In Defense of John Williams

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.

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18 thoughts on “In Defense of John Williams

  1. Pingback: The Interesting Origin of the Olympic Anthem | Variety

  2. ABC had a segue from Arnaud’s and Williams themes, a lively theme that has always stuck in my head whose name I’ve yet to learn, and is found on youtube only behind advertising voice-overs in the ’84 Olympics. What is the name of that theme, and whose recording was broadcast in (at least) the ’76 – ’84 games? Thanks!!

  3. I like John Williams and I’ve got no dog in this fight. But as an outsider, it does seem weird to me that the “Olympic Fanfare and Theme, composed by John Williams” actually starts with a bunch of music written by somebody else. He didn’t steal it nefariously, exactly — everyone at the time recognized it as the Olympic theme used by NBC and ABC — but it’s weird that he’s widely recognized as the composer of somebody else’s music. (Do a Google search for “Who wrote the Olympic theme” and you have to dig quite a bit to find Leo Arnaud.) I guess if I took the first 50 pages of “The Great Gatsby” and then wrote my own rest of the story, it would be “my” book — but the first 50 pages would still be by Fitzgerald. It’s just confusing.

  4. Pingback: Olympic Games and “Canto Olympico”, Mikis Theodorakis | Mikis Theodorakis

  5. Pingback: Olympic fanfare(s): John Williams and Leo Arnaud | Musicology for Everyone

  6. Who am I to argue anything against John Williams? According to Wikipedia, he’s ‘won five Academy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, seven BAFTA Awards, and 21 Grammy Awards. With 47 Academy Award nominations, Williams is the second most nominated person, after Walt Disney.’

    The man isn’t just a composer. He’s an institution.

    But I still keep coming away with the feeling his music sometimes sounds derivative. For example, the first time I heard the ‘Darth Vader march’ from Star Wars, it reminded me strongly of Prokofiev’s ‘The Montagues and the Capulets’ from Romeo and Juliet.

    In fairness to John Williams, though, great composers always have derived inspiration from the works of past masters. When it was remarked to Brahms the march theme from the finale of his first symphony sounded like Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ melody, his reply was ‘any ass can see that’.

    Oops. I guess that puts me in the same herd as Brahms’ critic, then! Please pass the hay …

  7. Yeah, what you said!! I think the music written for the ’84 LA games is the best of the Williams bunch. While I happen to like “Javelin” better than “Summon the Heroes,” I think the neglect and snarkiness shown to Williams in the NPR article is unnecessary and shows the writer’s ignorance.

    • Thank you, Brian – “snarky” as the writer above terms it is exactly the word that came to my mind as well when I heard the NPR story yesterday. And how great to have John Burlingame to clarify everything for us!

    • I’m just curious.Were there any local, state, or fdearel laws broken by this proposal for an Islamic community center? Did its proponents break any laws?Unless and until the opponents can prove that such laws were broken, they have NO legitimate argument against its construction. All they have at this point are emotions and/or feelings .Per the Constitution, feelings and emotions are irrelevant.As such, how these haters feel about this proposed structure is irrelevant. Local, state and fdearel laws stipulate that the proponents of this center have the right to build it anywhere they wish as long as they own the property and build it in compliance with health and safety codes.Everything legal about this proposed center is on the side of the owners and proponents (and let’s not forget the old saw about possession is nine-tenths of the law )Frankly, the blowhards have NO leg to stand on.

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