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.
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.
At the press conference that served as the opening ceremony for the World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, being held in London at the time of writing, the American challenger was reminded by a chess journalist that Carlsen had been described as “the Mozart of chess”. He was asked what similar comparison he would make of himself. His reply was:
My musical tastes lie more outside classical music, so I would probably pick someone either in the hip hop or the rock genre. This comparison to Magnus was made a long time ago, when he was a very talented up-and-coming player, and I think it was very fitting because of his great talent in chess.
(Fabiano Caruana, 8 November 2018)
The second part of Caruana’s answer shows that he may not fully appreciate the reasons for comparing Carlsen with Mozart, which have as much to do with the elegance and apparent simplicity of his play as with the fact that he was a child prodigy. Carlsen as a player reminds many of his great predecessor as World Champion, José Raul Capablanca, whom I compared to Mozart in my post Mozart and Capablanca: playing jokes on the amateur.
It is true that Caruana was less of a child prodigy than Carlsen: in his first chess tournament, he lost every game. On the other hand, he developed fast, earning the grandmaster title a few days before his fifteenth birthday (Carlsen became a grandmaster aged thirteen). But his suggestion that his play might be better compared to hip hop or rock is suggestive. For a start, it recalls the player he is most regularly compared with, the only American chess World Champion, Bobby Fischer. Fischer, an unpredictable genius over the board, considered himself a great rock singer, as I pointed out in Bobby Fischer: lost rock god?.
In part, Caruana’s answer simply refers to his musical tastes, which he also described in a pre-match interview for The Guardian:
He [Caruana] grew up on classic rock and spent many tournaments listening to Metallica and Led Zeppelin during his downtime, but has taken a shine to hip-hop in the last few years. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and a lot of Killah Priest,” he says. “But it changes all the time. When I’m bored and I have nothing to do, I’ll just listen to random pop music.”
Nevertheless, I see no reason not to ask: what would “hip hop” chess look like?
Hip hop chess
Before going further, I must point out that there indeed exists a Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF). It is a California-based charity which uses chess and other disciplines to help children’s academic and social development in some of the most deprived urban areas of America and elsewhere. Its work is clearly brilliant, and I urge you to read about HHCF here.
However, to stay with hip hop as a music genre and the playing style of Caruana: in hip hop, an essential effect of the music is its non-stop urgency: a rapper has to obey the rules of rhyme and metre, impress the audience with verbal dexterity, and create the impression of unstoppable force, often with a shocking or sudden punchline as the end-point. Here’s an example from Kendrick Lamar, the artsit mentioned by Caruana above. It’s the end of “King’s Dead” (an appropriate title for a chess rap), from the soundtrack to the 2018 film Black Panther:
Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven and not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y’all want me under
All hail King Killmonger
Red light, green light, red light, green light
Red light, green light, they like, we like
Now here is one of Caruana’s great wins. It was played in Dortmund in 2014, against the Ukrainian grandmaster Ruslan Ponomariov. The devotee of hip hop in this game cultivates on the chessboard a “rapping”, non-stop urgency in his play, with threats maintained on both sides of the board simultaneously. Ponomariov, having to rush his defensive pieces from one side to the other, ended up with the following position:
Black’s bishop and rook have been decoyed to the far side of the board from the black king. But Caruana’s next move, which of course he had foreseen several moves in advance, comes like a Led Zeppelin power chord:
To Ponomariov’s credit, he did not resign immediately, but allowed the combination to unfold on the chess board (Fischer once described his opponent’s resignation in similar circumstances as “a bitter disappointment”.). Like a non-stop rap, Caruana has given up his rook only to have the chance to give up his bishop:
The ending is a wonderful checkmate:
“King Killmonger”, indeed!
So, who will win? Mozart or hip hop?
Of course, I cannot predict the outcome of the current title match: World Championship matches can take surprising turns; I covered one of the most surprising of all time in my post Music in Glavinic’s chess novel. As I write, the first four games have all been drawn, although in my judgment the World Champion has had the edge whenever there has been an edge to have. All of us who follow the game hope to see a genuine clash of styles: the classical, cool calm of Carlsen (who has already tested Caruana through an endgame that lengthened the first game to 115 moves played over seven uninterrupted hours) against the unpredictable “hip hop” of Caruana. The match is not unlike the 1927 World Title match when the Mercurial Alexander Alekhine defeated the first “Mozart of chess”, Capablanca, to the astonishment of most onlookers. Notoriously, Alekhine avoided ever giving Capablanca a rematch.
Perhaps Caruana should remember, though, that the title that denotes a rapper of distinction – the one at the top of the game – is made up of a significant two-letter acronym: MC.
There have been any number of chess giants who were also musicians, of course; the greater their standing in the world of chess, the more intriguing their musical achievements. Some could have been professionals in either sphere, the concert pianist Mark Taimanov and the operatic bass Vasily Smyslov being examples. There are many more in Richard James’s chess and music posts.
Here, however, is a case of a chess giant who could also have been a singer to rival John Lennon, or at least so it would seem from this intriguing 1961 interview with the great American champion Bobby Fischer:
D. ANDRIC: Some other participants of the tournament [in Bled, Slovenia] persuaded Fischer to sing when at a Bled night club one evening, hoping to have some fun at his expense. They were hushed to awe however, when he sang a series of rock and roll songs attractively and well.
