Baugin’s story about chess and music

Narrative in a seventeenth-century still life

The image at the head of this post is a beautiful “still life” of 1630 by the French painter Lubin Baugin (1612–63), now in the Louvre (image: Wikimedia Commons). In this painting, a closed chessboard lies on one side of a table, and a lute on the other. So chess and music frame the composition. But this painting is more than a depiction of everyday objects; it tells a story. This post aims to unpick the narrative in this particular painting, and place it in a larger context.

The narrative arises from all the other elements in the painting: the lute lies on some written music, one corner folded up to aid page-turning; next to it lies a green velvet purse and a pack of cards; on the chessboard stands a vase holding three carnations, one pink, one red, and one variegated; a glass of red wine and a loaf of bread complete the scene. The narrative told by all these elements is clear: it is one of the intimacy of lovers at play. This may seem surprising to readers unfamiliar with seventeenth-century symbolic imagery, but this interpretation is consistent across all the objects. Pink or red carnations symbolise love, and the fact that the three blooms are of progressively deeper shades (and one is of two mingled shades) perhaps suggests that love between a couple has deepened through the other activities represented in the scene.  The purse perhaps holds money won or staked in the game of cards implied by the pack lying next to it; the topmost card of the deck is the knave of clubs, and the card below is a heart, so perhaps the young man – “le valet” in a French pack of cards – has taken the heart in a trick.  The chess board belongs to a game for two players, where one tries to catch or “mate” the other. The lute is an instrument with which a lover might traditionally woo the beloved. The bread and wine suggest a shared meal, and also perhaps the Eucharist – it is worth remembering that holy communion would usually have been celebrated at a wedding.

The association of chess and music with lovers’ pursuits is a theme found often in late medieval and Renaissance imagery, and it may well be the subject of a future post in this blog. For now, it is enough to register the way that Baugin’s skilfully arranged painting tells a story through its selection and arrangements of objects. Its meaning is not just pictorial, but narrative.

Narrative and visual art

It may seem slightly strange to claim that a painting represents a story. Narratives, by their nature, unfold in time, and a painting is probably the most static kind of artwork imaginable. Unless it consists of several scenes to be “read” in sequence, like a comic strip or a medieval saint’s life, the canvas remains fixed in one place. It invites contemplation of a single moment in time. You cannot even view it from different angles like a sculpture or a piece of architecture. Moreover, a “still life”, as its name suggests, is the most static and apparently non-narrative genre of visual art. However, in my opinion Baugin in this painting is playing with exactly these apparent contradictions between the flow of time that produces narrative and the frozen moment that defines a still life image. And by the end of this post, I hope to demonstrate that his choice of chess and music as the activities to depict in this still life are far from incidental.

Narrative in another French still life

I am not an art historian, but I do know that still life paintings became enormously popular in seventeenth-century art, especially in the Netherlands during the “Dutch Golden Age“. Many still life paintings play with the contrast between our own lives, which are constantly in flux, and the unchanging moment frozen on the canvas. Here for example is another French still life now in the Louvre. In this case the artist is unknown, but the similarity to Lubin Baugin’s picture is striking:

French C17 vanitas with chess (Louvre)
Still life (Vanité), unknown French artist, 17th century (Louvre; image: Wikimedia commons)

A remarkable number of elements in this painting are almost identical with the Baugin: a closed chess board and a musical instrument (a baroque guitar this time) frame the composition; there is another pack of cards and green velvet purse; there are flowers in a vase (tulips this time).

And yet the symbolism of this anonymous still life is entirely the opposite of that in the first painting. The guitar has no strings (there are no pegs in its pegboard), and rather than lying on music it has clearly just been playing, it is perched awkwardly on top of a mirror and a sword. The velvet purse is empty, its contents spilled next to it. The cards are disordered, rather than neatly piled ready for a new game.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder Still Life 1614 (Wikimedia commons)
Still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 1614 (Getty Centre; image: Wikimedia commons). An image featuring both carnations and tulips, as well as other flowers, and many insects.

