Olympic fanfare(s): John Williams and Leo Arnaud

John WilliamsWith the Olympics in progress, and snippets of John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme heard constantly, it seems good to take a closer look at this piece–especially since Williams’ 80th birthday is this month.

One of Williams’ challenges in composing Olympic Fanfare and Theme was writing music that could bear comparison with a 20-year-old theme that was already synonymous with the Olympics.

Another favorite Olympic theme

Ever since the modern Olympics began in 1896, music has been composed especially for various Olympiads. Most of it seems to have been forgotten soon afterward. Ironically, the best known music associated with the Olympics before Williams’ piece wasn’t composed for it at all.

‘Bugler’s Dream” by Leo Arnaud became well known largely because ABC News decided to use it as an Olympic theme beginning in 1968.

Arnaud earned diplomas from the Paris Conservatory in trombone, piano, composition, and solfege. His composition teachers included Vincent d’Indy and Maurice Ravel. Among his earliest claims to fame, he was the first trombonist to perform Ravel’s notoriously difficult solo in Bolero.

He left France in 1928 to arrange for Jack Hylton’s jazz band in England, and then moved to Hollywood in 1931, where he spent the next 35 years as an arranger first for Fred Waring and then for MGM. His other activities included conducting the Hollywood String Orchestra.

In 1958, Arnaud arranged some music for an album of military music, conducted by Felix Slatkin, called Charge! His contributions included “Buglers’ Dream,” a piece based on a cavalry trumpet call from Napoleon’s time. Details are hard to come by, but John Williams’ web page says that Arnaud wrote it during the 1930s.

Either in 1964, when ABC first broadcast the Olympics or 1968, when they first broadcast both the summer and winter games, (with more sources saying the latter) the network’s sports department obtained permission to use “Bugler’s Dream” as their theme music.

Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme

The 1984 summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. The local organizing committee commissioned Williams to compose a new fanfare. His fanfare, and not Arnaud’s, would be played for all official Olympic events, including the medal ceremonies.

Williams later told an interviewer that he intended the piece to represent “the spirit of cooperation, of heroic achievement, all the striving and preparation that go before the events and all the applause that comes after them.”

Note that the full name of the piece is Olympic fanfare and theme. The entire piece is about four minutes long. The fanfare, or snippets of it, have become as well-known as Arnaud’s piece, and largely for the same reason. ABC, and later NBC, have used it in their coverage, including before and after breaks for commercials.

The fanfare, like most fanfares, is for brass instruments only. Williams had one restriction not faced by most modern composers of fanfares. At the 1984 Olympics it would be performed on valveless herald trumpets. Therefore, he could use only the limited notes the instruments could play.

The Los Angeles trumpeters must have been considerably better than the average cavalry trumpet corps before the invention of valves. Williams requires accuracy with much quicker note values than the Napoleonic fanfares Arnaud used as a model, and Napoleon’s cavalry band was the best in the world at the time.

Williams’ Fanfare comprises two separate parts. Only the second has any role in the Olympic Theme, for full orchestra. The Theme comprises music in several different moods, sometimes answered by the second section of the Fanfare.

The Theme is, of course, much less well known than the Fanfare. It serves no purpose for network coverage. In 1996, however, NBC wanted a recording combining Arnaud’s music with Williams’.

The resulting mashup has about 45 seconds of “Bugler’s Dream” and a rather clunky transition to Williams’ music. Recordings are available of both Williams’ original composition and the mashup. Both versions are commonly heard on “pops” concerts, and perhaps more formal symphonic concerts.

In fact, I suppose, if as many people attended concerts as watch the Olympics on TV, Williams’ Theme would be almost as familiar as his Fanfare.

Here is a 1992 recording of Olympic Fanfare and Theme by the Boston Pops Orchestra, John Williams conducting.

I had real trouble finding a recording of Arnaud’s piece other than the mashup with Williams’. Here is a cut from Slatkins’ Charge!




Sources: John Williams Web Pages, Olympic Fanfare and Theme
Brian Lauritzen, In Defense of John Williams
Photo credit: Source unknown


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