FISCHER: “My main talent lies not in chess but in music: I’ve written this somewhere in my diary. Grandmaster Smyslov who could be an opera singer anywhere admitted I had a suitable voice, and I’ve got rhythm, too.”
As far as I know, this is the only recorded instance of Fischer’s claim that in becoming the only chess player ever to achieve truly global celebrity, he robbed the world of a true rock god. I owe this fascinating quotation to the chess writer and researcher Jeremy Silman, who unearthed it in the March 1962 edition of the American magazine Chess Life, a journal whose early issues are particularly hard to obtain: no library in the UK, not even the British Library, keeps copies. Silman’s article on these treasures of chess journalism (Part Two of a three-part series) can be found here.
The 1961 tournament in Bled was a good one for Fischer: at the age of eighteen, up against many of the world’s best players, he was the only player to remain unbeaten throughout, and he finished a very narrow second to Mikhail Tal, who had been World Champion until a few months previously:
Even better, Fischer defeated Tal in their individual game, the only one that Tal lost in the tournament:
Bobby Fischer was born in the same year as Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Roger Waters. His teenage claim that his musical talent was even greater than his chess-playing ability obviously tells us more about his incredible self-confidence and self-belief than anything else. But it is a reminder that he was of the same generation as the Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the other greats of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll. Perhaps the rock legends who played chess will be a future post in this blog. Here are four:
When is chess rock ‘n’ roll?
Bobby Fischer came closest of anyone to playing chess like rock ‘n’ roll. First of all. there were the tantrums: forfeiting a match when the start time of a game was rescheduled; accusing the Soviet chess establishment of cheating by fixing results to prevent him from winning a tournament (he then refused to play at all for nearly two years); insisting on playing some of the world title match against Boris Spassky in the tiny room at the back of the hall reserved for table-tennis instead of on the main stage (which he claimed to be too noisy). Fischer was as much a nightmare for officials and organisers as any rock diva demanding, say, a particular brand of white socks be supplied to their dressing room (Status Quo once refused to play on those grounds). You can read more about such things here.
But more to the point, Bobby Fischer was someone who could play chess like rock and roll. Here’s what I mean:
When this game was played, Fischer was fifteen. He was also the defending US Champion. Reshevsky, playing Black, was one of the strongest grandmasters in the world, who had previously won the US Championship seven times, and would again one last time in 1969.
In this position, Fischer played the chess equivalent of a rock power chord:
Astonishing! After ten moves, Reshevsky is lost. He gamely took the marauding bishop with his king, and Fischer played:
Another power chord! In the resulting position, either Reshevsky is going to take the knight with the king, in which case it is checkmate in a maximum of six moves (Fischer had worked that out); or Fischer is going to win the black queen (which is what actually happened — Reshevsky took the knight with the pawn, allowing Fischer to take the black queen with his queen). Reshevsky eventually resigned on move 42.
That’s chess rock ‘n’ roll.
Here’s another chess rock moment, from Fischer’s game against Robert Byrne (another American grandmaster) in the US Championship of 1963:
Time for another power chord:
Fischer’s opponent did not realise until several moves later why Fischer had given up a whole piece. After move 21, Byrne resigned. The two grandmasters explaining games to the public in the commentary room thought, when the game ended, that Byrne must have won since Fischer was so far behind in material. Fischer later described his opponent’s resignation as “a bitter disappointment” — it had prevented the following position actually happening on the board:
Here, Fischer had foreseen another two-piece sacrifice leading to mate:
Move 23: The rook is sacrificed
Move 24: The bishop is sacrificed
Move 25: Checkmate
Checkmate on move 25, following a piece sacrifice on move 15. That is chess rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock and roll in performance is very loud; chess is usually very quiet. But the display, bravado and technical brilliance of Bobby Fischer was the same as that of the greatest rock performers. The brilliant moves above did not come out of nowhere; they rely on absolute technical mastery, as much as a Brian May guitar solo.
Perhaps the best moment to end on is the turning point of Fischer’s greatest match, when he won the world championship by defeating Boris Spassky in 1972. In the first five games of the match, Fischer had lost two (one of them by not turning up), and won two. In the sixth game, Fischer played an opening he had almost never played before. He proceeded to win with such style that Spassky, on resigning, stood and applauded him.
The value of five-finger exercises and pawn endings
One of the things I disliked most in my childhood was piano practice. Not that I disliked playing the piano; in fact, I spent quite a lot of time sitting at the piano and playing things through. But I did very little practising. Playing scales, or other keyboard exercises, were things I almost never did. Partly, this was because my piano teacher (whom I liked very much and to whom I owe a great deal) did not teach me how to practise, nor explained to me why practising is important, and how it differs from playing pieces through and hoping that by repetition you will play them better.
Much the same was true of my early experiences of playing chess. I learned the moves from my father; I played at a club at school and later for a club in the local league; but all I ever did was play games. I did try to memorise some common opening moves (which I found very difficult to do beyond the second or third move), but no-one ever suggested to me that playing chess might be a skill that required practising.
The proverb, “Practice makes perfect” therefore intrigues me. What exactly is practice? Is it just playing a piece on the piano again and again, or playing games of chess as often as possible, with the hope in both cases that improvement will be the inevitable result? Or is there more to it than that? Equally, what does it mean to play music, or to play chess, “perfectly”? Is that even possible? And will it result from proper practice?
