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Music and the Olympic Opening Ceremony: Pageantry and Pastiche

By Ron Rodman

Pastiche- noun \pas-ˈtēsh,
a : a musical, literary, or artistic composition made up of selections from different works : potpourri
b : hodgepodge

Film director Danny Boyle’s gargantuan presentation at the opening ceremonies of the 30th Olympiad in London had little to do with the actual games, but had everything to do with his vision of Britain. The show was full of pageantry, drawing upon the 17th century English masque, a sort of loosely structured play with dance, music, costumes, songs and speeches, and festive scenery, with allegorical references to royalty, who would sometimes participate in the show. All elements of the masque were present, including the participation of the Queen herself, who stepped into the narrative briefly.

Boyle’s masque was a pastiche of media types and musical genres, combining live theater, cinema, television, and music video, with a vast array of musical styles. While the spectacle catered to the long forms of live theater and the cinema, it was the music that made the ceremony successful television. Music functioned in the diegetic spaces of TV (e.g., the live performances of musicians) in music-video style scenes, with close ups of the Arctic Monkeys, Mike Oldfield, the rapper Dizzee Rascal, and (Sir) Paul McCartney. The show also featured cinematic style “background” music that carried extramusical meanings.

Whether diegetic or background, all of the music of the broadcast conveyed meanings to the audience. Some of the meanings conveyed its nationality. It was all British (aside from one quotation of “In Dulci Jubilo,” a medieval German Christmas hymn!). But, much of the music conveyed through its genre or style. The music featured in the ceremony ran the gamut from classical to rap, and each of these genres communicated something different to the audience. Here is one perspective on the significance of the musical genres.

Classical music


Classical music represented the royalty and British patriotism. Her Majesty the Queen was introduced by Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from the opera, Solomon, and Music from the Royal Fireworks. Handel, though German by birth, spent most of his career in England, and is considered English. Kenneth Brannah’s Shakespeare soliloquy was accompanied by Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations, as theatrical/cinematic background music.

The ceremonies began by showcasing the venerable British choral tradition, and children’s choirs from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales were featured singing pieces emblematic of their area: England’s “Jerusalem” by H. Hubert Parry (the “unofficial” hymn of England), Scotland’s (“Flower of Scotland”), Ireland’s “Londonderry Air” (“Danny Boy”:–was there a pun intended here?), and Wales’ “Cwm Rhondda”. Children also sang the National Anthem at the flag raising.

Surprisingly, very little of the classical genre was used for the ceremonial aspects of the pageant.

Film music


Film music, as per usual, represents fantasy. John Barry’s James Bond theme was used in the parody of the popular Bond character with the real-life Queen. The significance of this parody was not lost on NBC television commentators, who commented on this scene as a highlight of the show.

The funniest bit, and most successful as television, was Rowan Atkinson’s appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra, with Simon Rattle conducting. The orchestra performed the Vangelis’ theme to the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, with Atkinson’s characteristic mugging. Vangelis’ theme also represented fantasy in Atkinson’s dream sequence. Atkinson’s bit was ironic in that it used classical music — usually considered “serious” music — as the comedic high point of the evening.

Light Classical music


Music popular in the 1940s and 1950s was featured briefly in the transition from the pastoral to industrial scenes. This so-called “Light” music is characterized by composers such as Leroy Anderson in the USA, and Eric Coates in Britain. More composers can be found on the Robert Farnon Society website. This music represents the nostalgia of the past in Britain.

Ambient/Environmental/New Age music


Ambient music served as the bulk of the ceremonial music, marking a shift of musical functions from classical to a new sort of minimal style. Pieces with “drums and drones” were played during the lighting of the torch, and during much of the ceremonies. Mike Oldfield performed his “Tubular Bells” and other ambient during the National Health sequence.

The theme of drumming, pervasive in “New Age” music of the 1990s was also prevalent throughout the night, with amateur drummers performing throughout the pageant, led by deaf drummer Dame Evelyn Glennie. The drumming may be a response to the over 2000 drummers featured in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The remaining musical genres functioned largely as entertainment — as pure musical texts serving merely to be consumed and enjoyed by the audience. As with music in all historical eras, these genres were presented as highly valued, each representing a portion of British history.

Swing music


Though jazz is not a native musical form in Britain, a bit of swing music was performed during the National Health sequence.

Rock music


The bulk of the music of the evening was devoted to a cavalcade of Brit rock in its many forms throughout the decades of the 1950s to the present. In this mini-history of rock music, music by artists such as The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Sex Pistols, Arctic Monkeys, Prodigy, ELO, among many others were featured.

Paul McCartney served as the musical finale, with a sing-along rendition of the Beatles’ 1968 hits, “The End” and “Hey Jude”. McCartney, as the survivor of the Lennon/McCartney song-writing duo, is the national musical treasure of Britain, and his performance as finale was the expected culmination.

Rap music


Dizzee Rascal (Dylan Kwabena Mills) served as the representative of rap, and while rap is a native American musical form, it is popular world wide, and Britain has produced its own rap artists.

Boyle’s masque promised “something for everyone,” and delivered through the pastiche of media styles and musical genres. This theatrical/cinematic/televisual presentation threw everything including the British musical kitchen sink at the viewer.

Ron Rodman is Dye Family Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the author of Tuning In: American Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010.

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Recent Comments

  1. Peter D. Kaye

    It was too bad that NBC cut out the 7/7 terror victims tribute section, denying US viewers the tasteful, if surprising, synchronization of Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent).” This ambient classic is quickly becoming the contemporary icon of spirituality. I can’t help but imagine that a NBC music supervisor would have typically chosen something much more lugubrious.

  2. [...] and the Olympics: A Tale of Two Networks permalink buy this book read more Posted on Saturday, August 4th, 2012 at 3:30 am [...]

  3. [...] 17th century masque to Dizzee Rascal… Music and the Olympic Opening Ceremony: Pageantry and Pastiche by Ron [...]

  4. [...] Television Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Read his previous blog posts “Music and the Olympic Opening Ceremony: Pageantry and Pastiche” and “Music and the Olympics: A Tale of Two [...]

  5. karaoke

    Ma andate? a fare in culo … sentite la musica vera !!

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