Monday, February 13, 2006

Apple #148: The Olympic Theme Song

I've been watching a lot of the Olympics lately. I really like the winter Olympics, because all the events are at least a little bit insane: Let's go skiing cross-country as fast as we can, and then stop and stand perfectly still, shoot at little bitty targets 50 meters away, and then take off and ski as fast as we can some more and see who wins. Or, I know, let's get on a sled face-first and go down a chute of ice at 80 miles per hour, with our faces 3 inches away from the ice! Or, no, wait, how about this: let's go up to the top of a 3-mile-high mountain, with loads of super-steep slopes, and get on a pair of brand-new skis and ski down it at 80 miles per hour!

Nuts. Absolutely nuts. And people from all different parts of the world are doing these things fantastically well. I love it.

Anyway, so the TV is playing the Olympic theme song all over the place. It's a pretty good tune. Commanding, catchy, you could put various words to it if you wanted to. I got to wondering, who wrote it? Is it something that some TV network came up with, and will it disappear in a few years to be replaced by some other advertising-type thing? Or is this an actual song somebody wrote?

  • Finding the answer to this question was incredibly confusing because there are about ninety-five kajillion things called Olympic Song or Olympic Theme or Olympic Anthem or Olympic Hymn. And all but two of those are not the song I'm thinking of.
  • Each year's Olympics has its own theme song, composed by a different person. The Olympic Committee of the host city solicits entries -- apparently anyone can submit a song -- and they choose their favorite. That song becomes the theme of that year's Olympics. The songs all have different titles that sound very stirring. But none of these are the song I'm thinking of.
  • There is also the Olympic Anthem. This was written in 1896 by Greek composer Spiros Samaras, and it has lyrics, written by a Greek poet. It was the official song of the Olympics until 1912, and then for a period of time they tried out other songs, but then it was reinstated to its celebrated position in 1960. It's quite stately and slow, and it is played when the Olympic flag is raised at the opening ceremonies. It is considered the official song of the Olympics and has the same standing as a national anthem. But this is not the song they play all the time on TV.
  • The song I'm thinking of -- if I've got this right -- is written by John Williams. But this should not be confused with the Olympic song he wrote in 2002. That one was just for the 2002 Olympics and is titled, "Call of the Champions." That has lots of brass and percussion, but it also features the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This is not the song I'm thinking of, either.
  • The song I'm thinking of is the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme." That "and Theme" part is important.
  • The Fanfare: This trumpet-featuring fanfare was part of a suite called Bugler's Dream, written by composer Leo Arnaud in the 1930s. In 1968, ABC started using it in their televised broadcasts. The fanfare uses full brass playing thirty-second notes with a snare drum providing accents. Then a commanding response from trumpets kicks in, the snare drum gets going, and the whole thing crescendos to its finish. It is fairly brief.
  • The Theme: People had come to associate the fanfare very strongly with the Olympics, so when the Olympic Organizing Committee in Los Angeles asked John Williams to write a theme song for the 1984 Olympics, they told him to make sure it wouldn't compete with the Arnaud Fanfare, but that it would merge and correspond with it.
  • John Williams, by the way, is the same guy who wrote the Star Wars music. He also wrote the scores to Jaws, E.T., and Schindler's List. Pretty much every movie theme song you can hum to yourself, he wrote it. Recent movies for which he wrote the scores include Memoirs of a GeishaMunich.
  • Back to 1984. Williams was also told that the song he wrote would need to be easy to break into chunks for the purposes of leading a TV viewer into and out of commercials. Which is why it seems like there may be four or five different Olympic songs that the TV station is using. In fact, it's one song, and they're taking bits from various parts of it. The whole thing worked so well that even though it was written for 1984 ceremonies, TV stations still use it today.
  • So, here's what the theme sounds like: It has a much broader, more stately tempo than the fanfare. It also uses many more instruments, including timpani, woodwinds and strings, trumpets, glockenspiel, tuba, vibraphone, harp, and triangle. The part that I think we hear most often begins with the timpani playing a high note, then two quick lower notes, then a high note, and then the brass ring in.

If you're interested in looking up these songs on iTunes, the titles there are sort of vague and tricky, so here's what you'll find if you type in various phrases:

  • Olympic Fanfare - One version is the short, 35-second original Arnaud fanfare (performed by somebody else, of course). Other versions seem to include both the fanfare and the theme, since they are much longer. I recommend the version by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra as likely being the most complete.
  • Olympic Theme - This will get you all kinds of songs, most of which are not even close to what you're looking for. The one song most relevant in this list is the Olympic Theme, performed by Frederick Fennell & The Cleveland Symphonic Winds. Apparently, this is only the theme part of the music, without the fanfare. Also, if you look closely into the results of this search, you'll see John Williams' 2002 theme song, but this is one of the rogue variants.
  • Olympic Anthem - this pulls up New Age versions of the anthem written by Samaras. I have no idea if this music resembles the original or not, though you can hear a translation of the text being recited.
  • Olympic Hymn - this gets you one song, called "Hymn to New England." It's by John Williams (what didn't this guy write?), but again, it's not the one we're after.
  • Olympic Song - a bunch of crap that sort of looks close, but nothing is really what we're after.
  • Olympic Fanfare and Theme - zero hits.

So my suggestion, if you're searching iTunes for the song they play all the time on TV before the Olympics, is to search for either "olympic fanfare" or "olympic theme."

Sheesh. That's way more confusing than it ought to be. Can't somebody give these songs some titles that are a little more distinctive?

Let's go back to thinking about just the Olympics themselves, and the skating, and the skiing, and the sledding...

NBC's Olympic website (which rocks, by the way)
John Williams Web Pages, Olympic Fanfare and Theme
Wikipedia, Olympic Symbols, especially the subsection titled Fanfare and Theme
Hennepin County Library's Fugitive Fact File, Olympic Games - Symbols & Music
William K. Guegold, "Volunteerism and Olympic music venues," paper presented at Volunteers, Global Society and the Olympic Movement symposium, November 1999.
Eric Deignan, "Music and the Olympic Spirit," WOSU's Air Fare
Wikipedia, Olympic Anthem

1 comment:

  1. Thanks...I have been trying to find the name of this tune in my head from the olympics. With the rapid trumpets, and it's olympic fanfare!



If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!