My attitude to piano practice changed abruptly and forever when I was sent to a new teacher as part of starting my music studies at university. That teacher was Phyllis Palmer, who is something of a legend amongst those who ever studied with her. At my first lesson, she told me that the piece I played to demonstrate my standard was badly chosen, my posture was dreadful, and my technique was poor. She also introduced me to a book of piano exercises, recommending I try the easiest two. “These,” she remarked, “are what a professional would use for the whole of their career.”
What do you do when you practise?
Here is one of those piano exercises by Dohnányi to which the redoubtable Phyllis Palmer introduced me:
When I first saw this, it looked trivially easy. You put your five fingers on the five white notes C, D, E, F and G, and only use one hand (to begin with; you add the other hand, an octave lower, later). You keep one note depressed while you play the others. The pattern changes by one note in each bar until it repeats itself. Easy.
Then I tried playing it. I couldn’t.
Nowadays, I often start a practice session with this exercise, which trains your fingers to move independently, and makes them stronger. It is an exercise that shows the value of practising.
Now here is a chess position to which, a year or two earlier, an older member of my chess club introduced me:
“What do you think of this position?” He asked me. “It’s Black to move.”
“It looks like a dead draw,” I replied.
“Quite right. Try and play it out.”
Since Black’s king can’t go forwards, I moved it one square backwards. “Ah!” said the older player who then, in a few more moves, forced my king into the corner, took all Black’s pawns, and won.
The position should indeed be a draw. But of Black’s five legal moves, four lose. It is a position which shows the value of practising.
Five-finger exercises and pawn endings
There is an affinity between five-finger exercises and pawn endings like the ones above. They enable you to develop the kind of ability which underlies much more complex tasks, which however cannot be attempted unless the “practice” task is completely mastered.
The piano exercise by Dohnányi is not a great piece of music, but if you can play it perfectly, then your fingers will be able to attempt the counterpoint of a Bach fugue or the figuration of a Chopin Étude. Equally, the pawn ending is not a great game of chess; but if you know how to draw and not lose the ending, you will be able to tread a path through real, tricky endgames.
Both kinds of exercise look deceptively simple. The first bar of the Dohnanyi exercise is fairly easy, in fact; the second bar is a lot harder, and the third bar really takes practising. Pawn endings share this deceptive quality. Here is an apparently symmetrical, equal position; White is to move. It is a win for White.
On the other hand, if the kings are anywhere except in the corners, the result is different:
White to move. A draw.
White to move. Another draw.
And here is a similar position where, if White is to move then White will win, while if Black is to move then Black can draw:
How do you practise?
Now that I am no longer a child, and thanks to Phyllis Palmer’s accurate assessment of my weaknesses, I enjoy practising the piano. A regime of Dohnányi’s A Legfontosabb Ujjgyakorlatok [Essential Finger Exercises] and Bach’s immensely beautiful, immensely tricky 48 Preludes and Fugues (Book 1 in odd-numbered years, Book 2 in even-numbered years) will keep me happy for the rest of my life, I should think.
Practising chess technique used to be more laborious, requiring books of puzzles, endgame studies, and the like, as well as a board and pieces (unless you could play blindfold, which I cannot). That, however, has been entirely changed by the internet. Nowadays, a regime of practising using an internet chess site is a direct parallel to practising a musical instrument. The examples above were endgame puzzles; here is an example from Chess.com’s training website, where you need to remember basic pawn technique to win an ending that looks as if it comes from a real-life chess game:
I try to practise every day. Like Schumann, I try to make Bach my “daily bread”. In chess, I am still very poor at endgames, partly because I prefer to practise tactical puzzles which reinforce the kind of pattern recognition I waxed lyrical about in Creating patterns.
I certainly don’t manage to practise the piano every day, but I do usually manage to practise chess tactics (which takes a lot less time). And in both realms, there is no doubt that my technique has become a lot more secure.
So, does practice make perfect?
No, of course it doesn’t. At least, not in the sense that I will ever become a pianist to rival András Schiff or a chess player to rival Magnus Carlsen. However, what practice can perfect is that underlying technique that can allow you to aspire at least to competence. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I can play that Dohnányi exercise as well as anyone; and ninety-nine times out of a hundred I can draw a drawn pawn endgame, or win a won pawn endgame. It is practice that enables me to stop worrying about the routine business of playing the right notes or choosing reasonable moves, and get on with the rewarding business of interpreting great music or formulating chess strategy. But in both contexts, that is true only if I keep practising, daily if possible.
Even a professional pianist or a professional chess player has to practise – in fact, professionals practise an awful lot more than I do or could. It was Phyllis Palmer herself who first gave me that well-worn adage: “An amateur practises until they can get it right. A professional practises until they can’t get it wrong.”
The number of novels that centre on the game of chess is small, but it does include works by some significant authors. I have already traced the role of music in Nabokov’s chess novel, The Luzhin Defense. Perhaps the most-discussed chess novel is Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle, translated as The Royal Game and, more simply, Chess. Zweig’s novella does not allot a large role to music, which is perhaps surprising, since Zweig grew up and lived in Vienna from the 1880s until his exile in the 1930s. Zweig was a librettist for the composer Richard Strauss, and possessed a large collection of music manuscripts, including Mozart’s handwritten catalogue of his own works. It is clear from Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, however, that for him, the music of Vienna was equated with the culture destroyed by the advance of National Socialism. His Schachnovelle, written in 1941, is among other things a protest against the philistinism of modern Europe in which music can no longer sound. Shortly after completing it, Zweig and his wife committed suicide.
