Music in Glavinic’s chess novel

Carl Haffner coverThe 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 novelThe 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 1941is 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.

Carl Schlechter
Carl Schlechter

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 young Emanuel Lasker
Emanuel Lasker

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.

Glavinic FIDE card
Glavinic’s rating of 2125 is a almost exactly the same as that of my local league’s best player.

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.

Schlechter's losing move
The moment when Carl Schlechter (Black, to play) lost the world title in the last game of the match with Emanuel Lasker. Prior to this position, Black has let slip a clear, possibly winning, advantage. Carl Haffner’s decision between the moves …Qh4+ [Q-KR5 check], which forces a draw by repetition, and Qh1+ [Q-KR8 check] which threatens to win but ultimately loses, is narrated dramatically in Glavinic’s novel. Haffner / Schlechter chose the move Qh1+ and went on to lose the game.



Author: Robert Samuels

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

3 thoughts on “Music in Glavinic’s chess novel”

  1. Can’t see Black winning there when white has two rooks v. rook and bishop. If the Queens are swapped off, White looks much stronger.


    1. It’s tricky. …Qh1+ threatens the rook on f3 as well as giving check, and Nxd4 can add to the pressure on that poor rook. But you’re right, of course: Schlechter should have repeated moves with Qh4+ Ke2 Qh2+ Ke1 Qh4+ etc.


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