Thursday, February 13, 2014

Olympic Musical Gold - Part 2

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?

At the 1928 games in Antwerp, Danish composer Rudolph Simonsen won a Bronze Medal for his Symphony No. 2, "Hellas" Simonsen (1889-1947) composed four symphonies over the course of his career, each with a program of some kind.

His second symphony, "Hellas" is a three movement work based on the Orestia, a trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies. The Orestria won first prize at the Dionysia festival in Athens, 458, BC, which perhaps made it suitable as an Olympic competition entry.

Simonsen completed the work in 1921, seven years before the event. The21-minute work is in three movements:

1. Orestian (Orestia)
2. Ensomhed ved Templerne (Loneliness at the Temples)
3. Sejersgudinden Pallas Athene (Victory goddess Pallas Athene)

The middle movement is quite beautiful and contemplative, and the final movement is heroic and stately -- well-suited to Olympic pageantry. Simonsen wrote in a similar style to Carl Nielsen (whom he succeeded as head of the Royal Danish Academy of Music) . Simonsen's music is tonal, but not overly conservative. While the symphony may not have any memorable themes, it's a work that holds up well and is worth hearing. Significantly, no Gold or Silver medals were awarded this year. So Simonsen's score was considered the best entry, but not the best possible entry.

By contrast, "Into a New Life" concert march by Joseph Suk is short and sweet, with a memorable fanfare to start the proceedings. Josef Suk (1874-1935)  composed the work in 1920, and submitted it as an entry for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It earned a Silver Medal for Czechoslovakia. Neither Gold nor Bronze was awarded that year, so Suk's work apparently was vastly better than the other entries, if still not quite good enough for gold.

The work is a jaunty little 6-minute symphonic march that's brimming with optimism and energy. Suk was a renowned and respected composer with an impressive body of work. He was Antonin Dvorak's sun-in-law, and was colleagues with Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg. Several of his works are part of the standard repertoire: his Serenade for Strings; the Azreal Symphony in C minor; the Fairy Tale Suite, and several others.

It's not surprising that there was no Bronze awarded. It's unlikely that there were other entries of the same level of craftsmanship as Suk's march. And it also makes sense that it didn't win the Gold. Compared to Suk's best works, "Into a New Life" is good, but not great. Perhaps the judges were aware of what Suk could really do.

Next: Part 3 - 1936 and 1948!

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