So once again my exploration of music, chess and their common themes leads me back to the Vienna of the fin-de-siècle. And this is also the setting of the novel on which this post focuses, Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, published in 1998 by the contemporary Austrian author Thomas Glavinic. It is a short novel, and well worth reading. I advise you to get a copy if you have read this far into this blog post. It is also a straightforwardly historical novel, based on one of the most notable matches ever played for the chess world championship.
The match in question was between Carl Schlechter (1874-1918), one of the the strongest players of his day, and Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), the second World Chess Champion. The match took place in 1910. It was a ten-game match, with the first five games played in Vienna, where Schlechter was born and lived, and the second five in Berlin, Lasker’s home city.
The match was tied, and according to the rules agreed before its start, Lasker retained the title. Lasker was extremely fortunate: Schlechter led 1-0 at the half-way point of the match, and Lasker only managed to achieve the tie by winning the last game, in which Schlechter first had the advantage, and then mis-played a drawn position. Few would doubt that Schlechter was the one player who seriously rivalled Lasker’s status as World Champion in the twenty-seven years that he held the title between defeating Wilhelm Steinitz in 1894 and losing to José Raul Capablanca in 1921.
Schlechter had only one weakness as a player, which was his tendency to accept offers of a draw. From that stems the title of Glavinic’s novel.
Music in the names
One might wonder why Glavinic decided to rename the protagonist of the novel “Carl Haffner” rather than “Carl Schlechter”. “Schlechter”, after all, could be a motivated name, since it means “worse” in German. Nearly all the characters based on historical people appear in propria persona: Emanuel Lasker, of course, along with famous players of the day such as Janowski, Marshall and Tarrasch; but in the first chapter we meet Carl Haffner’s clubmates, the lesser-known chess masters Max Weiss and Hugo Fähndrich, and all the members of the Vienna Chess Club seem to appear under their own names.
There are just two characters based on real people whose names have been changed. One is Haffner himself, of course, and the other is the first person we meet in the book, Georg Hummel, the chess correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, editor of the Wiener Schachzeitung and a notable chess player in his own right. Hummel is based on Georg Marco (1863-1923), who was indeed one of the strongest players in the world in the 1890s, and whose match with Carl Schlechter in 1893 marked the beginning of Schlechter’s international recognition. The ten-game match finished with every game drawn.
Glavinic, then, has chosen to rename two characters, presumably because his fictionalised versions of them depart from what is known of their historical counterparts (although as far as I can discover, we know remarkably little about either Schlechter or Marco). What is notable, though, is that both the names he uses have musical resonances. The name Haffner suggests two works by Mozart: the “Haffner Serenade” and the “Haffner Symphony”. Both were written for Mozart’s friend and contemporary, the Salzburg aristocrat Sigmund Haffner. And the name Hummel suggests Johann Hummel (1778-1837) the composer and virtuoso pianist of much the same period as Mozart. Mozart lived in Vienna; the Haffner Symphony was premiered there. Hummel worked in Vienna, as Director of the Imperial Military Music School.
Music, then, is in the background of the novel – in what literary critics might call its intertext. Or perhaps Glavinic’s choice of fictional names is pure coincidence, plucked out of his Viennese subconscious.
The suggestion of a musical as well as a Viennese background to the novel becomes stronger, however, when the role of music in the narrative is considered.
Music in the background
It would be an exaggeration to say that music plays a central role in Glavinic’s novel. However, the role it does play is significant. Glavinic renames his protagonist so that Carl Haffner can have a fictional family background and fictional formative experiences. Chapters narrating his Bildung alternate with those narrating the chess world championship, which are simply an imaginative re-telling of the Schlechter / Lasker match.
There are three family members who together define Carl’s personality, and music plays a significant part in all three relationships.
The successful grandfather
Carl’s grandfather Rudolph is a comic playwright whose greatest opportunity was being invited to write the libretto for Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus. He flunks the chance: “Failing to grasp the importance of his task, he supplied Strauss with a poor, half-hearted piece of work.” Glavinic is adapting history here: the libretto for Die Fledermaus, to this day the most popular operetta of all time, was in fact written by a real Carl (not Rudolph) Haffner, who was indeed a well-known comic playwright. And the writer credited as the lesser co-author of the libretto, Richard Genée, later claimed that he had to completely rewrite the original text and that he had never even met Haffner.
The Rudolph Haffner of Glavinic’s novel, although successful, fails to understand the significance of music, as the incident with Die Fledermaus demonstrates. He forces his son Adalbert to learn the violin, which Adalbert detests. Adalbert (the fictional Carl’s father) becomes completely alienated by his father, and leaves home on his twenty-first birthday with the words “I’m off to play some music”. He then earns his living by playing the violin in Viennese wine gardens. He marries, without telling his father, and Carl is born.
The drunken father
Adalbert is a violent drunk who does not love his wife and hardly provides for his family. Eventually, he elopes with a barmaid, produces a half-sister for Carl and dies in poverty. His abandonment of his wife and child, the most significant and traumatic event of Carl’s childhood, is narrated as the meeting-point of (reader, you guessed it) music and chess:
On the evening after that eventful night [when he decided to leave his family], Adalbert took out his fiddle and played it in one of the wine gardens where he was still welcome. Although completely out of practice, he soon got into his stride because he wanted to play. Not the cloying taproom melodies he detested so heartily, but classical music of a wild and passionate nature. He played as if possessed by the devil. No one in the establishment had ever heard the like.
The next day, with Carl’s hand in his and the money he had earned in his pocket, he called on Samuel Gold, who ran a bookshop not far from the Gasthaus zum Hirschen. He put some coins on the counter and told the bookseller, without more ado, that the money was all he had. It would have to suffice to equip Carl with a chessboard, a set of chessmen to go with it, and the principal textbooks on playing the game.
(Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, p. 70)
Samuel Gold, incidentally, is a real historical personage: he was a composer of chess problems who in 1887 became the thirteen-year-old Carl Schlechter’s first (and only) chess tutor.
The loving half-sister
Finally, there is Lina Bauer, Carl’s half-sister (the product of Adalbert’s elopement) and the person Carl seems to care about more than any other. He spends the evening before the match with Lasker with her, when “She played his favourite piece on the piano before he left.” And when the match moves to Berlin for its second half, he again spends the evening before his departure with Lina:
After they had a snack lunch together, she sat down at the piano. […] He didn’t know why, but he felt nothing for any woman, apart from the one who was playing his favourite tune at that moment.
(Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, p. 88)
The piano that Lina plays is itself an emblem of Carl’s love for her:
Carl watched Lina grow up with warm-hearted affection. When he asked her what she wanted most of all, she confessed that she dreamed of playing the piano. Carl paid for her piano lessons. Meantime, he scrimped and saved until he had amassed enough money for a second-hand concert grand. He did not mind limiting himself to one meal a day and wearing a thin, threadbare jacket in winter. The day on which the piano was delivered meant more to him than any victory ceremony.
(Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, p. 138)
Music runs, then, as a background to the story of three generations of the Haffner family. It is also just about the only activity that interests Carl other than chess. The evening before the final game of the match, which Carl has only to draw to become World Champion, he spends in the smoking-room of his hotel:
Carl’s attention was focused on a figure in a black tailcoat. A lean, angular man of melancholy mien, he went over to the piano and bowed. Carl, who knew the cheerful piece he proceeded to play, listened spellbound. […] Carl’s excited reflections on the world championship were challenged, and eventually defeated, by the music.
(Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw, pp. 146-47)
What is the music doing?
I do not know whether Thomas Glavinic is a musician. He is certainly a good chess player, as his entry in the FIDE international database of chess players proves.
He does not describe the games between Haffner and Lasker, as they are played, by using musical metaphors (unlike Nabokov). However, music is the inescapable subtext of the entire book. There is a kind of counterpoint between chess and music which sets in relief questions such as playing for love or playing for money; performing because others require it or because you are driven to perform; dedicating your life, with significant personal sacrifice, to an activity that is not ultimately productive of anything except beauty. These questions define the life of Carl Haffner, as they apply to chess; they also define the lives of his father, and to some extent his grandfather and half-sister, as they apply to music. Perhaps Schlechter’s unsuccessful bid to become World Champion was the most musical moment of chess history.
It is now a year since I began this blog, so I thought it was time that I thanked everyone who has taken the time to read any of the posts which have been appearing at the rate of about one per month (this is in fact the fourteenth).
I was asked recently whom I thought I was writing for. It was (and is) a very difficult question to answer. The truth is that I write these posts for myself, of course. I remain fascinated by the connections between the human activities of chess and music, and I am sure I shall remain so.
What has been gratifying, though, has been the discovery that others share my fascination – enough to read this blog, at least. In the twelve months that I have been posting, more than 500 visitors have paid this site a visit. More surprisingly to me, the site has been viewed from a total of 55 different countries across the world. Most of you come from the UK or the USA, of course; but this is my opportunity to hail whoever you are from Estonia, Honduras, Kenya, Palau and elsewhere who have stumbled across this blog at least once.
I do know some of my readers, who are club-mates from Cowley Chess Club, colleagues from The Open University (which has had an extremely eventful year since this blog started, although I would not claim any causation either way), and friends prepared to indulge me. But I have also made friends through writing here: I suspect that Greece features high up in the list of countries where the blog has been read mainly because I have come to know Achilles Zographos since his excellent book was recommended to me. If you haven’t read his book, at least read my book review: Music and Chess (Achilleas Zographos). And I have become at least a Facebook friend of Richard James, whose book with Mike Fox, The Even More Complete Chess Addict, and whose own chess and music posts remain constant sources of inspiration.
Finally, as I begin a second year of these blog posts, I do want to reassure my readers that I haven’t exhausted my topic. I am rather well aware that it has been quite some time since I last posted (when I answered the question Did Beethoven play chess?). Partly this has been due to the demands of earning a living during troubled times for my employer; partly it has been because the post on which I have been working for some time, a return to the Vienna of the early twentieth century and Arnold Schoenberg, has led me down paths I did not suspect and which have taken time to pursue (including attempting to translate a lengthy academic article written in German). But rest assured that my thoughts on Schoenberg will appear before long, and that I have plenty more musico-caissic topics to write up.
I want to answer the question, “Did Beethoven play chess?” because several people claim that he did. I remarked on this fact in my Book review: Music and Chess (Achilleas Zographos), where Beethoven is listed as one of the many chess-playing musicians of history.
Now, I am not an expert on Beethoven’s biography; I learned my lesson there when I speculated on the genesis of one of his works in a research paper, and discovered that a pre-eminent Beethoven scholar was in the audience. And I would love it if Beethoven turned out to have been a devotee of the Royal Game; Viennese classical music is under-represented on that score. Mozart’s favoured game was billiards; Haydn was not (as far as I know) among the ranks of chess-playing composers. Any excitement at finding the chess games of F. Schubert in book indexes is dispelled by learning that František Schubert was a Czech chess master who once beat Richard Réti, but was no relation of Franz Schubert.
There is no reason why Beethoven might not have played chess, after all: the first chess book in German was published in 1795 by a Viennese contemporary of his; the chess-playing automaton known as “The Turk” was one of the wonders of the age; Napoleon himself (whom Beethoven admired for a long time, although he lost faith in him when Napoleon became a dictator as self-declared Emperor) certainly was a keen chess player.
Tracing the evidence
I had, however, never come across any evidence that Beethoven even knew the moves of the game, let alone took a serious interest in it. And so I was fascinated to see him in the list of names in Achilleas Zographos’s recent book. When I expressed some dismay in my review at the lack of evidence presented to support his inclusion, the author himself paid me the courtesy of a reply, and made two helpful suggestions: one was to consult a book I should have thought of myself, The Even More Complete Chess Addict by Mike Fox and Richard James (which I have mentioned many a time in earlier posts), and other was to take a closer look at footnote 18 on page 26 of Music and Chess: Apollo meets Caïssa.
Turning to Fox & James first, they too ascribe a love of chess to Beethoven. But they are quite circumspect about it:
Jostling for a place among the reserves [of a fantasy musicians’ chess team] would be Schumann […] Mendelssohn […] Richard Strauss [… twenty other musicians are listed]. And, according to The Polish History of Chess, Chopin and Beethoven.(Fox & James, p. 33)
So they give a single source, which is another book rather than any primary evidence from Beethoven’s letters and so forth. After some further exploration, I identified “The Polish History of Chess” as Z Szachami Przez Wieki I Kraje (Jerzy Gizycki, Warszawa 1984). Courtesy of the Bodleian Library, I summoned it up and discovered that Fox & James were quite right: Beethoven and Chopin are both mentioned. But they are only mentioned once. Here is the paragraph, together with what I, Google Translate, and my good friend Geoff Chew (a musician who really does speak Polish) made of it:
Wielu szachistów można snaleźć pośród muzyków. Kompozytorem był słynny szachista francuski Philidor. Królewską grę znał Beethoven i Chopin. W posiadaniu doktora Jerzego Goreckiego, prawnuka Mickiewicza, znajdował się zabytkowy okrąkły stolik drewniany w naturalnym czerwonym kolorze, na którym, według jego oświadwicz i Fryderyk Chopin (od 1978 roku w zbiorach Museum Literatury w Warszawie).
Many chess players can be found among musicians. The famous French chess player Philidor was a composer. The royal game was known by Beethoven and Chopin. Dr. Jerzy Gorecki, great-grandson of Mickiewicz, possessed an old, round, wooden chess table in a natural red colour, on which Mickiewicz was said to have played Fryderyk Chopin (since 1978 in the collection of the Museum of Literature in Warsaw).
(Gizycki, p. 228)
This doesn’t get us much further. There is real anecdotal evidence given that Chopin played chess at least once with the poet Mickiewicz (whose lyrics he set to music), but nothing more than another bald assertion that Beethoven was a chess enthusiast.
So that left me with Achilleas Zographos’s footnote. Here it is:
The main sources for this list are the articles by Wall, Bill; Musicians and Chess; 8/8/2013, chessmaniac.com, and by Silver, Albert; Musical giants and chess; 3/7/2015, Chessbase.
Consulting these two online articles (both well worth reading, by the way) yielded less in the way of historiographical evidence than I had hoped. The second of them doesn’t mention Beethoven at all, although it does have a photo of David Bowie playing chess with Catherine Deneuve.
Bill Wall’s article, though, does mention Beethoven. Here is what it says:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the German composer and pianist, was a chess player. He was a good friend of Johann Maelzel, the builder of one of the first chess automatons.
That’s all. No mention of a source, but there is some detail. Beethoven’s “good friend” Johann Maelzel seems to be the link.
Maelzel’s mechanical marvels
Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772-1838) is one of the more colourful characters of music history. He was an inventor who settled in Vienna in 1792 (the same year as Beethoven), and soon afterwards began to display his “panharmonicon”, a kind of mechanical organ which played orchestral music. Maelzel was aiming to profit out of the popularity of automata of all kinds, especially automata which could play musical instruments. Maelzel and Beethoven met in 1812 or 1813, and the inventor persuaded the famous composer to write a “Battle Symphony” for his panharmonicon. Beethoven did so, and then expanded and arranged it for a regular orchestra (it was written in between the Seventh and Eighth symphonies). The “Battle Symphony”, or Wellington’s Victory at Vittoria as the orchestral version is called, was premiered, along with the Seventh Symphony, in two charity concerts organised by Maelzel in 1814 to raise funds for Austrian soldiers wounded and maimed in conflict. At this time, Maelzel also invented several ear trumpets in an attempt to help Beethoven’s progressive deafness.
