12 glorious pieces of classical music inspired by the Olympic Games
19 July 2021, 15:53 | Updated: 20 July 2021, 12:01
We celebrate the finest orchestral, choral and instrumental pieces inspired by, or composed for, the Olympic Games.
Great composers throughout history have been motivated time and time again to turn their pen to the mighty Olympics.
Whether inspired to capture stories of the games, or directly commissioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to write music especially for Olympiad events, Baroque masters, modern film favourites, and many in between have endeavoured to capture the strength, heroism and inspiration of the games in their music.
From Vivaldi to Vangelis, here are some of the finest pieces of classical music composed for, or about, the Olympics.
Read more: Story of the Olympic Hymn, a choral cantata composed for the first ever Summer Olympics
Antonio Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade
Baroque composer Vivaldi’s 1743 opera predates the modern Olympic Games (the Olympic flame was reignited in 1896), but was inspired directly by the ancient Greek format.
The three-act opera tells of Megacles, a heroic athlete who comes to Sicyon in Greece to participate in the games – but not without becoming embroiled in a love triangle and name-swapping antics with disastrous consequences. Victory, in the form of great love, is ultimately won, but accompanied by great sacrifice.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge
Vaughan Williams’ song cycle is also indirectly linked with the modern Olympics. The English composer’s setting of six poems from A. E. Housman’s 1896 collection, A Shropshire Lad, is named after the stunning area of England where the forerunner of the modern Olympic Games was established in 1850.
A precursor to the Olympiad we know today, the Wenlock Olympian Games were set up for ‘promotion of the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock’ through outdoor sporting activities that included running, hurdles, cycling and team sports like football and cricket.
Joseph Suk: Towards a New Life
Czech composer Joseph Suk completed his march, Towards a New Life, in time for the composition category of the 1932 cultural arm of the games, and it won a silver medal.
The orchestral festival march is part of the composer’s later output and is optimistic and inspiring in tone, opening with a bright brass and snare drum fanfare. It’s actually the completion of an earlier work, a military march, which Suk had started, but not yet published, several years earlier.
Richard Strauss: Olympic Hymn
Romantic composer Richard Strauss’ ‘Olympic Hymn’ is a rousing, romping work for chorus and orchestra, composed for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Strauss was approached by Dr Theodor Lewald, who was the German Olympic Committee’s representative to the IOC, to compose the music and the composer accepted on the condition that he set a text he himself was happy with.
Instead of using the then-standardised Walter Bradley-Keeler hymn, the Strauss take on the ‘Olympic Hymn’ ended up going to competition for a lyrics composer, and Robert Lubahn was victorious – something Strauss said he was “extraordinarily satisfied” about when completing the work.
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Leonard Bernstein: Olympic Hymn
Another classical music heavyweight to have composed their own version of the ‘Olympic Hymn’ is American composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein’s choral anthem, written for the 1981 International Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden, West Germany, is at once majestic, solemn and awe-inspiring.
Emily Howard: Zátopek!
British composer Howard’s Zátopek! is a ‘mini opera’ for seven singers with adult and children’s choir and chamber ensemble, commissioned in 2012 as part of the London Cultural Olympiad 2012.
The piece is inspired by the life and astonishing achievements of the Czech long distance runner Emil Zátopek who, at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, won a gold medal hat-trick for the 5000 metre, 10,000 metre and marathon events.
Philip Glass: The Olympian
American master of minimalism Philip Glass composed The Olympian for the lighting of the torch and closing of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
“I can think of no event to compare with the Olympic Games which makes us so conscious of our shared humanity, our common fate,” Glass said of the commission. “The torch lighting ceremony strikes me as the essential symbol, the summing up, of this, our shared consciousness… It has made this for me a uniquely challenging and inspiring experience.”
Glass also wrote the opera Orion for the Olympics, collaborating with Ravi Shankar, Mark Atkins, Wu Man, Foday Musa Suso, Ashley MacIsaac, and Uakti for the Athens 2004 Cultural Olympiad commission.
John Williams: Olympic Fanfare and Theme
The legend of movie music gave us a suitably celebratory and uplifting orchestral fanfare and noble Olympian theme for the 1984 Olympic Games in LA. Williams conducted the piece himself at the Opening Ceremony, which took place at the Los Angeles Coliseum on 28 July 1984.
Williams has also penned The Olympic Spirit (Seoul 1988), Summon the Heroes (Atlanta 1996) and Call of the Champions (Salt Lake 2002), for subsequent Olympic broadcasts and events.
Vangelis: Chariots of Fire
Vangelis’ iconic theme for the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire, accompanies the story of two athletes chasing their dream of the 1924 London Olympic Games.
Its association with the global sporting event didn’t stay behind the silver screen either – in 1984, Chariots of Fire was made the official theme for the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.
Andrew Lloyd Webber: ‘Amigos Para Siempre’
‘Amigos Para Siempre’ AKA ‘Friends for Life’ was composed by music theatre legend Andrew Lloyd Webber for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
The song, which has lyrics from the pen of regular Lloyd Webber and John Barry collaborator, Don Black, was performed by British soprano Sarah Brightman and Spanish tenor José Carreras during that year’s Closing Ceremony. It got to No. 11 in the UK Singles Chart – and reached No.1 in Australia – as a result.
James MacMillan: Fanfare Upon One Note
MacMillan’s Fanfare was inspired by the patriotic, sports-crazed atmosphere around London 2012.
The compact fanfare, which does what it says on the tin and uses rhythm to great effect on unison notes in brass and percussion, was first performed at a sport-themed concert called ‘Music Nation’, in Glasgow in March 2012.
Michael Torke, Javelin
Commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympics to celebrate the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary Season, Torke’s orchestral piece Javelin was performed at the Opening Ceremony of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
The sparkling symphonic music tells the story of a whirling javelin flying triumphantly through the air towards Olympic gold hope.