Friday, February 14, 2014

Olympic Musical Gold - Part 3

In Part 1 I outlined the strange history of the arts competitions at the modern Olympic Games. From 1912 through 1948 medals were given for classical music compositions (when merited). So what did these works sound like? Did they encapsulate the Olympic ideal?

In Part 2, I looked at two of the four winners (whose Olympic music I was able to find), from the 1928 and 1932 games. This installment I present medalists from the 1936 and 1948 games -- the final one for the arts competition events.

I have no way of knowing this, but when I survey the winner's list for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, it looks like the fix was in. That year the music composition category was divided into three events; Solo and Chorus, Instrumental, and Orchestral. There were no medals awarded for Instrumental, but the other two categories were a different story.

Germany swept the Solo and Chorus event:  Paul Hoffer "Olympic Vow" (Gold), Kurt Thomas "Olympic Cantata 1936" (Silver), Harald Genzmer "The Runner" (Bronze).

And the Orchestral event looks a little fishy, too. Werner Egk won the Gold for Germany with his "Olympic Festive Music," Lino Liviabelle from Axis ally Italy took Silver for "The Victor," and  Bronze going to Czech composer Jaroslav Kricka for "Mountain Suite." (Czechoslovakia would become part of the Third Reich within two years).

What does Werner Egk's "Olympic Festive Music" sound like. Quite odd, actually. I had expected something martial and imperial.  Instead, Egk turns in a sparse work that seems to owe more to Stravinsky and Weill than Wagner. Werner Egk (1901-1983), despite his modernist tendencies, enjoyed a successful career in Nazi Germany (although he never joined the party). Most of his major works were composed after the war, but this march actually presages what was to come.

John Weinzweig (1913-1986) was a prominent Canadian composer. His "Divertimento No. 1 for Flute and Strings" won Silver at the 1948 Olympic games in London. It was the highest-placing work in the Instrumental and Chamber Music event. Weinzweig wrote prolifically for the CBC, and also scored several Canadian films. The bulk of his compositions were for orchestra, although his output for chamber ensembles is also quite large. This divertimento proved to be the first of a series of eleven that he wrote for a solo instrument with string orchestra accompaniment.

The work itself is quite melodic, with some piquant harmonies. The melody sometimes takes twists and turns that echo Prokofiev, but Weinzweig has an original compositional voice.

(Note: in the recording below, taken from a live broadcast, there are a few dropouts. But it was the best version I could find).

It's a shame that this Olympic event was discontinued, but perhaps it was for the best. Most of the winners are virtually unknown today, and of the medal-winning compositions, I could only find four that were recorded in any form. A curious footnote to the modern Olympics the music competition remains -- and one that still remains largely unheard.

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