To describe Maelzel as Beethoven’s “good friend”, though, is sadly not quite accurate. There was a violent quarrel following the concerts arranged by Maelzel, over the rights to Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony”, which Maelzel wanted to play on his tour to the rest of Europe with his panharmonicon. Beethoven describes him thus:
[…] his low and disloyal character is displayed in expressions such as the following: “I shit on Vienna and I’ll see to it that people in London are told that here in Vienna one is paid 10 gulden” […] Maelzel is an ill-bred fellow, quite uneducated and without refinement.
(Letter to Dr Carl, Edler von Adlersburg, July 1814: The Letters of Beethoven, trans. Emily Anderson, London: Macmillan, 1961, Vol. I, letter 485, p. 461)
Beethoven also describes Maelzel’s ear trumpets as “not of any real use” and accuses Maelzel of stealing his work.
There seems to have been some sort of reconciliation, however, since Beethoven was very impressed by the one of Maelzel’s inventions which you may own yourself: the musical metronome. From 1817, Beethoven started to put metronome indications on his works to indicate the speed he wanted. How accurate Maelzel’s metronome was, and how realistic Beethoven’s expectations were of performers as his deafness became complete, are things still vigorously debated to this day.
So, if “good friend” doesn’t really fit the bill as far as Beethoven’s relationship with Maelzel goes, what about the other claim by Bill Wall, that Maelzel was “the builder of one of the first chess automatons”? This too, unfortunately, isn’t quite true. The automaton in question was in fact the most famous of all chess-playing machines before Deep Blue, known as “The Turk”.
The automaton could move the pieces on a chess board, and appeared to be able to beat any human opponent. It was a marvel of its age, and exhibited all over Europe.
It was not, however, built by Maelzel. Its inventor was in fact a Hungarian called Wolfgang von Kempelen, who first demonstrated it to Empress Maria Theresa in 1770. Maelzel bought it from Kempelen in 1804, a good few years before he met Beethoven. Maelzel repaired it, and exhibited it to Napoleon in Vienna in 1809. He then took it to Milan, where he sold it for a huge profit to Napoleon’s stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais. A few years later he managed to buy it back, and took it to Paris and then London on the European tour over which he and Beethoven fell out so badly.
The Turk was a remarkable machine, but it was a fake as far as playing a game of chess was concerned. You can see in the photograph the compartment on the right where a small grandmaster had to be concealed to control the machine’s moves. This subterfuge meant that Maelzel had to hire short, impoverished chess masters (of which, then as now, there was a ready supply) wherever he exhibited the machine. Napoleon was actually defeated by Johann Allgaier, the strongest player in Vienna in Beethoven’s day, whom I mentioned earlier as the author of the first chess tutor in German.
So, did Beethoven play chess?
It has been an interesting search through published books on chess, and a fascinating encounter with that entrepreneur, inventor and showman Johann Maelzel. But there is, I am afraid, no evidence at all that Beethoven did have an enthusiasm for chess.
The English translation of Beethoven’s letters runs to three thick volumes (I quoted Beethoven’s view on Maelzel’s character from them earlier). I have looked through them all, and there are no mentions of chess, or The Turk, in any of the letters involving Maelzel, and no mention anywhere of Allgaier (who was known in the city as well as being the inhabitant of The Turk). No mention either of François-André Philidor, a contemporary of Beethoven and by far the best-known chess-playing musician of that or any other time.
Sadly, I have to conclude that the assertions with which I began, that the composer of The Eroica symphony, Fidelio, and Wellington’s Victory had a particular interest in the battle of the wooden soldiers over the sixty-four squares, are without evidential basis. The search has emphasised to me the pitfalls of wishful thinking, which can undo your attacks over the chessboard as easily as your search for historical truth.
Books on chess are a curious genre. There are an awful lot of them, they are very hard to find in libraries. They nearly all fall into one of a few categories. Books on openings. Books on improving your chess technique. Collections of games (by an individual, or from a world title match, or from a significant tournament).
And that is about it. What all these books share as a quality is that they are absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who is not a keen chess player. I have many of them, and if I leave them lying around, members of my family ask me when I am going to read a “proper” book.
There are just two kinds of exceptions to this rule, and these exceptions contain my favourite kinds of chess book. The first is chess biography or autobiography: Korchnoi’s Chess is my life is worth reading as much for its picture of the privations of the siege of Leningrad as for its depiction of one of the most obdurate personalities ever to have graced the game. Emanuel Lasker: The life of a chess master (J. Hannak) is a riveting account of an extraordinary personality. But the second kind of exception to the normal run of chess literature is my favourite: books which take chess into other realms, such as literature or film (see my earlier post on Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defence), or the anecdotal and eccentric (by far my favourite is The Complete Chess Addict by Mike Fox and Richard James, and its enlarged version The Even More Complete Chess Addict). And now – joy of joys! – the chess publisher Russell Enterprises has presented a book on exactly the topic of this blog.
The first thing I want to say about this book is that you should definitely get yourself a copy, if you are reading this blog. I need to put that first, because I could hardly fail to welcome a publication such as this. Having said that, there are of course lots of things here which I would have put differently or with which I don’t quite agree. But these are the kinds of things one should discuss over a convivial drink, not reasons for disparaging the book.
