"I am whiling away the dull days of advent by composing an Olympic Hymn for the plebs - I of all people, who despise sports"
-Richard Strauss, letter to Stefan Zweig, 1935
I was quite annoyed last night when sports reporter John Inverdale on BBC One declared "it's like the Last Night of the Proms times 100!"
I'm sure what he meant was that the patriotic fervour generated by the 4th August bling harvest at the London Olympic Games reminded him of the flag-waving of the Last Night of the Proms, but I couldn't help reading into his comment the implication that somehow this big publicly-funded sports day was 100 times better than anything the music world could produce, and reminded me once again of how in society, music always seems to come a distant second place whenever sport appears, be it in funding, broadcasting or inclusion in the school curriculum.
From 1912 to 1948 the Olympic Games were not just about sport, but also had a concurrent art competition which included a variety of categories including music. These musical events were mostly "proper" music - i.e. classical; I dread to think what events would be in a modern composition competition. Medal for gangsta rap anyone? I suppose rappers probably have quite enough gold already.
In its way, the idea of Olympic art competitions was potentially quite interesting, as all of the artistic competitors had to be amateurs, so more famous composers (who were presumably classed as professional) could not enter. In this way, the rules were rather like those for the Eurovision Song Contest until relatively recently.
It was this "amateur" distinction that led to these events being discontinued in 1948 as it became increasingly difficult to discern the difference between somebody who makes money from their talent and somebody who has talent but has another job. I have to say, I don't see that "what is an amateur" justification being used much nowadays when Andy Murray, the day after winning a medal, goes off to try and win a major tournament with a massive cash prize or when a stupidly-bearded Usain Bolt is paid millions to appear in an advert with Richard Branson, but anyway.
None of the compositions the Games competitions produced have gone on to be particularly well-remembered. They mostly seem to be pieces with 'Olympic' in their title, which I have to say lacks originality. Weirdly, some years appear to have a silver and bronze winner but no gold, implying that the judges didn't think there was a true winner out of the submitted compositions. The final gold medal winner was Zbigniew Turski of Poland for his Olympic Symphony of 1948. I haven't been able to locate any recordings of that, or indeed any of the other gold-winning Olympic compositions.
From then on, music has only been a peripheral event as part of the "Cultural Olympiad", or more prominently in the opening and closing ceremonies. So what with all that, let's have a look at what orchestral music we've seen, or rather heard so far at the Games of the XXX Olympiad.
The most famous Olympic composition of modern times must be John Williams's Olympic Fanfare and Theme for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and I was really hoping when I read that the London Symphony Orchestra were going to be at the London 2012 opening ceremony that a prominent British film composer of equal stature might have been asked to come up with something which would still be being performed years later. Could somebody like Sir Richard Rodney Bennett have been asked!?
In fact, the opening ceremony, spectacular as it was, didn't really have a stand-out original piece that will be remembered in years to come. In fact, quite a lot of the music was a medley of piped-in recordings of famous tracks from the world of popular music, and the pieces performed live were often sung as solos without accompaniment.
The closest we got to a standout composition was a sort-of classical-ambient cross over piece called Caliban's Dream which was performed for the lighting of the flame. I must admit, I quite liked this. It did fit the moment really well, and having listened to it again, I do think it has some merit; quite a catchy theme and ostinato, and at least it isn't bombastic; it was actually rather subtle. Whether it will be remembered in years we will see.
It's credited to Rick Smith of electronic duo Underworld, who oversaw the mixing of most of the opening ceremony music, although the orchestration was by Geoffrey Alexander and choral writing by Esme Smith, so is very much a group effort. The haunting final solo soprano section is pretty remarkable; very few sopranos can reach D6, so whoever performed that (either Esme Smith or Elizabeth Roberts according to the official media guide) must be very talented.
Other highlights included a new arrangement of the 1890s Olympic Anthem (not the one written reluctantly by Richard Strauss), which is normally a real dirge when sung in its original Greek, but miraculously when played as an orchestra and brass band combination actually turns into rather a fine piece. The inclusion of Grimethorpe Colliery Band there for the hymn-like verse arrangement by Sandy Smith was a rather inspired moment.
Elsewhere it was nice to see the LSO featured quite prominently in several parts. There was quite a funny story a few weeks before the ceremony where the musicians complained when they were asked to mime, something which is quite difficult to do with an acoustic instrument without looking stupid. In the end, they obviously agreed to a compromise of half live, half pre-recorded, or at least their miming was quite realistic.
So, it was nice that the opening segment of Isles of Wonder featured Elgar's Nimrod from the Enigma Variations rightfully appeared at the start of the ceremony and the LSO later featured in their own light-hearted 'pomposity bursting' moment playing the theme to the 1984 film Chariots of Fire with the lesser-spotted Rowan Atkinson. "Titles" from Chariots of Fire by the Greek composer Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou (or Vangelis to everyone else) has pretty much ended up being the anthem of the London Games...it's almost impossible to escape it, as it's played over and over again at every awards ceremony. I bet he's raking in the royalties this year.
Interestingly, the BBC used to use Chariots of Fire as their Olympic programme theme tune right up until the 1990s, after which they've gone for original compositions. This year, because the BBC were chosen as the Official Olympic Broadcaster™, they obviously wanted to create a memorable theme for their home nation, so they turned to a British alternative rock band called Elbow.
I was all ready to be sniffy about it, but I must admit I quite like it; it's actually not what I was expecting them to come up with. The piece is called First Steps.
It's everywhere on TV every advert break and even on radio. Considering it's by an alternative rock band, it's surprisingly orchestral, being performed mainly by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. So far, I have been unable to ascertain who the orchestrator was. It reminds me a bit of the recent incarnations of the Doctor Who theme tune, so it perhaps wouldn't be a bad bet to suggest Murray Gold may have had something to do with it, but that's just a guess...maybe the band did do it themselves, who knows?
The full version is actually just over six minutes long, but it was designed to be cut up into different mixes for use in various TV and radio contexts, and there's enough melodic interest in there to prevent it becoming repetitive.
The build up in its opening bars is very well-done - a five note horn fanfare over a tremolo string accompaniment. It reminds me a bit of the late 1980s BBC Breakfast Theme by George Fenton. That's a complement, by the way.
Strong percussion, brass and string motifs permeate the next sections. The only problem is that they chose to include a gospel choir into the mix which, as with all gospel choirs, is horribly flat by comparison to the excellent professional musicians of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
The contrast is quite embarrassing in the full version, so much so that it's quite noticeable that when the theme is used for the BBC's TV and radio coverage, they've sensibly been cut out almost completely. I decided to purchase this track the other day so I could hear the whole thing, and I have to say the singing will probably find itself edited out on my copy as well; it's a pity there isn't a purely orchestral mix of it available for download.
But that's not to criticise it, the main string theme is rather majestic and I do like the little reflective part in the middle, which takes it away from simple triumphalism. it's certainly the closest we're likely to get to a proper orchestral theme to the Games this year; apparently the official anthem is by the hard rock band Muse. So, that's um, well, not really going to be to my taste.
As with the opening ceremony, the content is under a strict embargo, so who knows what will entail? However, the title couldn't be more promising: "A Symphony of British Music". Now, I'm sure that doesn't mean they'll be playing the last movement of Arthur Bliss's Colour Symphony all the way through (although what a great finale that would be), but it does imply there might be some British music to look forward to and I hope that doesn't just mean pop music. We'll see on the 12th...