The 2012 Olympic Games, hosted by the capital city of England, kick off Friday with a star-studded opening ceremony and continue through Aug. 12.
There are few events that are so universally liked, so unifying and so exciting that they bring more than half the world's ever-increasing population together. A staggering 3.9 million people watched one or more Olympic events on television four years ago--that's 80 percent of the population that has access to electricity!--and about 11 million Olympic spectators are expected to descend on London this week. It's not hyperbole to say there is no sport, cultural happening or political event that can match the world's fascination with the Olympics. The proof, as the Brits say, is in the pudding.
But what is it about the Olympics that so captivates us? Perhaps it's the fact that, regardless of huge differences in political, cultural and religious beliefs, regardless of the wars and struggles in which we are embroiled, 205 countries can still compete on an equal playing field. Maybe it's the pageantry of it all--the huge structures erected especially for the games, the parades of athletes streaming into stadiums, the amazing performances at the opening and closing ceremonies. Or perhaps the mere physical feats are powerful enough to pull us in.
Composing music to reflect the headiness of a worldwide event must be quite a challenge, but many have made a universal name for themselves upon meeting the challenge. The Frenchman Leo Arnaud composed "Bugler's Dream" in 1958, and a decade later, ABC and NBC played the piece before each Olympics broadcast; now, the stately tune is synonymous with the Games here in the U.S. American film composer John Williams also has strong ties to the Olympics thanks to his "Olympic Fanfare and Theme," composed for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, as does the Czech Josef Suk, whose "Toward a New Life" is still stirring 80 years after the Games commissioned it.
It's not yet known which British composers might debut something new at the London ceremonies or whether Old Blighty-inspired favorites, such as Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony or Coates' London Suite, will make it onto the program. Thanks to a leaked playlist, we do know that the program includes the "Nimrod" movement of Elgar's "Enigma Variations" along with Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells," of The Exorcist fame.
Whether you enjoy the Olympiad classics or would like to explore British music that seems fitting for this year's Games, you'll enjoy our complete playlist of music for the London Olympics. You can also read up on the past and present of Olympic Music on NPR's website.
John Williams: Olympic Fanfare and Theme
Williams borrows the iconic "Bugler's Dream" theme for the beginning of this piece, commissioned for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and builds on the theme with more illustrious fanfare.
Spyridon Samaras: Olympic Hymn
This is quite literally the original anthem of the world sporting tradition. It premiered at the first international Olympic Games held in the Modern era, in Athens in Summer 1896. The choral hymn, sung in Greek, calls on the "immortal spirit of antiquity" to "give life and animation to these noble games."
Josef Suk: Toward a New Life
Suk originally wrote this piece with the Army of his homeland, Czechoslovakia, in mind as they fought to protect the country from invasion in the southern district of Slovakia. The moving music became a symbol of the Olympics when it won a prize at a competition held during the 1932 Games in Los Angeles.
Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations, IX. Nimrod (Adagio)
It's fitting that filmmaker Danny Boyle, who is the artistic director for the London Games opening ceremony, picked "Nimrod" for the soundtrack. During a period of extreme depression, Elgar mustered up enough creative energy to write this famous movement after friends encouraged him to use his emotions in his music like Beethoven did. The music is a testament to the genius man can produce with enough perseverance, even in the face of adversity.
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Conductor and composer Philip Sheppard had the honor--or perhaps, the unfortunate task--of rearranging and recording all 205 national anthems for this summer's Olympic Games. The BBC asked him in an interview what he loved and hated about the process and which obscure countries yielded musical gems.
A. R. Rahman, who composed the soundtrack to the film Slumdog Millionaire, has composed a Punjabi-inspired piece with lots of brass and vocals for the opening ceremony. The piece, he told The Wall Street Journal, will reflect the importance of Indian culture in the extremely diverse city of London.
Before opening ceremonies had PR teams, commissioned music and artistic directors, these American men heard just one Greek anthem before they went out to compete. Learn about the music of the Olympics, from 1896 to the present, on NPR's Know-it-All's Guide to Olympic Music, and impress your friends with international name-dropping!
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