sacred piece of music created the desired effect. A subtle feeling of emotion spread through the auditorium and Hellenism infiltrated the entire hall." wrote Coubertin. The first Olympics of the modern era were duly fixed for 1896 in Athens.
The Olympic anthem, composed by Spiros Samaras of Corfu, delighted everybody including the Greek King who called for an encore. Yet it disappeared from international Olympic ceremonies for over half a century.
In 1908, the Games were held in London, but Coubertin was unhappy at the absence of suitable music.
"I am continually astonished at the lack of interest shown in the idea of combining sports meetings and open air choral performances," he said. "How much more perfect the whole effect would have been if there had been one of those mass choirs which excel in England performing the incomparable cantatas of Handel?"
The 1908 Games did at least give rise to a popular song. Irving Berlin's "Dorando" told the story of the gallant but unsuccessful Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri.
At the 1912 Stockholm Games, trumpeters sounded a fanfare from the top of the stadium ramparts and it became possible to win an Olympic medal for musical composition in artistic contests, part of the official programme until 1948.
By the 1936 Games in Berlin, Richard Strauss had been ordered to compose an Olympic hymn but he was not happy in his work.
"I kill the boredom of the advent hours by writing an Olympic hymn for the proles, I of all people who hate and despise sports," he wrote.
It was declared "the Olympic hymn for all time" but after the War, London organisers rejected a German piece of music.
The conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent (pictured above), in charge of music in 1948, remembered a hymn by English composer Roger Quilter. With words by Rudyard Kipling, Sargent felt "Non Nobis Domine" fitted the bill.
Mass choirs were to perform it at Wembley.
"The traditional dress for previous Olympic choirs has been white for the ladies, and white shirts and grey flannels for the gentlemen, but the vagaries of the English climate hardly justify any insistence on this. The committee feel it should be left to your discretion."
In fact, the real danger was the instruments going out of tune on a blazing hot day. The choirs and the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards sweltered under their uniforms.
A few days later, Sargent conducted a special concert for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the Royal Albert Hall. It included "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", Verdi's "Un ballo in maschera" and Elgar's rousing "Cockaigne Overture".
By 1954 the IOC were in on the musical act. Prince Pierre of Monaco announced a competition with a first prize of $1,000 (£640/€800) to find a new Olympic hymn. From nearly 400 entries, the judges, including Pablo Casals and Aaron Copland, chose what Prince Pierre later described as: "a virile and touching prayer...an important work capable of imposing itself on the memory of the crowds."
Written by Polish composer Michal Spisak (pictured above), it was performed in Melbourne in 1956, but difficulties over copyright meant it was never heard again. So after more than 50 years, the original 1896 hymn by Samaras was brought back in 1958. It can be heard to this day.
It was now the television age and with it came pop music. German composer Helmut Zacharias penned the catchy Tokyo Melody for 1964 and similar songs for Mexico and Munich, but Tchaikovsky's great symphony Pathétique still began the grandiose 1980 Opening in Moscow. And who could forget the pianists dressed from head to toe in blue performing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue at Los Angeles in 1984?
Those Games also had an official album of music, full of pumping inspirational numbers, including "Reach Out" by Giorgio Moroder.
"Come play to win, never Give in, the time is right for you to come and make your stand!"
In 1988, Moroder was also responsible for perhaps the most enduring Olympic pop Song. "Hand in Hand" was performed by the group Koreana.
"Its topicality was a factor in its popularity," wrote Seoul 1988 chief Park Seh-jik.
Performed in Korean and English, the refrain was particularly powerful:
"Breaking down the walls that come between us for all time"
As a result of that line it was banned in the GDR, though when the Wall fell, they sang it loud and proud in Berlin.
No less a figure than Andrew Lloyd Webber was persuaded to write for the 1992 Barcelona Games. "Amigos Para Sempre" (Friends for Life) featured Sarah Brightman (pictured below, left) on vocals. She returned to the Olympic fold 16 years later in Beijing to record the haunting "You and Me".
In the interim, the "Official" song of the Games had taken on a life of its own. In 1996 we had "The Power of the Dream" by Celine Dion, but also "Reach" by Gloria Estefan which headlined an Olympic album of Latin music.
In Sydney, "Dare to Dream" by Olivia Newton John and John Farnham vied with and Tina Arena's "The Flame", "Under Southern Skies" by 13-year-old Nikki Webster – 12 years later she has a rather raunchier style.
In 2004 even the Torch Relay got its own song. "Pass the Flame" proved a big hit in Athens.
It was a Greek composer who wrote perhaps the most famous Olympic music of all. "Chariots of Fire" by Vangelis will be heard many times this summer, not least because the story of Abrahams and Liddell will be played out again on the stage in London's West End.
Philip Barker, one of the world's most renowned sports historians, is an expert on music at the Olympics. He is also the author of The History of the Olympic Torch, published by Amberley last month. To order a copy click here.