Entertainment Music

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Classical: Let the Games begin - music and the Olympics

Winning composition: Czech composer Josef Suk won a medal at the 1932 Games
Winning composition: Czech composer Josef Suk won a medal at the 1932 Games

George Hamilton

The fanfare that was the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics in the wee small hours was Brazil's salute to the quadrennial festival of sport. As ever, music played a huge part, but over the next fortnight its role - away from the gymnastics and the synchronised swimming - will be to accompany the medal ceremonies with the appropriate national anthem.

This wasn't always the case. A century ago, music - and the arts in general - were celebrated alongside sporting excellence.

The modern Olympics came into being in 1896, a revival of the games of ancient Greece, which was driven by a French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Athletics dominated - the principal among the nine sports involved - but de Coubertin wanted his Olympics to be a celebration of the human spirit, and was determined there would be a place for the arts.

It would be 1912 before his dream came true but, from then, right through to the London Games of 1948, juries awarded 151 medals for creative work inspired by sport, in the fields of architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, and music.

Ireland won three. Jack Butler Yeats's painting The Liffey Swim took silver at the Paris Games of 1924, where Oliver St John Gogarty's Ode to the Tailteann Games (commissioned by the Government to celebrate their revival that same year) was rewarded with the bronze in Mixed Literature.

There was a bronze, too, at London in 1948 for Meath Hunt Point-to-Point Races, an oil painting by the landscape artist Letitia Marion Hamilton.

There were various categories of musical competition ranging from orchestral works to chamber music and choral compositions. A glance at the names of those who were successful identifies a trend that found an echo in the run-up to the golf at this year's Games - a dearth of heavyweights from the contemporary scene.

An Italian, Riccardo Barthelemy, won the inaugural gold medal at Stockholm in 1912 for his Triumphal March, but it's his role as accompanist to Enrico Caruso that's better remembered today.

Of the 16 composers who were successful at the Olympics, only one features on 21st-century playlists. He's Josef Suk, who was awarded the only medal by the jury at the Los Angeles Games of 1932.

Suk came from the Czech countryside, and studied in Prague under Antonin Dvorak. He ended up marrying Dvorak's eldest daughter.

The music that won him the Olympic medal was a composition called Toward a New Life. It was more of a celebration of Czech nationalism - the fanfare from it came to be used as the signature tune of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile's radio broadcasts during World War II - but the judges clearly found some sporting resonance and awarded Suk his medal. Not a gold, mind you, but a silver. There was clearly something lacking.

The artistic competitions were ended in the 1950s because artists were deemed to be professionals, and the Olympics Games back then were strictly amateur. These days, the arts still feature, but as part of a cultural programme that runs concurrently with the Games themselves.

Bookending the sporting events, of course, are ceremonies which include music as a key component. Last night's opening carried on from the inauguration of the 2012 Games, which featured the London Symphony Orchestra. Four years before that, the Chinese pianist Lang Lang was a star attraction.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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