Olympic Fanfare and Theme

By 1984, John Williams’ film music was familiar to audiences the world over and it was only natural that the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee would turn to the city’s most famous composer of popular instrumental music when they decided to commission a fanfare to be used during the Games. While it was an honor to be asked to compose such a piece of music, the prospect was not without its challenges. Leo Arnaud’s fanfare (from his Bugler’s Dream suite written in the 1930s) had become synonymous with the Olympics since ABC began using it for its televised coverage of the Olympics in 1968. Any new composition would necessarily compete with the attachment listeners had developed to Arnaud’s theme. At the same time, the opening fanfare was to be played by herald trumpets at all of the medal ceremonies and official Olympic events, so it had to be based on the harmonic overtones these instruments were capable of producing. The music also needed to be broken into small chunks and used as “bumpers” by ABC before and after commercial breaks.

Williams met all of these challenges with aplomb, creating a piece that is the very definition of “goose bump” music. The composer told Jon Burlingame in 1992 that his music was intended to musically represent “the spirit of cooperation, of heroic achievement, all the striving and preparation that go before the events and all the applause that comes after them.” Williams conducted the premiere of the work at the opening ceremonies of the 23rd Olympiad at the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 28, 1984.

The opening fanfare is in two pieces, a triad-based ascending motive for full brass adorned by thirty-second notes from trumpets, followed by more vigorous response from trumpets supported by an accented low brass pedal that generates additional excitement by entering on the second half of the fourth beat of each 4/4 measure. These two sections then repeat (so that the fanfare section has an A-B-A-B form). A crescendo on the final chord leads to a quiet snare drum figure that is repeated throughout the following section.

Strings and horns state the broad, noble “Olympic Theme” with the “B” portion of the fanfare answering quietly in trumpets and woodwinds. Low woodwinds and strings, supported by horns, then state a jauntier melody, followed by a syncopated horn bridge colored by glockenspiel, before the jaunty tune returns and is briefly developed over scurrying string passages. This crescendos to a reprise of the “B” portion of the fanfare. Low brass now join with percussion on the rhythmic ostinato and orchestra sings the noble theme in full force. In the exciting coda, pieces of the “B” fanfare are passed around between horns and trumpets.

The score of the work calls for three flutes (one doubling piccolo), three oboes, three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare, field drum, cymbals, bass drum, suspended cymbal, chimes, glockenspiel, vibraphone and triangle), harp, piano and strings.


Williams first recorded his Olympic Fanfare and Theme with a Los Angeles studio orchestra prior to the work’s public premiere; this recording was released (along with music written for the 1984 Games by Phillip Glass, Quincy Jones, Bill Conti and others) on LPs called, respectively, The Official Music of the 1984 Games (CBS 26048) and The Official Music of the XXIIIrd Olympiad Los Angeles 1984 (CBS BJS 39322).

The composer later recorded the work with the Boston Pops, first released on the CD By Request … The Best of John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra (Philips 420 178-2) in 1987.

After moving to Sony Classical, Williams recorded the work yet again for his 1996 Olympic CD Summon the Heroes (Sony Classical SK 62592, reissued as SK 89434 for the 2000 Games), this time with Leo Arnaud’s Bugler’s Dream fanfare in place of the original opening bars of the work (a practice he continues to use in concert performances).

Sheet Music

Hal Leonard has published the full score (HL 04490152) and orchestra parts (HL 04490151) to this work as part of their “John Williams Signature Edition.”