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03 August 2012

A New Olympic Hymn?

The Olympic Hymn composed by Spiro Samara for the first modern Olympiad in 1896 has been used as the official Olympic anthem at every games since 1960, and accompanied the hoisting of Olympic flag at last week’s opening ceremony. Between 1900 and 1952 new music had been specially composed for each games, and for the 1956 Games it was decided that a new Olympic Hymn should be commissioned, to serve as a permanent anthem for future games. Prince Pierre of Monaco organised a competition, and there were almost 400 entries from 40 countries.

Olympic Hymn - James Stevens

Among the entrants was the British composer James Stevens, who died on 26 June 2012 at the age of 89. He bequeathed his compositions to the British Library, and a listing of them will appear on our catalogue in due course. He was most active as a composer of film music, but his Olympic Hymn, ‘dedicated to sport, valour and the glory of youth’, is a relatively simple work for large orchestra, a rather high-pitched tenor soloist and the massed voices of the spectators. Olympic judgesScores were to be submitted under a pseudonym – Stevens used the moniker ‘Anglo-Saxon’ – and were judged by an international panel of eminent composers convened by his former teacher Nadia Boulanger. In April 1955 the jury met for a week in Monte Carlo to assess the submissions. Each piece had a cover sheet attached to it, which the judges signed after inspecting the score: there are some very familiar signatures alongside much less well known names.

In the end, the jury awarded the prize to another of Nadia Boulanger’s students, the Polish composer Michał Spisak. However, his time of Olympic glory was limited: the winning Hymn was performed at the 1956 Games, but thereafter the Comité International Olympique decided, partly for copyright reasons, to revert to the original anthem of the 1896 Games. It has been performed ever since, in many different languages and on occasion in a purely instrumental version.


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