I will not pretend to be able fully to decode the symbolism of the tulips, which at this date (the height of tulip mania) were some of the most expensive consumer goods in Europe; but in Western art of this period, they were usually taken as symbolic of the brevity of life and beauty.

The repeated symbolism of decay, abandonment and interruption is continued through the other elements of the painting. In addition to the chessboard and pack of cards, a cup with dice rolled out of it reinforces the message that gaming has finished. And most prominently, a skull looks at itself in a mirror.

The elements in this picture, compared with Baugin’s, may be similar; but the narrative is opposite. In fact, the implied narrative of this second picture is also much more conventional. It is given the French title Vanité, which is a generic title for still life paintings which suggest a meditation on the brevity of life and the deception of worldly pleasures. This conventional narrative of course exploits the inherent contrast I noted earlier between the unchanging moment immortalised on the static canvas and the “changes and chances” of the world which it depicts.

Narrative in a Dutch still life

This genre of painting, as I said, is associated most with Dutch artists of this period, whose version of the generic title was Vanitas. Here is an example by a well-known exponent, Pieter Claesz. It is a Vanitas still life of 1628, once again almost exactly contemporary with Baugin’s picture:

Pieter Claesz Vanitas with Violin 1628 (Wikimedia WGA04974)
Still life with self portrait (Vanitas), Pieter Claesz, 1628 (German National Museum, Nuremberg; image: Wikimedia Commons).

Here the narrative is even clearer: the violin is broken, the glass overturned, the quill discarded by the empty inkstand, the candle in the lamp has burned out; one hardly needs the skull under the violin’s neck. We are forced to contemplate a world in which nothing can have enduring value, because nothing can endure. The tiny self-portrait reflected in the crystal ball invites us to place ourselves in the picture, observing with the artist the inevitable decay and wearing out of everything that surrounds us in daily life. The story that the picture tells is that this is our destiny. Significantly, music is included as one of the pleasures of life that is revealed as ultimately worthless. Far from being a window into a transcendent world beyond this one, it is something that will cease along with everything else.

Why is Baugin’s narrative different?

Still Life with Chess-board, 1630 (oil on panel)
Still life with chess board, Lupin Baugin, 1630. Image: Wikimedia commons.

What fascinates me most about Baugin’s still life is the contrast between the narrative it contains and that of these other, more conventional still life paintings. By comparison, Baugin’s picture is full of optimism: the games have been laid aside, the lute carelessly upturned on the music, but one feels that the two who were so recently playing chess and playing music must only have gone away in order to do something even more exciting, and will undoubtedly return to their playing soon.

This, it seems to me, makes an important assertion about both chess and music. Today, both fields have become so professionalised that their function as social activities is easily lost or forgotten. In an age when my performance of a Bach Prelude and Fugue can be immediately compared by anyone with a mobile phone to that of András Schiff, and when my playing of a complex chess endgame can be immediately shown to be full of errors by chess software on that same mobile phone, we need (or at least I need) reminders that music and chess alike are ways of interacting with other people. They are, properly, the pursuits of friends. Our play is part of our human flourishing. That is the message to take from your silent contemplation of Baugin’s enigmatic and beguiling canvas.

A seventeenth-century chess narrative

I hope that the above has convinced you that chess and music are far from accidental subjects for Baugin to have chosen to depict in his still life, which turns out to be rather a subversive work, celebrating friendship, affection and freedom in play rather than meditating on the melancholy inevitability of death. These two currents, pleasure and melancholy, are found throughout seventeenth-century art. To end this post, I want to turn to a game of chess and a work of music contemporary with the pictures I have been discussing, to see what kind of narratives they might unfold.

I am very attached to the idea that a game of chess is properly understood as a narrative form. The narrative is of course created by both players, rather than a single author, and they do not know how it is going to end when they start out. But seeing the unfolding of the game as a story, and the pieces as characters, is almost essential to following it in a way that makes it comprehensible.

