Monday, July 30, 2012

Musical Olympiads

Written by: Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins & Kevin Berdine

Buglers Dream-Leo Arnaud

Every four years the world gets excited about seldom seen sports. Perhaps the old saying is true, "absence makes the heart grow fonder." We sit in our comfy homes and watch others, halfway around the world, put their talents, stamina, and heart to the test. It is an extremely engaging act to watch, a few of us are even lucky enough to travel to the events and witness the valor first-hand. Someday, I hope to join the masses and sit in the stands and root for my countrymen. But what if we could see this same mania aimed at the arts?

During the Panhellenic Games, the Ancient Olympics, artistic minds were challenged side-by-side with  athletic bodies. Art events were held in Delphi at the Temple of Apollo. Here, musicians were challenged with playing the Aulos, an ancestor to the oboe, and the Kithara, an ancestor to the guitar.


Originally the games, were held each year, on a 4 year cycle.

Year 1: Olympic Games
Year 2: Nemean and Isthmian Games
Year 3: Pythian games
Year 4: Nemean and Isthmian Games
Then it would all repeat. Games were spread throughout Greece to allow athletes to compete in different years and different regions. 

The original events were chariot racing, wrestling, boxing, pankration (martial art), stadion (running), and the pentathlon. Interestingly enough, all events were performed in the nude with the exception of the chariot race. 

The Olympic games are the earliest event beginning in 776 BCE with the other events following in the next century. The Isthmian games took place at the Temple of Poseidon on the Isthmus of Corinth. Winners were awarded garlands to signify their victory. The Olympic games awarded a garland of olives, the Pythian games awarded a garland of laurel, the Nemean games awarded a garland of a head of celery, and the Isthmian games awarded a garland of pine leaves. Much like today, the victors were showered with gifts upon their return home. 

Today, and for much of the modern Olympics, music has played a large role in the games. Each national anthem is played with pride as the winner's country is saluted during the medals ceremonies. Music ushers in the opening ceremonies, and helps tell a narrative of the host country's history and culture. Events like gymnastics, ice skating, and synchronized swimming rely on music to aid in the athletic event itself. The marriage between athletics and art has not always been an easy pairing.

Historically, composers and singers were awarded prizes for hymns/compositions that were created and sung at the games; horns were used to summon the athletes to the events, and flutes accompanied the pentathlon. With the rise of Christianity and the suppression of Paganism, the Olympic games, dedicated to Zeus, were disbanded and allowed to stay historical remnants, that apitomized Greece's history, until more than 1000 years later.

In 1896, Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, sought to resurrect the Olympic games. He "wanted to capture the idea of the Olympics not only being a competition of the body, but also of the mind and the spirit." In 1894, Coubertin created an International Olympic Congress to lay down the groundwork for a new Olympic games based on the traditions of the ancient games. To epitomize his goals, Spyridon Samaras was commissioned to write "Olympic Anthem," an opening choral work for the games. 

Olympic Anthem-Spyrido Samaras

Later, in 1912, The Stockholm Olympics included prizes for painting, sculpture, literature, composition, and architecture. Judging such competitions was, and would continue to be, a difficult proposition. Like the physical events, amateurs were all that were allowed to enter the competition. To this end, noted composers did not enter the competition, but did offer their services as judges. The definition of amateur was a hard thing to nail down, however. The most notable composer of this group was Joseph Suk (Dvorak's grandson), who won a silver medal for his composition "Into a New Life." 

Into a New Life-Joseph Suk

In 1936, Richard Strauss, arguably the most famous composer to write for the Olympics, was commissioned by Hitler to write an Olympic Hymn for the Opening ceremony. Strauss, although an outspoken detractor of sport, wrote for the games because it was a great way to gain recognition on the world stage. Hitler spoke, white pigeons were released, cannons were fired, and Strauss led the Berlin Philharmonic and the National Socialist Orchestras in his Olympic Hymn. Unfortunately for Hitler, and thanks to Jesse Owens and other great athletes of many religions and colors, the 1936 Olympics were not a great showcase for his despicable idea of a "master" race. As for Strauss, his legacy is blackened by his association with Hitler.

 Strauss' uneasy relationship with the Nazis and "Olympic Hymn"

By 1948, the arts competitions had dwindled and were disbanded. The arts had become such a prominent part of the competitions, ceremonies, and celebrations that they no longer deemed it necessary to produce independent art events. 

Although official arts competitions halted in 1948, many great composers have since been commissioned to produce music for the games. Phillip Glass was commissioned in 1984 in L.A. and again in 2004 in Athens, and Michael Torke was commissioned in 1994 for the Atlanta games.

In 1984, visual spectacle was the norm. But at the games they mixed it with music by staging a performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" for 84 pianos. Also in 1984, John Williams' "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" became an integral part of the Olympics. To this day we still hear this music during telecasts of Olympic sporting events. Freddie Mercury teamed up with soprano Montserrat Caballe in 1992 to celebrate the Barcelona Olympics with "Barcelona." Later, in Nagano, Japan, Seiji Ozawa conducted the Finale to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, with no less than 5 choirs, via satellite. The choirs were from Beijing, Berlin, New York, Cape Town, and Sydney. Then, in 2008, Beijing amassed a huge drum orchestra of 2008 musicians drumming in lockstep.

In a preview to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics saw the unusual sight of a Maestro Valery Gergiev, in Vancouver, conducting the Marinsky Orchestra in Russia-by simulcast! 

 This year, 2012, was no less monumental. It was heartening to see the West-Eastern Divan orchestra performing at the proms-not necessarily Olympic, but contemporary. This orchestra, directed by Daniel Barenboim, is half Israeli and half Palestinian. A simple idea that carries great political challenges. At the Olympics, the London Symphony, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, performed "Chariots of Fire" with a piano cameo from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean). It was great to see the Brits showcasing their prowess for music, with their ability to tell a story, and the uncanny ability to have fun at their own self-deprecating expense. Bravo!  

 Olympic Fanfare and Theme-John Williams

Freddie Mercury and Montserat Cabelle-Barcelona

Mr. Bean, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra

I am sure that this year's Olympics will bring many more memorable moments, but for that we will just have to stay tuned and see for ourselves. 

1 comment: