Réti the Modernist

The title could refer to either brother.

The Reti brothers stand out as one of the most remarkable stories there is to tell about chess and music. Not just because one was a professional musician and the other a professional chess player, but because they are both celebrated, in their respective fields, as founders of Modernism. The phrase used by chess writers since the 1920s is “hypermodern chess”, which reflects the fact that “Modernism” as a term in the history of the arts took quite a while to become established: in fact, I believe that the use of “Postmodernism” to describe an artistic movement predates the use of “Modernism” in that sense.

Whatever the history of the word, what we understand today by Modernism is what unites the Réti brothers. An artistic movement that flourished in the early twentieth century, Modernism is distinguished broadly speaking by a constellation of ideas: the rejection, often violent, of nineteenth-century assumptions; the search for new techniques; the belief that art must always inevitably progress to its next phase of expression.

In music, the quintessential modernist has to be the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Schoenberg 3 Klavierstuke Op 11 opening page
The opening page of Schoenberg’s “Three Piano Pieces” Op. 11 (1909). The first performance of this work was given by Rudolph Réti.

In visual art, probably one thinks first of Pablo Picasso and other cubists.

Willi Baumeister Chess Players III (1924)
“Chess Players III” by Willi Baumeister (1924). A cubist work by an artist who spent part of the First World War in Vienna.

Modernism, chess, music: a Viennese story

Rudolph Réti was born in Serbia, Richard in Hungary. But both grew up in Vienna, where their father, a doctor, moved in 1890 when his sons were aged four and one. Vienna in 1890 was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and a centre of activity for both music and chess. In the years that the Réti brothers grew up there, it was also the birthplace of Modernism, along with many other currents of twentieth-century thought: the Rétis grew up in the city of Freud and Wittgenstein, Kokoschka and Schoenberg. The best guide to the character of the place is Wittgenstein’s Vienna by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin (Simon & Schuster 1973).

The world of chess owes Rudolph a great deal, since it was he who in 1903 took his younger brother to meet the best-known chess master in Vienna, Carl Schlechter. Richard lost their first game in a matter of minutes; in their second game he resisted the grandmaster for more than an hour, and was taken along to the Viennese Chess Club as a result. The club, patronised by Baron Rothschild, had not previously admitted a junior player to membership. Twenty years later, Richard was to take second place in the Vienna chess tournament held as a memorial to Schlechter, who died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.

Music also owes much to Rudolph.  He gave the first performances of Schoenberg’s seminal modernist pieces Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 of 1909 and Six Little Piano Pieces Op. 19 of 1911 (see his Tonality–Atonality–Pantonality, 1958, p. 42n). From the musical score pictured above, Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality (writing in a musical key) is evident; so is his exploration of new techniques: the long. held chord in the right hand of the piano in the last line of the page is to be held down silently, to create resonance effects when the left-hand melody is played.

Rudolph ended up in America in the 1930s, and his theoretical writing on music is dedicated, as Schoenberg himself was, to showing the continuity between Modernism in music and its past, especially the music of another foreign-born Viennese resident, Beethoven. Rudolph’s insight was that music theory had not previously focussed on melody and theme, over centuries developing instead an intricate theory of harmony. Rudolph sought instead to theorise what he terms “The Thematic Process”. Modernist music may have abandoned traditional harmony, but it retains the expressive potential of musical theme and melodic expression. This links together the music of the past and the music of the modernists, and also explores how music communicates.  I have relied on and tried to expand Réti’s work in my own professional career as a scholar.

Modernism and the twentieth century

One thing that unites the Réti brothers is their belief that what they were doing was part of the new discoveries of the early twentieth century: Einstein’s theory of relativity, Freud and Jung’s theories of the unconscious, Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Like other modernists, Rudolph felt that his ideas were part of his age:

Around the turn of the century the physical sciences, as is generally known, underwent an extraordinary change. […] However, even if the actual force of the old laws seemed to have vanished, their usefulness and validity within their own realm did not by any means disappear entirely. In fact, one main goal of modern physics seems to be centred on the endeavour to comprise and unify the old and new principles in one all-comprehensive law or formula.

The whole process, which is especially conspicuous in physics due to the paramount importance physical discoveries have assumed with regard to our material way of life, can also be observed in many other spheres, for instance in the psychological, the social and the political domain, and even in the arts, and particularly in music.

(Rudolph Réti, Tonality–Atonality–Pantonality, London: Rockliff, 1958, p. 1)

The list of areas showing a similar process to the new physics could have included chess. Rudolph wrote of his brother’s area of expertise in identical terms:

Even for me, poor as was my understanding of chess, it was fascinating to watch Richard try to demonstrate [his] ideas through concrete examples. […] For my brother did not fail to emphasize – and this, of course, interested me particularly and was discussed at length between us – that, after all, this same trend is visible in our time in almost any artistic field, in literature and the fine arts no less than in music, and even in science, where the rational Newtonian physics has to yield to the almost mystic theory of relativity.

(Rudolph Réti’s memoir of Richard published by Edward Winter, ‘The Réti Brothers’, Chess Notes http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/extra/reti.html)

The brothers are in agreement: Modernism in art is an aspect of the new thought of the early twentieth century, its ideas overturning previous assumptions just as relativity overturns Newtonian mechanics; and chess is one of the modernist arts.

Modernism in Chess

Richard Réti echoes his brother when he describes modern chess as a modern art:

Poster advertising Secession Exhibition of Austrian Artists, 1898 (coloured litho) (b/w photo)

In his booklet “The Tree of Chess Knowledge” [Der Baum der Schacherkenntnis, Berlin: Kagan 1921] Dr Tartakower describes the style of the “Hypermoderns.” […] This lucid sketch contains the following: “Chess can also show its cubism. Its chief representatives […] attracted the attention of the whole chess world to the most modern school. The tenets of the latter school had, till then [1920] indicated a state of secession. […]”

(Richard Réti, Modern Ideas in Chess, trans. John Hart, London: Bell & Sons, 1923, p. 140)

The title of his book, Modern Ideas in Chess, allies his thought to Modernism as a movement. For Réti, chess in 1920 is an example of cubism; its foremost artists resemble the Viennese Secessionists led by Gustav Klimt.

So what does “cubist” chess look like? Here is the opening which is named after Richard Réti:

Reti opening
The Réti Opening

And here is another, a gambit against the French Defence:

Ret gambit (French)
The Réti Gambit

Both these openings demonstrate an essential principle of “hypermodern” or Modernist chess: to control the centre of the board from the sides, instead of trying to occupy it with pawns. This is what White’s knight and c-pawn are doing in the first diagram, and White’s dark-squared bishop in the second. Richard Réti’s signature move, 1.Nf3, is now the third most-played opening move. His opening is frequently seen at the very highest levels of chess: for instance, the world no. 3 player, Fabiano Caruana, used the Réti Opening in 2016 against the world no. 1, Magnus Carlsen. In the film of Nabokov’s novel The Luzhin Defence (2000), we see the climactic game open, of course, with the Réti Opening (see Music in Nabokov’s chess novel).

This style of play disrupts the perspectives of chess theory developed in the nineteenth century; it forces the players to look at what makes a “good” position from a different angle; in fact, from more than one angle at once. This disruption of “normal” or “natural” perspective is why Réti describes his thinking as “cubist”. He explicitly links the new ideas in chess with the Modernist swerve away from naturalism in visual art:

New ideas rule the game and have considerable similarities with the ideas of modern art. As art has turned aside from naturalism, so the ideal of the modern chess master is no longer what was called “sound play” or development in accordance with nature.

(Richard Réti, Modern Ideas in Chess, p. v)

Next time I am disorientated at the chessboard by an opponent’s devastating attack on the centre launched from the very corner of the board, I shall at least know I am participating in the history of modern art. I shall have Schoenberg’s music ringing in my ears.

Picasso 'Chess' (1911)
Pablo Picasso, “Chess” (1911) New York: Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art
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Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

6 thoughts on “Réti the Modernist”

  1. Well, I’d never thought of there being fashions in chess, certainly not ones that followed those in art. One is of course constrained in the game to moves likely to win, whereas in art, simply not being constrained is perhaps the only way of launching the next artistic movement. My Horowitz ‘Chess Openings’ lists the Reti system in chapter 41, under ‘Other Openings’. However it still comes some way ahead of my favourite, the Spike, P-KN4.

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    1. Carlsen has played the Reti eighteen times since becoming World Champion in 2013, with a score of 10 wins, 4 draws and 4 losses. I don’t think he’s ever tried 1.g4, although some top players occasionally do.

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