Did Beethoven play chess?

Beethoven playing chessI 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 Maelzel

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.

Acoustic instruments cornets belonging to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) c.1813 (copper)
Maelzel’s ear trumpets made for Beethoven (Bridgeman Images)

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.

Pyramidal metronome, 1815 (painted iron & gilt bronze)
A Maelzel metronome of 1815 (Bridgeman Images)

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”.

A 1980s reconstruction of The Turk (Wikimedia Commons images)

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.


Author: Robert Samuels

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

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