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 “Bugler’s Dream” fanfare (from his Charge Suite) had become synonymous with the Olympics since ABC began using it for its televised coverage of the Games in 1968. Any new composition would necessarily compete with the attachment listeners had developed to Arnaud’s music. 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 able to produce.

Williams met these challenges with aplomb, creating a piece that is the very definition of “goose bump” music. He presented the world premiere with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall on June 12, 1984:

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, gave the West Coast premiere on Friday, July 27 at the Hollywood Bowl to open a “Prelude to the Olympic Games” concert broadcast live on KUSC-FM and other radio stations around the country. Williams then conducted the work (leading the “New American Orchestra”) at the opening ceremonies of the 23rd Olympiad at the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 28, 1984.

“I’m not an avid sports fan and I have never been to an Olympics,” Williams told The New York Times. “But from watching Olympics competition on television, I gained a feeling that I aspired to make the theme of Fanfare. A wonderful thing about the Olympics is that young athletes strain their guts to find and produce their best efforts. The human spirit stretching to prove itself is also typical of what musicians attempt to achieve in a symphonic effort. It is difficult to describe how I feel about these athletes and their performances without sounding pretentious, but their struggle ennobles all of us. I hope I express that in this piece.”

The opening fanfare consists of two sections, a triad-based ascending motive for full brass adorned by thirty-second notes from trumpets, followed by a 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 (giving the fanfare segment an A-B-A-B form). A crescendo on the final chord leads to a quiet snare drum figure, over which 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 present a jauntier melody, followed by a syncopated horn bridge colored by glockenspiel, before the jaunty tune returns, developed briefly 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 the orchestra sings the noble theme in full force. In the exciting coda, pieces of the “B” fanfare get 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 told Jon Burlingame in 1992 that he intended the work to represent musically “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 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 Olympic Fanfare and Theme as part of their “John Williams Signature Edition.”