Achilleas Zographos (since I contacted him, this blog has gained Greece as a new country in its stats profile) is a much better chess player than I am (he is a FIDE trainer) and also a much better performer (he is a concert pianist). There are times when his perspective is clearly that of a performer rather than a composer. But there are a lot of things I like about his book.
Things I like about this book
The author is clearly a man after my own heart, with a taste for the quirky and occasionally bizarre which I love. Perhaps all of us who love both chess and music as arts are similar in that way. He has compiled a huge quantity of anecdotes and information of the sort I find fascinating. Quite a lot of it I knew already (unsurprisingly); Fox & James (see above) are frequently cited as a source for anecdotes. But there is plenty in the book which I didn’t know: for instance, I didn’t know the sixteenth-century Italian poem which invented the dryad Schacchia, goddess of chess, and the eighteenth-century English poem in which she acquired the name Caïssa (the poems are described here); I had never come across Guido van der Werve’s chess piano (here is his concerto in three movements); and I did not know that GM Levon Aronian, who is about to compete in the 8-player knockout to determine the next World Title Candidate, has a passion for jazz.
The book is sumptuously illustrated. At the back are links for internet sources for the illustrations and YouTube videos. Sadly, some of these links seemed to be broken when I tried them; but I loved the quality of the illustrations reproduced. Trying to download one of the illustrations led me on an interesting detour. On p. 128 is printed a lovely canvas by Kandinsky, with the title Schach-Theorie [Chess Theory], and the date 1937. I did not know that Kandinsky (one of my favourite artists and a collaborator with the composer Arnold Schoenberg) had an interest in chess. When I found that the link at the back of the book seemed to be broken, I tried an internet search for the painting, and discovered that it has two quite different attributions. The canvas is owned by the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it has the title Graceful Ascent and the date 1934.
I have to say that Graceful Ascent seems more convincing as a title, although there are some details near the top of the canvas that could conceivably be chess pieces.
So where do the probably false title and date come from? Further internet searching turned up what seems the likely source, and a wonderful anecdote. In 1937, the year that many of Kandinsky’s paintings were confiscated by the Nazis and displayed in the Exhibition of Degenerate Art, a retrospective of his work was displayed in the Swiss city of Bern. The city was home to another of the Bauhaus artists, Paul Klee, and the exhibition was to be the last time that the two artists met (Klee was seriously ill and died in 1940). According to the Bern artist Peter Matter, the two giants met in front of Kandinsky’s work Schach-Theorie, and both were seized by a sudden desire to go back to Klee’s house and play each other at chess. So perhaps the internet translation of Matter’s diary is the source of the misattribution. And perhaps it was a different canvas: both Klee and Kandinsky produced other works at that time that suggest the game of chess much more clearly to me (hover your mouse to see the titles).
Klee, ‘Überschach’ (1937)
Kandinsky ‘Trente’ (1937)
So this is probably an error, as far as the content of the book goes; but I could hardly complain at that, since it sent me on a rewarding hunt which enabled me to place these two alongside Schoenberg as artists enthusiastic for the Royal Game.
Things I don’t like so much about this book
Most of the things I am less impressed with in the book are not the fault of its author. While the publisher should be applauded for commissioning this work, the author is not writing in his native language, and the services of a copy-editor would have improved it as a text to read. Infelicities such as “At the moment of writing” (rather than “At the time of writing”, p. 13); or grammatical lapses such as Steinitz’s “systematic, scientific approach of the game” (rather than “…approach to the game”, p. 21), are frequent and irritating. My annoyance at the blurb on the back cover engendered an earlier blog post, Prodigies: the preserve of music and chess? although I did discover on p. 39 that it was the American grandmaster Edward (not the World Champion Emanuel) Lasker who originally commented on child prodigies as a phenomenon of chess, music and mathematics.
Things that puzzle me in this book
There are a lot of lists in this book. That is no bad thing in itself; I like lists. The last chapter, ‘Quotations’ is in fact just a list of good quotations, which ought to delight designers of chess-related t-shirts.
Other lists are more intriguing. For instance, Beethoven appears in a long list of musicians who had a passion for chess on pp. 23–24; he is mentioned a dozen times elsewhere (the book has a good index), but always just as an emblem of “the great composer”; nowhere are we told the source for believing he had an interest in the game of chess. My scan through the several hefty volumes of his letters could find no mention of it at all; but I would love to know what evidence there is.
But lastly, the thing which puzzles me most about this book is actually the way that it compares the technical elements of chess and music. Several times, the author’s love for the quirky leads him to the most extraordinary chess compositions to illustrate the most ordinary elements of music. One is the study by Petrovic which is presented as an example of the role of rhythm and tempo in chess:
Another is the beautiful but totally bizarre study by van Reek which illustrates the musical idea of ‘texture’:
But the puzzlement I felt reading through the lengthy chapter entitled ‘Components’ which works its way through ‘Time, rhythm and tempo’, ‘Melody and movement’, ‘Harmony’, ‘Texture’, ‘Structure’, and ‘Timbre / colour’ turned from slight annoyance to perfect calm with the realisation that this most difficult of fields, making detailed and persuasive comparison of the technical aspects of the arts of chess and music, is left open to my own blog to attempt. Keep reading my posts here to see how well I get on with trying.