The Chess and Music Blog

Thoughts on playing

Bob at the piano (compressed)
The author, Robert Samuels, playing Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman (Mozart’s variations)

This blog shares my thoughts on two fields which engage the obsessive-compulsive side of my personality. I am an enthusiastic and unrepentantly mediocre player, whether playing music or playing chess.

That is to say, there are many contexts in which other people think I am quite a good player. As far as music is concerned, these are of course the contexts to which I try to confine myself: playing the piano at a community fund-raising event, playing the organ (very mediocre) at church. But musically, I am always chasing after the music I can hear, and know ought to be coming from the instrument. An endless quest that leaves me in genuine awe of those who really can produce the music that remains, for me, ideal. And so I teach music, I talk about it whenever I am asked, I write about it, I research into it. Because I cannot, quite, play it as I want.

Bob Samuels playing chess
The author, Robert Samuels, playing the Nimzo-Indian Defence (Capablanca variation)

As far as the game of chess goes, my standard of play is astoundingly similar. I might seem quite a good player in a casual or friendly game; I am proud to play for the fourth-best of my local chess club’s five teams. But in every serious game, I chase after the elusive brilliance I can admire in others, but never quite recapture myself.

And so I am writing this blog in the same spirit as I write about music: to try to understand what it is that enthralls me. I am convinced that the similarity of my competence in each field is no accident. The connections are multiple.

Do not expect posts in this blog to be either regular or systematic. But they will be thoughtful.


Mozart and Capablanca: playing jokes on the amateur

I am not the first person to compare José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942), the third chess World Champion, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), the Classical composer. They were both child prodigies; they are both thought by many to be the greatest exponents of all time in their fields. Emanuel Lasker, the second World Champion, and Alexander Alekhine, the fourth World Champion, both rated Capablanca higher than any other chess player. Beethoven and Haydn both rated Mozart similarly as a composer.

The comparison between Capablanca and Mozart is most seductive, though, as a comparison of style. Capablanca’s style of play seemed effortlessly simple: he had a liking for simplifying positions, exchanging pieces until there seemed to be too few left for either side to win. Capablanca would then, time and again, proceed to win the apparently drawn game. His play was so precise that there was a period of over a decade (1914 to 1925) when he lost only two games (one of them to Richard Réti, of whom perhaps more in another post). In one tournament, in New York in 1916 against thirteen other top players, he won his first twelve games in a row.

Mozart’s harmony and sense of musical timing give a similar impression of effortlessness and brilliancy combined. Much of his music is constructed from phrases and chord progressions which are, quite literally, just like those found in thousands of other works from the same period; and yet Mozart’s music is unmistakably different, because it always seems just right. It often sounds simple; it never sounds amateurish.

To conclude this first attempt (there may be others to follow) at illustrating the similarities between these two epitomes of classical grace, I am going to turn to one of Capablanca’s games and one of Mozart’s works. The game by Capablanca is not one of his best by any stretch of the imagination; neither is Mozart’s piece one of his best. But they serve my purpose because they both show the encounter between the Master and the amateur.

The Capablanca game was played in a simultaneous exhibition given in 1918 in New York. His opponent’s name is not known; in this story, he stands for the spirit of amateurism. We can stand around the virtual chessboard and admire as an audience.

Capablanca started with the most popular first move in chess, moving the King’s Pawn two squares forward (1.P-K4 or 1.e4 in chess notation). His opponent did the same (1…P-K4 or 1…e5). Then each player moved a knight, and then the other knight; each castled, moved a bishop, then a pawn. The following symmetrical position had been reached.

diagram (1)
Position after move 6

This position has probably been seen thousands of times. But at this point, the true amateurism of Capablanca’s opponent showed itself. He reasoned that, if he simply repeated the Grandmaster’s every move symmetrically, then the game would remain equally balanced and end in a draw. The next moves saw the other bishops move out, then knights move to the centre, then queens move a single square each:



At this point, Capablanca took a piece (a knight), daring his opponent to stick to his plan. He did:

Capa game m7 (1)
Position after move 10

And here, Capablanca showed his classical brilliance: a check (which of course could not be copied with another check), the sacrifice of a bishop with another check, two checks from the queen, and it was checkmate:

Capa game mating attack
The mating attack

Less of a chess game than a chess joke: a lesson in the dangers of slavishly imitating a master craftsman without understanding the craft.

