The best classical music inspired by the Olympic Games


July 19, 2021, 15:53 ​​| Updated: July 20, 2021, 12:01

Best classical music inspired by the Olympic Games.

Photo: Alamy / Vivaldi

We celebrate the best orchestral, choral and instrumental pieces inspired or composed for the Olympic Games.

Great composers throughout history have been motivated time and again to turn their pens to the mighty Olympics.

Whether they are inspired to capture stories from the games, or directly commissioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to write music especially for the events of the Olympiad, baroque masters, favorites of modern cinema, and many ‘between them strove 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 Olympic Games.

Read more: History of the Olympic Anthem, a choral cantata composed for the first Summer Olympics

  1. Antonio Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade

    Baroque composer Vivaldi’s 1743 opera predates the modern Olympics (the Olympic flame was rekindled in 1896), but is directly inspired by the ancient Greek format.

    The three-act opera tells the story of Megacles, a heroic athlete who comes to Sicyon, Greece to participate in the games – but not without being embroiled in a love triangle and name-swapping antics with dire consequences. Victory, in the form of great love, is finally won, but with great sacrifice.

  2. Ralph Vaughan Williams: on Wenlock Edge

    Vaughan Williams’ song cycle is also indirectly linked to the modern Olympics. The setting to music by the English composer of six poems from the 1896 collection of AE Housman, A boy from Shropshire, takes its name from the beautiful region of England where the forerunner of the modern Olympic Games was established in 1850.

    Forerunner of the Olympiad that we know today, the Wenlock Olympic Games were created to “promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and of the district of Wenlock” through sports activities of outdoors which included running, hurdles, cycling and team sports like football and cricket.

  3. Joseph Suk: Towards a new life

    Czech composer Joseph Suk completed his march, Towards a New Life, in time for the composing category of the 1932 Games Culture Stream, and he won a silver medal.

    The orchestral festival march is part of the composer’s later production and its tone is upbeat and inspiring, opening up to a brass and snare fanfare. It is in fact the completion of an earlier work, a military march, which Suk had started, but not yet published, several years before.

  4. Richard Strauss: Olympic Anthem

    The Olympic anthem by romantic composer Richard Strauss is a lively and catchy work for choir and orchestra, composed for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

    Strauss was approached by Dr Theodor Lewald, who was the representative of the German Olympic Committee to the IOC, to compose the music and the composer agreed on condition that he produced a text that he himself was satisfied with.

    Instead of using the then standardized Walter Bradley-Keeler anthem, Strauss’s interpretation of the “Olympic anthem” ended up competing for a lyrics composer, and Robert Lubahn was victorious – something that Strauss said he was “extraordinarily pleased” with the end of the work.

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  5. Leonard Bernstein: Olympic Anthem

    Another classical music heavyweight who composed his own version of the “Olympic Anthem” is American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

    Bernstein’s choral anthem, written for the 1981 International Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden, West Germany, is majestic, solemn and awe-inspiring.

  6. Emily Howard: Zátopek!

    Zátopek! by British composer Howard! is a “mini opera” for seven singers with adult and children’s choir and chamber ensemble, commissioned in 2012 as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

    The play is inspired by the life and amazing achievements of Czech long-distance runner Emil Zátopek who, at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, won a gold treble in the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter and marathon events.

  7. Philip Glass: the Olympian

    American master of minimalism Philip Glass composed The Olympian for the lighting of the torch and the closing of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

    “I can’t think of any event like the Olympics that makes us so aware of our shared humanity, of our common destiny,” said Glass. said of the commission. “The torch lighting ceremony seems to me to be the essential symbol, the summary of this, our common conscience… It has made it a particularly stimulating and inspiring experience for me. “

    Glass also wrote the opera Orion for the Olympics, in collaboration with Ravi Shankar, Mark Atkins, Wu Man, Foday Musa Suso, Ashley MacIsaac and Uakti for the 2004 Athens Cultural Olympiad Commission.

  8. John Williams: Olympic Marching Band and Theme

    The film music legend has given us a suitably festive and uplifting orchestral fanfare and noble Olympian theme for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Williams himself conducted the play at the opening ceremony, which took place at the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 28, 1984.

    Williams also wrote Olympic spirit (Seoul 1988), Summon heroes (Atlanta 1996) and Call of Champions (Salt Lake 2002), for subsequent Olympic broadcasts and events.

  9. Vangelis: chariots of fire

    Vangelis’ iconic theme for the 1981 film, Chariots of fire, accompanies the story of two athletes pursuing their dream of the Olympic Games in London in 1924.

    Its association with the world sporting event also didn’t stay behind the big screen – in 1984, Chariots of fire became the official theme of the Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

  10. Andrew Lloyd Webber: “Amigos Para Siempre”

    ‘Amigos Para Siempre’ AKA ‘Friends for Life’ was composed by musical theater legend Andrew Lloyd Webber for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

    The song, which has lyrics from the quill pen of Lloyd Webber and John Barry’s regular collaborator Don Black, was performed by British soprano Sarah Brightman and Spanish tenor José Carreras at that year’s closing ceremony. He reached 11th place in the UK Singles Rankings – and reached # 1 in Australia – as a result.

  11. James MacMillan: Fanfare on one note

    MacMillan’s Fanfare was inspired by the patriotic and sporty atmosphere of London 2012.

    The compact fanfare, which does as it says on the tin and uses rhythm with great effect on the unison notes of brass and percussion, was first performed in a concert on the sport theme called ‘Music Nation’, in Glasgow in March 2012.

    Scottish composer James MacMillan

    Scottish composer James MacMillan.

    Image: Alamy

  12. Michael Torke, Javelin throw

    Commissioned by the Atlanta Olympic Games Committee to celebrate the 50th anniversary season of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Torke’s orchestral piece Javelin was played during the opening ceremony of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

    Sparkling symphonic music tells the story of a swirling javelin flying triumphantly through the air towards Olympic gold hope.


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