An Olympic marathon: to record all 205 national anthems

 

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It's been an epic musical journey, beginning in Afghanistan in April and ending with Zimbabwe. The London Philharmonic Orchestra has finally recorded the last of the 205 national anthems to be played at the medal and welcoming ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics.

But the Arab Spring means the work, which ended at Abbey Road Studios yesterday afternoon, may be revisited. Libya's National Transitional Council has replaced the nation's Gaddafi-venerating anthem, while a new country, South Sudan, came into existence halfway through the sessions.

The musical marathon has taken 50 recording hours, with the LPO performing each anthem under the tutelage of composer and conductor Philip Sheppard. "I'll be perfectly happy not to hear another anthem for a long time," he admitted.

The orchestra's 36 musicians had only 12 minutes to sight read and master each anthem. Mr Sheppard had to track down recordings of some more obscure works himself.

"I hadn't heard of Bhutan and the only version of their anthem (Druk tsendhen –The Thunder Dragon Kingdom) I could find was a field recording of a man singing it in a temple," he said.

Each version must be approved by the nation's sporting associations, forcing the arranger to keep a wary eye on the recent global instability.

Libya's NTC moved swiftly to replace the anthem introduced by Muammar Gaddafi, Allahu Akbar ("God is greatest above plots of the aggressors"), and restore Libya, Libya, Libya, the anthem which marked the nation's independence in 1951 and which was used until the 1969 coup.

"The majority of anthems are about the country but Libya's was associated directly with Gaddafi," Mr Sheppard said. "It doesn't reflect the new government. I suspect Libya won't be the only nation that we have to find a way to accommodate. We can change the anthems if someone writes us a cheque to go back in the studio."

The LPO is waiting to learn the sporting aspirations of South Sudan. "I don't believe they have applied for Olympic status yet," said Mr Sheppard.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is relying on the LPO to avoid diplomatic gaffes. "There have been occasions where the wrong anthem has been played when two countries have been at war with each other," the composer said.

Anthems have been recorded alphabetically to reduce chances of a nation being overlooked. "We have been very careful; there are three different countries with the name Congo."

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton recently complained the British anthem was too short compared with those of other nations, which allows non-UK winners to savour their podium triumph a little bit longer.

Mr Sheppard said the most difficult anthems to bring something unique to are God Save The Queen and La Marseillaise because they are so familiar to most people. The longest anthem is Uruguay's, which he tried, in vain, to shorten.

"It runs to seven minutes and has seven different tunes. It's as if they couldn't decide which one to go with. I tried to chop it into bits," he said.

Even the smallest nations, who have little hope of winning a medal, will enjoy their moment of national pride.

Their anthems will be aired at the welcoming ceremony and at their arrival at the Olympic Village.

Mr Sheppard, a film soundtrack composer, admits the process of getting a thumbs-up for each of the recordings has been frustrating. The LPO had to gain copyright approval for 80 anthems. "It's like having 205 film executive producers looking over your shoulder," Mr Sheppard said.

The London Games are the first where one company, Universal Music, will write, record and publish all original music surrounding the event.

The first official release, a Torch Relay song performed by Tinchy Stryder and Dionne Bromfield, Amy Winehouse's goddaughter, is being released today. Tom Fletcher of McFly has written a theme song for the Olympics mascots. However, Universal has no plans to compile the ultimate album of 205 national anthems.

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