Ah, the Olympic medal ceremony. Young athletes stand proudly on the winners’ platform while in the background the flag of the gold medalist’s country is hoisted to the stirring sounds of her national anthem. During the summer games in Beijing in 2008, the home town fans had a lot to cheer about: they saw their flag raised and heard their anthem played fifty-one times. The Star Spangled Banner was hoisted and played 36 times; the Russian national anthem 23 times, and the national anthem of Great Britain – the inimitable God Save the Queen – 16 times.
And what of proud France, the country that along with Italy gave us civilization, Paris, haute couture, and Catherine Deneuve? Alas, the French Tricoleur was raised and La Marseillaise played but seven times, the same number of times as the anthems of Ukraine and the Netherlands and but one more than Kenya and Jamaica.
But in truth, for those whose hearts bleed Gallic blue, white and red, there is great solace, because more French music was heard during the Olympic games (and will again be heard in London this summer) than that of any other country, by several orders of magnitude. That is because the seemingly ubiquitous “Olympic Theme”, with its thrumming drum opening and stately brass melody, was originally composed by a Frenchman.
Oui. It ees, ow you say, true. Joseph David Buhl was a French trumpet player and composer who lived from 1781 to about 1830. Buhl composed a fair number of fanfares and trumpet calls during the Napoleonic era, among them a cavalry call with the generic title of Salut aux étendards, meaning “salute to the banner”. Once written, Bruhl’s cavalry call sat in the closet of obscurity (welcome to my neighborhood) for 150 years.
Enter the conductor and violinist Felix Slatkin (father of the conductor Leonard Slatkin and the ‘cellist Frederick Zlotkin.) Among many other things, Slatkin produced quasi-“Classical” record albums for the Capitol and Liberty labels. It was for just such an album entitled Charge! that in 1958, Slatkin commissioned a French-born composer named Leo Arnaud to write a piece. Arnaud came up with something called The Charge Suite which features a section entitled “Bugler’s Dream.” You know where this is going, yes? “Bugler’s Dream” is pure larceny, based almost note-for-note on Joseph David Buhl’s Salut aux étendards. (You can listen to “Bugler’s Dream” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IizWc4cJwbw).
Fast forward to 1968. The winter Olympics were held in Grenoble France. Accidentally but oh-so-appropriately, ABC sports chose to use the French-born “Bugler’s Dream” for its broadcast theme. The theme proved to be so popular that NBC – which now broadcasts the Olympics – has continued to use it.
The story doesn’t quite end there. In 1984, John Williams was commissioned to write a piece called Olympic Fanfare and Theme for the summer games in Los Angeles. Williams’ piece begins with an arrangement of Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Fanfare”, which as we all now know was lifted from Joseph David Buhl’s Salut aux étendards. So now, as often as not, John Williams gets the credit for having written the thing. Jeesh.
So. May the French do themselves honor in London, with the knowledge that no matter how many time we hear the French anthem, French music will dominate the games like no other. Viva la Fanfare!