Sunday 25 September 2016

Classical themes that gild the great sporting occasions

George Hamilton

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Maori soprano: Kiri Te Kanawa
Maori soprano: Kiri Te Kanawa

There's no getting away from the Rugby World Cup, and now that football's Champions League is back in full swing, it's an appropriate moment to acknowledge the debt both marketing departments owe to classical music. With the oval ball game's big international event the exclusive preserve of commercial television, there's no escaping its signature tune on the way into and out of the ad breaks, and the soccer competition's is equally omnipresent.

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Whatever adjustments they have undergone in the meantime, the two tunes belong firmly in the classical canon.

The rugby got in first. It was in 1987 when its premier tournament kicked off in Australia and New Zealand. Four years later, the countries that contested the then Five Nations championship hosted it jointly. ITV, the broadcast partner in the UK, sought out a suitable number to introduce their coverage, and what they came up with was not so much a fanfare as an operatic flourish.

A tune as English as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding was given a new setting and words to fit the occasion. 'Thaxted' is melody composed as a hymn by Gustav Holst and used in the middle section of 'Jupiter', one of the movements of his 'Planets' suite.

The lyrics set out to emphasise the bond shared by followers of the oval ball game across the globe, and 'World in Union' was born. Described by the people who created it as a "sonic logo", it struck an immediate chord and was taken up soon after as the official theme song of the tournament.

First performed by the Maori soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, it forged an instant link between the two hemispheres when she sang it. Football's World Cup in Italy the previous year had showcased the first concert by the Three Tenors and 'Nessun Dorma' from Puccini's 'Turandot', which they featured, hit all the right notes to become an unofficial anthem for that tournament. In 'World in Union', Rugby had its equivalent.

The UEFA Champions League evolved from the knock-out competition that featured the winners of all the various Leagues across the continent. When it launched in the autumn of 1992, it needed branding, and again the marketeers headed off to the gramophone library.

They had in mind something celebratory and what better than an anthem composed for the coronation of a king, in this case England's George II. 'Zadok the Priest' is one of four pieces specially written by Handel for the royal event in 1727. It's been played at every British coronation since.

But it's now also "that music" as professional footballers call it, the sound rings out around the great stadia, telling them they're about to perform on one of the biggest stages of them all. Where Charlie Skarbek put appropriate words to Holst's tune, composer Tony Britten took the three official languages of UEFA - English, French, and German - and blended them altogether to lay over as lyrics that are more evocative than explanatory.

Unlike the Holst/Skarbek combination which has been recorded by a variety of artists, the Champions League theme, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chorus of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, isn't commercially available. UEFA retains it as its exclusive property only to be heard where club football's elite competition is staged or before, during, and after TV broadcasts of the ties.

But you don't have to like sport to enjoy the music. In their original settings, the Holst and the Handel aren't half bad!

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

ghamilton@independent.ie

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