Yesterday, NPR ran this feature on All Things Considered. It is mostly an amusing little jaunt through various pieces of music written for the Olympic Games. The story hits many of the genre’s highlights, including Spyridon Samaras’ Olympic Hymn (1896, Athens), Josef Suk’s Toward a New Life (1932, Los Angeles), Mikis Theodorakis’ Canto Olympico (1992, Barcelona), and Michael Torke’s Javelin (1996, Atlanta). With one problem: whither John Williams?
Other than a quick jab at Williams for “co-opting” another composer’s music for his own Olympic Fanfare and Theme from 1984, no mention is made of the man who has written more music for the Olympic Games than perhaps any other composer in history. With all due respect to my good friends and colleagues at NPR, this is a major omission. John Williams and Olympic music go together like Michael Phelps and gold medals.
So I checked in with Variety writer, USC Thornton School of Music professor, and the nation’s leading film music expert, Jon Burlingame, for clarification. Burlingame told me it’s not a stretch to call Williams “America’s unofficial Olympic composer.”
“When he composed the Olympic Fanfare and Theme for the L.A. Olympics in 1984,” Burlingame said, “it marked the first time that a major American composer had written a signature for the Games that was so widely accepted, recognized and remembered. Subsequent themes — Olympic Spirit in 1988, Summon the Heroes in 1996 and Call of the Champions in 2002 — solidified him as America’s go-to composer for the Olympics.”
As for the suggestion that Williams stole Leo Arnaud’s Bugler’s Dream as the opening of his own Olympic Fanfare and Theme, Burlingame says not true. “Olympic Fanfare and Theme is a separate piece of music, originally written and performed as a standalone work,” Burlingame told me. “The original 1984 album of Olympics music, was so popular it made the Billboard top 100 album chart; Bugler’s Dream opened side A and Williams’ new fanfare opened side B.”
Burlingame said the Arnaud and Williams pieces weren’t fused together until 1996, when NBC asked to have the two most famous Olympic themes juxtaposed together for their television coverage. It wasn’t Williams’ idea at all. Furthermore, Burlingame said Williams and Arnaud were “friends and colleagues in the film-music world.”
“Leo Arnaud’s Bugler’s Dream — composed in 1958, and not for the Games — was chosen by ABC Sports to herald its Olympic telecasts starting in 1968. Williams didn’t ‘co-opt’ it; by 1984 the Arnaud piece had been widely accepted as America’s unofficial Olympic fanfare simply because of its repeated use by the television networks over the years.”
A decade or two ago, in classical music circles it had become fashionable to denigrate the music of John Williams and other film composers, but those days are largely over. I don’t doubt my friend and colleague who wrote this piece has high regard for the music of John Williams. In fact, I’m sure this was a well-intentioned attempt to shine a spotlight on Olympic music beyond the pen of Williams. But to neglect to mention Williams — save for a passing dig at a clunky musical transition that he didn’t even compose — in a feature about Olympics music is akin to talking about great science fiction movie soundtracks without mentioning the score to Star Wars.
So, in celebration of John Williams and his vast contributions to the canon of Olympic music, here is all of that music in one playlist…including the Olympic Fanfare and Theme with AND without Arnaud’s Bugler’s Dream.