You will certainly have heard it if you have ever watched an Olympic Games opening ceremony. A sumptuous piece of music like something out of a 19th century opera. What is its story? We take a look at the 124-year-old Olympic Anthem.
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums! You will hear the Olympic Anthem on several occasions during the Games. The first is always at the opening ceremony, when the music by Greek composer Spyros Samaras and words by poet Kostis Palamas ring out in front of the athletes and spectators in the Olympic stadium.
The Olympic Anthem is in fact the oldest emblem of the modern Games. Renowned composer Samaras was given the task of composing it to give a musical identity to the start of the 1896 Games in Athens, the first modern Games, held two years after Pierre de Coubertin had created the IOC. Samaras, then aged 35, had already established his reputation across Europe. Ten years beforehand, his three-act opera “Flora Mirabilis” was played at La Scala in Milan. His operas were much enjoyed, and were performed in all the major cities in Europe and the Middle East. He was even considered the equal of contemporary Italian composers Giacomo Puccini, Ruggero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni.
A total of nine philharmonic orchestras and 250 singers
On 6 April 1896, the Games opened in Athens. The Panathenaic Stadium was packed for the Opening Ceremony, with an audience of around 80,000 enthusiastic spectators. King George I of Greece declared: “I hereby proclaim the opening of the First International Olympic Games in Athens,” whereupon, as an eyewitness – the gymnast who became a celebrated educationalist and Greek sports leader, Ioannis Chrissafis – wrote: “Once the long applause from the spectators had died down, an orchestra and a choir, of enormous size compared with the city of Athens at the end of the 19th century, took their place at the heart of the stadium to perform the Olympic Anthem composed by the illustrious Greek musician, Spyros Samaras, with words by poet Kostis Palamas inspired by the odes of Pindar.”
While there was no form of amplification at the time, it was almost as if there had been. Samaras personally conducted a total of nine philharmonic orchestras and 250 singers! Chrissafis went on: “This imposing symphonic array so moved the souls of the spectators, from the King himself to the humblest citizen, that they wished to hear the piece a second time. It was therefore performed again.”
“Descend, reveal yourself and flash like lightning here”
The Olympic Anthem is also the words of famous Greek poet Kostis Palamas, who was born in Patras in 1859. He published his first collection of poems to great acclaim in 1886. “For writers who like Victor Hugo, I advise you to see the Greek poet, Kostis Palamas. He is one of the best placed men to talk about him, as he is himself a Greek Hugo,” was how writer Romain Rolland put it in a letter to essayist Jean Guéhenno.
The three verses penned by Palamas to accompany the music by Samaras create a bridge between the ancient and modern Games:
“O Ancient immortal Spirit, pure fathery
Of beauty, of greatness and of truth,
Descend, reveal yourself and flash like lightning here,
within the glory of your own earth and sky.
At running and at wrestling and at throwing,
Shine in the momentum of noble contests,
And crown with the unfading branch
And make the body worthy and ironlike.
Plains, mountains and seas glow with you
Like a white-and-purple great temple,
And hurries at the temple here, your pilgrim,
O Ancient immortal Spirit, every nation.”
The anthem disappears – but is back for good in 1960
Music has always been an important part of the Olympic celebrations, and it was even part of the art competitions held from the 1912 Games in Stockholm to those in London in 1948, with medals awarded for all kinds of musical works: compositions for one instrument, works for choirs and soloists, and compositions for orchestras. But the Olympic Anthem by Samaras and Palamas disappeared from view for more than 60 years.
The reason was that, at the opening ceremonies, either there was no anthem at all (especially at the first Games of the 20th century), or a work by a local composer was used or, failing that, simply the national anthem of the host country. Finally, at the 55th IOC Session in Tokyo in 1958, the work by Samaras was played for the opening by the Tokyo orchestra and choir. Those attending were spellbound. IOC member Prince Axel of Denmark then proposed: “Let us return to this paean rather than what was composed recently, and which the majority of the members do not like.” His proposal was adopted unanimously.
Thus it was played again for the first time at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Games in Squaw Valley on 18 February 1960 in front of the spectators in the Blyth Arena, and then at the start of the Summer Games in Rome on 25 August the same year. There, the anthem composed in 1896 rang out in the Olympic Stadium of the Eternal City, with words translated into Italian by Professor Sigfrido Troilo and a musical arrangement by conductor Bonaventura Somma.
After that, the Olympic Anthem became a standard part of the protocol. It is played after the parade of nations and once the Games have been officially declared open by the head of state of the host country. It can then also be used for the gold medallists competing independently, and for example was used in 1992 for the champions of the Unified Team composed of the athletes of the 12 former USSR countries. It is also played at closing ceremonies.
Kostis Palamas in all languages
The words by Palamas are frequently translated into the language of the host country, like for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and those in Atlanta in 1996; but the original words in Greek are also used, as in Montreal in 1976, Calgary in 1988, Sydney in 2000 and, of course, Athens in 2004.
At the most recent Summer Games, Rio 2016, the Olympic Anthem was sung in English by a children’s choir while the Olympic and Brazilian flags were raised on two poles in the centre of the Stadium. And for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, Korean soprano Sumi Hwang sang it in Greek at the Opening Ceremony, and 11-year-old Oh Yeon-joon sang it in English at the Closing Ceremony.
In 1896, and since 1960, the performance of the Anthem has always been a particularly moving moment, and an integral part of the Olympic protocol.