The game I have chosen was played by possibly the first professional chess player to have lived, Gioachino Greco Cusentino (1600-1634), often known simply as “Greco” or “El Greco” (and not to be confused with the Spanish Court painter with whom he was contemporary).

Greco Royall Game cover
The cover of the version of Greco’s book published in English indicates that Charles I was a chess enthusiast

Born in Calabria, he made a living playing chess, including at the royal courts of Rome, Paris, Madrid and London. The fact that he could have such a career in itself testifies to the growing seriousness with which the game was treated as a subject of study.


No-one knows if the games that Greco recorded were actually played in the course of his travels, or whether he composed them. Many of them are very short, and in fact demonstrate tricks and traps in the opening phase of the game which make them still valuable today. It has been wryly observed that, even if Greco composed them for demonstration purposes, many hundreds of games played over the years since have followed the exact same moves, as the unwary fall into the pitfalls he was so adept at discovering.

The game I have chosen can begin with the following position, reached after the first four moves. It has followed the opening called the “Giuoco Piano” or “Italian Game”, one of those explored most extensively by Greco.

NN vs Greco 1620 move 5w
Anonymous vs Greco, 1620, position after move 4

To say that this is a well-known position would be an understatement. It is frequently reached today in games between the very best players in the world. The current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, and his predecessor, Vishwanathan Anand, have played this so-called “quiet game” frequently, leading to a resurgence in its popularity.

Let’s move on a couple of moves. Greco’s opponent makes the first decisive gesture, occupying the centre of the board with a pawn:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 7b arrow
White’s seventh move

This is just what any beginning player is taught: occupy space on the board, and control the centre. Greco took the pawn, and his opponent attacked with the other central pawn:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 8b arrows
Black’s seventh and White’s eighth moves

The narrative of the game is becoming clear: White is taking the lead in the relationship between the sides, attacking at the earliest opportunity. Greco’s knight is now theatened by the pawn, and moves away, closer to White’s king; White in turn recaptures the pawn.

NN vs Greco 1620 move 9b arrows
Black’s eighth and White’s ninth moves

And now the narrative changes. Just as a Renaissance lady too forward in a relationship might find she receives more than she bargained for in return, Greco advances his pieces towards the White king. The game becomes a story of the adventuresome knights:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 10w arrow
Black’s knight advances

This seems to make no sense (as so much in relationships). The knight is attacked by two white pieces and defended by only one. White takes it, only to see the black queen advance:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 11w arrows
White and Black’s tenth moves

Too late, White realises Black’s intent: she is already nearly captured. She rushes the knight back to defend her king, and Greco demonstrates an exquisite pattern of moves leading to mate:

This mating pattern, known as a “smothered mate”, is famous. I confess to having fallen into it myself. The fact that it remains today a trap for so many players is something of a tribute to Greco’s brilliance.

The final position is worth contemplating:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 14w

This is, in its way, not unlike Baugin’s still life. The white king is literally “still” – he cannot move, hemmed into the corner of the board and caught by the audacious black knight, a chess piece not unlike the knave of clubs who lies on the top of Baugin’s deck of cards. The game is over; Black is the dominant partner in this relationship, although the beauty of the dance is created by both players at the board. And like Baugin’s canvas, this is a picture with meaning: it tells a story, by making the viewer wonder how its elements came to be in their enchanting final arrangement.

A final narrative: seventeenth-century music

And finally, I wish to give the last word to music. Baugin’s still life features a lute, so it is only right to end with a lute song. In fact, I am going to cheat a little, because the song I have in mind was written as a madrigal, for five unaccompanied voices. However, there is no reason that it cannot be sung as a lute song, and its lyrics are entirely in keeping with the theme of this blog post.

Now is the month of maying is by Thomas Morley (1557-1602), and was published in 1597, just a few years earlier than the paintings and the chess game discussed above (but perhaps permissibly part of the “long seventeenth century”). One might think that the narrative is simply the story told by the words:

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing,
(Fa la la…)
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass.
(Fa la la…)

But this is not the narrative told by the music: it is the story told by the lyrics. The music in performance is telling us about lads and lasses and their playing in the Springtime of their youth. In other words, the performers are asking us to contemplate a scene, just as much as Baugin and the other painters I have discussed invite us to contemplate their still life paintings. We are to infer the narrative each art work tells through thinking about what it shows us. Morley’s narrative is as optimistic as Baugin’s: we can delight in the scene of the merry lads and their bonny lasses playing together. They are probably playing chess.


John Cage and his musical chess pieces: Part Two

Cage, Duchamp and the piece Reunion (1968)


In the first part of this two-part blog post, I described how John Cage, pupil of the chess-playing composer Arnold Schoenberg and friend of the chess-paying artist Marcel Duchamp, came to produce his work Chess Pieces, both a work of visual art and a composition for (in my opinion) his hallmark instrument, the prepared piano.

But before I begin…

In the time between publishing Part One and Part Two of this post, I was delighted to hear a profile on the BBC World Service of one of the musicians I mentioned in Part One: Margaret Leng Tan, who transcribed, edited, and published the score of Chess Pieces from John Cage’s picture for the ‘Imagery of Chess’ exhibition of 1944.

Leng Tan album cover
Margaret Leng Tan at her toy grand piano

Leng Tan trained as a concert pianist at New York’s Juilliard School of music, but her encounter and friendship with John Cage led her to the unusual career path of becoming a professional soloist on toy pianos, after playing Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (1948) at his memorial concert in 1992.

So before you read the rest of this blog, I do urge you to listen to the BBC profile of Margaret Leng Tan. You can also hear her performance of Cage’s Suite by tracking down her recording, She Herself Alone—The Art Of The Toy Piano 2.

And now, on with Part Two:

In this second part, I want to outline how Cage’s flirtation with the game of chess produced another remarkable work, more than twenty years after Chess Pieces. The story serves to underline the close similarity and relationship between Cage and Duchamp.

Although Duchamp’s influence on Cage cannot be doubted, Cage’s public acknowledgement of it was typically enigmatic. The most direct statement he ever made comes in the preface to a piece he wrote titled “26 Statements re Duchamp”, which consists of statements made by other people about the artist, and perhaps chosen and assembled through chance procedures, since many of Cage’s writings were created in that way.  Here is the opening of the piece (the irregular gaps between the statements are possibly also determined by chance procedures):

The danger remains that he’ll get out of the valise we put him in. So long as he remains locked up —

The rest of them were artists. Duchamp collects dust.

The check. The string he dropped. The Mona Lisa. The musical notes taken out of a hat. The glass. The toy shot-gun painting. The things he found. Therefore, everything seen—every object, that is, plus the process of looking at it— is a Duchamp.

John Cage, “26 Statements Re Duchamp”, in A Year from Monday, Wesleyan University Press 1967, p. 70

The preface to the essay, however, was not assembled through chance procedures. Rather, it shows Cage anchoring his writing in the context of his personal friendship with Duchamp and his wife Alexina (“Teeny” – Duchamp’s second wife, who was also a keen chess player, and showed no tendency to glue his pieces to the board):

Had Marcel Duchamp not lived, it would have been necessary for someone exactly like him to live. […] Having this view, I felt obliged to keep a worshipful distance, though I had met him in the early ‘forties, and in the late ‘forties had written music for his sequence in Hans Richter’s film Dreams that Money Can Buy. […]

During the winter holidays of ’65-66, the Duchamps and I were often invited to the same parties. At one of these I marched up to Teeny Duchamp and asked her whether she thought Marcel would consider teaching me chess. She said she thought he would. Circumstances permitting, we have been together once or twice a week ever since, except for two weeks in Cadaques when we were every day together.

John Cage, preface to “26 Statements Re Duchamp”

What makes this enigmatic is the downplaying of Cage’s earlier meeting with Duchamp, which, as I showed in the first part of this post, went a lot further than the brief encounter he implies here. Equally deceptive, I think, is the implication that Cage learned the game of chess from scratch from Duchamp. Given Duchamp’s proficiency, Cage’s creation of Chess Pieces in 1944 (which he omits to mention), and his admiration for his chess-playing mentor Schoenberg, this seems to me very unlikely.

However, what Cage’s anecdote does confirm is the closer acquaintance and friendship that developed between him and Duchamp between 1965 and 1968, which turned out to be the last three years of Duchamp’s life. Before coming to the work of Cage’s that resulted, it is worth speculating a little about the place that the bewitching game of chess occupied in Cage’s method in the years between 1944 and 1968.

When a work of music becomes a game of chess

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to be asked by Cambridge University Press to translate the letters written between John Cage and the French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez.

Boulez Cage correspondence cover
The letters between Boulez and Cage are still in print. I don’t get any royalties, though.

The two corresponded between 1949 (when Cage first met the 24-year-old Boulez in Paris) and 1954, when their differences of opinion over compositional method led to a parting of their ways, although they kept in touch intermittently thereafter. They both wrote letters in a mixture of French and English, and my task was to translate everything into English. Cage’s command of French was very good, unlike Boulez’s command of English at that time, so I was glad we weren’t producing a complete dual-language edition.

What was most fascinating about the project, however, was the way that both composers explain to each other in great detail how they go about constructing their music, and why they use the methods that they do. Looking back at these letters now, with the knowledge of Cage’s encounter with Duchamp just a few years prior to meeting Boulez, what is really striking is his fondness for arranging his materials in grids of squares and assembling his music by moving from one square to another, like a chess piece moving on a board.

The first time this is evident in Cage’s letters is in Letter 7, of 17 January 1950. Here Cage is attempting to explain the method he had used in the piece First Construction in Metal, which he had written in 1939 and which had been recorded – Boulez possessed the record and had used it in lectures. Here is what Cage writes:

Regarding the method: there are 16 rhythmic motives divided 4, 4, 4, 4, conceived as circular series

Construction in Metal chart transparentWhen you are on 1, you can go 1 2 3 4 1 or retrograde. You can repeat (e.g. 1122344322 etc.) But you cannot go 2↔4 or 1↔3. when you are on 2, you can not only use the same idea but you can go back to 1 using the “doorways” 1 or 4. (Very simple games.)

John Cage, The Boulez–Cage Correspondence, p. 49

The point here is that Cage is thinking of the elements of the piece (in this case, short rhythmic cells) laid out in a grid, chosen by moving from one square to an adjacent one. Rather like the way the King moves in chess.

Over a year later, Cage describes the method he uses for a piece he had only recently finished, his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950–51). This is in Letter 27, of 22 May 1951.

A new idea entered [in this piece] which is this: to arrange the aggregates […] in a chart formation. […] I then made moves on this chart of a “thematic nature” but, as you may easily see, with an “athematic” result. This entire first movement uses only 2 moves, e.g. down 2, over three, up 4. etc. This move can be varied from a given spot on the chart by going in any of the directions.

John Cage, The Boulez–Cage Correspondence, p. 93

Although Cage describes his use of a chart as “a new idea”, it is extremely similar to that used in the earlier piece. Except that now, instead of going from square to adjacent square like a chess King, he is jumping around like a chess Knight.

To show the kind of chart Cage was talking about, here is one of the ones he used for the work he was writing at the time he wrote to Boulez, Music of Changes:

Music of Changes pitches chart
One of the charts for sounds used in Music of Changes for piano (1951)

In all of these pieces, Cage has been obsessed with numbers that are multiples of four: 16 rhythmic cells divided 4, 4, 4, 4, set out in 16 bars divided 4, 3, 2, 3, 4 in First Construction in Metal; four groups of four kinds of instruments (woodwind, brass, percussion and strings) in the Concerto for Prepared Piano (the grid for this piece had 16 x 14 squares). But in Music of Changes, the chart looks much more like a chess board. The charts for sounds (there are 8 in total) each consist of 32 sounds arranged in eight rows of four, as in the one pictured above. But each also has 32 silences that can be selected, making 64 elements in total, in an 8 x 8 grid. Charts for other musical elements (durations, tempi) are also constructed as 8 x 8 squares.

