“It’s not a bad piece of music,” said William Guegold, a retired music professor from the University of Akron and the author of “100 Years of Olympic Music,” published in 1996. “It’s just not something that has wide public appeal to it or would be a popular piece in any way.”
A faithful few might recognize it as the official anthem, or hymn, of the Olympics. It is traditionally played at the opening and closing ceremonies, and is somewhat forgettable.
The women’s figure skating final is Friday here; Thursday night on the East Coast. The Russian skaters Alina Zagitova, 15, and Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, are the consensus choices to win gold and silver. Whenever the Olympic hymn is played, for one of them or any other athlete from Russia, it will not be the first time that the song was used in place of a national anthem.
In 1992, for example, gold medal winners from the Unified Team, consisting of athletes from the recently fractured Soviet Union, were feted with the Olympic hymn. They watched as the Olympic flag was raised to the rafters to the sound of a little-known Greek composer’s song, sapping the usual emotion from the proceedings.
That, apparently, is the point of banning the Russian anthem — to take away a bit of the national pride in the accomplishment of winning a gold medal.
The unintended consequence: more Samaras.
Born in 1861, Samaras was Greece’s most famous composer when the ancient idea of the Olympics was rebooted in Athens in 1896. He had moved to Paris, then to Italy, where he built a reputation for operas in the style of a contemporary, Giacomo Puccini.
Samaras accepted an offer to write a hymn for the Olympics, certainly unaware it would be the most lasting part of his legacy. (One measure? Spotify’s library includes one song from Samaras: Olympic Hymn.)
“These were the reconstituted Games by Pierre de Coubertin, designed to be competitions of the body, mind and spirit — this uplifting, Greek, heroic ideal,” Guegold said. “So they wanted a piece that exhibited that.”
What the Olympics got was a romantic, accessible piece, with lots of brass and drums, and a softer middle section wrapped around a poem written by Kostis Palamas, another Greek, and dripping in schmaltzy grandeur.
The style set the tone for future Olympic songs, including “Bugler’s Dream,” by Leo Arnaud, known widely to American television audiences, and John Williams’s “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” from the 1984 Los Angeles Games. (Those two, sometimes clumsily stitched together, are still used on NBC’s Olympic telecasts.)
“The beginning is very much a fanfare,” Guegold said. “The trumpets blowing the call, getting everybody to come together. It has that sort of rhythmic quality, musical triplets and fanfare devices.”
The middle section of praises is sung by choirs, including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, often with Palamas’s words translated into the local language. In 1988, at the Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, they were sung in Korean.
“Then the end has a nice big splash again,” Guegold said. “It grows, gets louder, and has a strong finish to it in terms of its grandeur.”
Some renditions last about four minutes. Shortened versions, usually little more than a minute, are used when called upon for medal ceremonies.
Samaras’s most famous composition nearly died in obscurity, resurrected only after decades in a coma. (He placed it in a 1908 opera of his as an overture, but that did not do much to add to its popularity at the time.) After Athens, subsequent Olympic host cities sometimes commissioned their own songs, a string of one-hit wonders.
It was not until Richard Strauss composed a piece for the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin that the International Olympic Committee became smitten with the idea of a single, official anthem. It granted the status to Strauss’s hymn.
It did not last. World War II came and the Olympics were suspended until 1948, when they were held in London. England was not about to play a German song as an official Olympic anthem. (Germany, along with Japan, was not invited to participate.) The English found their own hymn, as the Finns did for the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki.
The Olympic committee still wanted a permanent hymn. A contest was created in 1954, giving candidates less than a year to create a full orchestral score (vocal optional) of three to four minutes. A jury would select the winner.
There were 392 entries. The winner was “an ultramodern atonal work,” according to the Historical Dictionary of the Olympic Movement, that was submitted by a Polish composer named Michael Spisak. As with the work of Samaras and Strauss, Spisak’s song did not last more than one Olympic cycle.
“It was never terribly popular,” the authors of the Olympic dictionary wrote, “and Spisak’s demands for excessive royalties resulted in it not being chosen as the official Olympic anthem.”
In a history of the anthem written for the International Society of Olympic Historians, Philip Barker noted the lingering desire for a singular anthem.
“In the highly politicized Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s, the Olympic anthem was often suggested as a way of defusing excessive nationalism,” Barker wrote.
A Greek member of the Olympic committee saw an opportunity to rekindle interest in Samaras’s original score. He nudged a Japanese counterpart before committee meetings in Tokyo in 1958, and an orchestra played the song from 1896. Members hastily adopted it as the official anthem in time for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, and it has remained that way since.
Samaras never knew. He died in 1917.
Host countries still like to add their own songs to the mix at the opening and closing ceremonies (that’s where Williams’s Olympic song came from, in 1984) but with little lasting effect beyond a footnote to sports history. Only one song, besides the national anthems — and, in this case, in place of a national anthem — is heard at every Olympics.
“The Olympics is an organization that likes tradition,” Guegold said. “Once they set something in motion and it settles in, it lasts. I don’t foresee a time where they say, ‘O.K., now we need something different.’ I think we’re going to have it for quite a long time.”
That might be music to the ears of Greeks, though there are only a few of them competing in South Korea. Mostly, depending on the athletic success of the Russians, it could be music — vaguely familiar, sometimes out of time and place — to the ears of everyone else.