27 July 2012: the day that many Britons have been waiting for, and the day when the attention of the world will be focused on London and the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. As a nation we have been holding our breath in anticipation of this extravaganza: a showcase of British and world sporting talent, and the spirit of competition. But the Games are more than just sport, they are also an opportunity for the host nation to demonstrate its cultural excellence and achievements.
This juxtaposition of sport and the arts is a traditional part of the Olympic Games. When London last hosted the Games in 1948, an arts competition was run with gold, silver, and bronze prizes in the categories of architecture, literature, painting, sculpture, and music. There were 36 entries across the three music categories: vocal, instrumental, and choral/orchestral. But this was the last Olympics to run an arts competition as concerns were raised over the ethics of allowing cultural competitors to be professional whilst only amateur athletes could compete in the sporting arena. For the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, the idea of holding an arts festival remained, but this time run as an exhibition. This removed any competitive element while still celebrating cultural achievements from around the globe and created the basis for today’s Cultural Olympiad.
The Cultural Olympiad has been running since 2008 and in this time has seen 16 million people participate or attend performances in the UK — the largest cultural festival in the history of the modern Olympic Games. A highlight of the celebrations has been New Music 20×12, a project run by PRS for Music Foundation, which has aimed to bring twenty of Britain’s most exciting composers together with arts organisations to create an eclectic mix of new music from across the UK, encompassing genres as diverse as bell ringing and beat boxing. Oxford University Press house composers Richard Causton and Howard Skempton were among the composers commissioned to write new works.
Richard Causton’s Twenty Seven Heavens is a concerto for orchestra, commissioned by the European Union Youth Orchestra and will receive its UK premiere on 23rd August in Edinburgh. The title is taken from William Blake’s Jerusalem, in which the writer draws imagery from some of the East London boroughs where the Olympics will be based to explore ideas about mythology and the divine. For Blake the “twenty seven heavens” represent both the layers that the individual must pass through to reach eternity in and the challenges that this brings. For Causton they have an added layer of meaning, representing the 27 nationalities of the EUYO’s players. Richard explains his ideas for the piece and his experience of being part of London 20×12:
Howard Skempton’s Five Rings Triple is a new works for eight church bells and was played on BBC Radio 3 as the first music of New Years’ Day to ring in the beginning of the Olympic year. When interviewed about his piece, Howard said: “I was attracted to the project because it was clear at the outset that it would be a unique challenge; that I would have almost no room for manœuvre. The rules of method ringing are determined by physical constraints and the need for methods to be memorised. I was determined to create something both distinctive and musical, but I was dealing entirely with numbers. The piece follows the “rules” of method ringing, but with the unprecedented five rings for the lead bell.”
While since 1952 the Cultural Olympiad has sought to maintain the spirit of only amateurs actually competing and professionals exhibiting, the sporting event has started moving in the other direction; professionals are now allowed to compete in nearly every sport. As sporting professionals compete, should we see a return to competition in the arts? Or should the Cultural Olympiad stay true to the spirit of the founders of the games? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
Photograph of Howard Skempton playing the church bells by Anwen Greenaway.