Music to Win Gold Medals By

Pietro Metastasio. From the collection of the Diocesan and State Library in Skara, Sweden. 

The image of a gentleman with a powdered wig is a far cry from that of today’s young Olympians destined for cereal boxes and  lucrative endorsement contracts. But Italian poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) penned the libretto for a frequently adapted but little remembered opera set in the ancient Olympic games. L’Olimpiade, with a book by Metastasio, was first written for an operatic setting by Italian composer Antonio Caldara (1670-1736), but the libretto, taken from an episode in Herodotus, was subsequently used by dozens of  composers. The Music Division holds materials for many of  these settings,  including those by Antonio Vivaldi , Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Ignazio Fiorillo , Andrea Bernasconi, and many others.

The most commonly remembered Olympic theme today is Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream,” a staple of televised Olympic coverage since the 1960s.  The modern Olympic era has seen music commissions by such diverse composers as Richard Strauss (the 1936 games in Berlin),  Philip Glass (the 1984 Los Angeles games), and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who died before he could hear his music performed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Film composer John Williams  is best known for movie scores like Star Wars and Superman,  and his penchant for Aaron Copland-inspired anthems led to commissions for  the 1984 games ( “Olympic Fanfare” ) in Los Angeles, and again for the 1996 games in Atlanta  (“Summon the heroes“). Williams is not the only film composer whose music has been associated with the Olympics. The theme to the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, composed by electronic composer Vangelis,  is being used to promote this year’s games in London. And thus the modern Olympics are brought back to their roots through music. Vangelis was born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou in Volos, Greece.

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