The piece by Mozart I want to put next to this game is his “musical joke”, Ein musikalische Spass (K.522). No-one is quite sure why Mozart wrote this piece, but it demonstrates a very similar spirit to Capablanca’s “joking” game. Imagine the scene: Capablanca sitting opposite his amateur opponent; we are standing among the onlookers, at first puzzled by the apparently amateurish play, then at the end marvelling at the grandmaster’s brilliance. And now imagine Mozart, deliberately writing a piece which conjures up the image of an amateur composer, who slavishly copies musical phrases from other pieces without understanding how they ought to fit together; we are the audience, at first puzzled, then marvelling at how the composer of genius can portray a composer of platitudes without becoming platitudinous himself.

Capablanca’s game finishes with a swift, brutal mate-in-four. Mozart’s piece ends with the instruments playing a final cadence, but in four different keys at once. Enjoy the video below.

Richard James’s chess and music posts

Even more complete chess addict coverRichard James is jointly responsible with Mike Fox for the utterly wonderful The Even More Complete Chess Addict (Faber: 1993). In that book, they comment, in their section on famous chess-playing musicians, that “If [they] could be reincarnated, they’d look pretty good in the European club championship (and even better at the post-match concert)”.

Fortunately for me, Richard has gone beyond his 1993 book in a series of blog posts about musical chess players. His posts are mainly historical and biographical, and if you are reading this, you ought to be reading them. They appeared intermittently in a blog called The Chess Improver, and are quite hard to find as a group. So here are links to all seven:

Part 1: Philidor

Part 2: Erkel and Brodsky

Part 3: Parratt and Goldenweiser

Part 4: Oistrakh plays Prokofiev

Part 5: Taimanov plays, Smyslov sings

Part 6: Other voices

Part 7: Nette sings, Daniel plays

Is writing in sonata form like playing chess?

For students of music theory, the topic of “sonata form” is both central and daunting. The phrase “sonata form” is used to describe a kind of musical form that arose in the eighteenth century and is still in evidence today. Sonata form is arguably the most flexible, creative and widely-used form in the canon of Western art music of the last three hundred years.

Beginning students of composition naturally want to know what the rules of sonata form are: what is it that defines the form? How does a composer set about writing a piece in sonata form? The answers are nearly always frustrating. Sonata form, they are told, is less a form than a principle … or a style … or a theory; it doesn’t have hard-and-fast rules. And yet it must have rules: otherwise, it couldn’t be thought of as a form at all.

The most recent musicological book to attempt to define sonata form is Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy (Oxford University Press 2006). It is huge, compendious and brilliant. And, in answer to the frustrated student wanting to know what the “rules” of sonata form are, the authors wisely turn to the game of chess:

[…] the basic concerns of Sonata Theory are learned relatively quickly—like the moves of chess. These concerns may seem simple precisely because they are simple. […] Beyond the elementary principles of Sonata Theory, though, lies an elaborate network of possibility, nuance, flexibility, sophistication, and detail that takes patience to master. As with chess, again, one may learn the moves rapidly, but to play the game at a fully proficient level is more difficult.

(Hepokoski and Darcy 2006, p. 12)

I do not know whether either Robert Hepokoski or Warren Darcy is a keen chess player; neither of them appears in the current FIDE database of active players. But I strongly suspect at least one of them is, because the comparison is so apt. At every moment of writing a piece in sonata form, the composer is faced with a set of possible continuations; all of them adhere to the general conventions of the form, but some sound banal while others sound brilliant. And the grandmaster, contemplating which of the many legal moves on the chessboard he or she will select, is offered the same potential, the same oscillation between banality and brilliance.

Playing through a sonata form movement by Mozart is indeed much like playing through a game by Capablanca; we all know the rules, but  we can only wonder at how the results are brought about.

Why make this comparison with sonata form in particular, though? Surely any musical form: fugue, variation form, operatic aria, or whatever, has this same balance of rule-based convention and individual brilliance? Well, yes; but perhaps the connections between sonata form as a practice and chess playing go deeper. I suspect they do; but that is a topic for future posts.