Music of Changes MS fragment (Correspondence p.105)
John Cage, Music of Changes, MS fragment (reproduced in The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, p. 105)

The fragment of manuscript above also shows Cage’s method for selecting elements to create the piece: instead of moving around on the 8 x 8 grid as if it were a chess board, he tosses coins according to the method of the Chinese book of oracles, the I Ching. Each set of three tosses provides one of eight results, which are shown along the side and top of the grid. It was this new technique (which, as we know, may have been inspired by Duchamp) of selecting musical elements by chance, that seemed unacceptable to Boulez and led to the end of the correspondence. At the moment that Cage’s charts came to look most like chess boards, his method moved away decisively from the intentionality that is an essential aspect of game-playing. The one thing no chess player tries to do (not even Duchamp) is to move unintentionally.

When playing chess becomes a work of music

The renewed friendship between Cage and Duchamp in the 1960s led to one more collaboration, in which playing a game of chess actually becomes the performance of a piece of music.

John Cage Reunion (with Duchamp) John Cage Trust
John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, & Teeny Duchamp performing Reunion at its premiere in Toronto, 5th March, 1968. Photograph by Shigeko Kubota, © The John Cage Trust.

The work in question is Reunion by Cage. The title, it seems to me, must refer to Cage’s friendship with Duchamp rather than any aspect of the game of chess. The two were indeed reunited on stage to perform the piece in Toronto in 1968, their first artistic collaboration since the Imagery of Chess exhibition and Hans Richter’s film in the 1940s.

The performance of Reunion consists of music triggered by the moves that two chess players make on the touch-sensitive squares of a specially-constructed chessboard. The whole enterprise was collaborative: the board was made by Lowell Cross, a young Toronto-based composer of electronic music (today Professor Emeritus at the University of Iowa). The touch sensitivity was provided by photoelectric cells under each square on the board: each one triggered the start of a pre-composed piece of music when activated by moving a piece. For the squares at each side of the board occupied by pieces at the start of the game, the cells were “off” when covered and “on” when exposed; for the squares in the middle, empty at the start of the game, the opposite was true. Thus the music began when the first piece was moved.

The pre-composed music was also produced collaboratively. In total, sixteen pieces were used, four by each of four composers (Lowell Cross, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, and David Tudor). Typically for Cage, then, his piece did not contain any sound created personally by him, although he designed it as a musical event. As the game progressed, some or all of the sixteen pieces would play simultaneously through the eight loudspeakers arranged around the audience.

The length of the performance, obviously, was dictated solely by the length of the game of chess played. At its premiere, Cage played Duchamp. Unsurprisingly, the game finished very quickly, with Duchamp winning easily despite having given Cage odds of a knight. Presumably to save the audience from disappointment, a second game was played, this time between Cage and Teeny Duchamp. They proved much more equally matched, and the game continued for five hours before being adjourned in the early hours of the morning (it was finished a few days later; Teeny won).

The story of the performance, and of a 2010 recreation of it at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St Louis is told in more detail in Marcel Duchamp and John Cage “Reunion” by Macauley Peterson. While the moves of the game between Duchamp and Cage were not recorded, here is an audio recording of the concert:

As a work of music created by a game of chess, I find Reunion oddly frustrating. On the one hand, its structure is directly dictated by the moves played on the board; but on the other hand, the aural experience, to me, is entirely separate from the experience of playing the game. This extends to the method of triggering the pieces of music by covering or uncovering squares on the board: there is no differentiation between pieces (not even which colour they are), and although Lowell Cross intended the density of sound to diminish as the number of pieces on the board decreased, it is the rate at which moves are made rather than anything else that determines this aspect of the music. Reunion certainly fits into Cage’s practice of seeking to create music that cannot be predicted in advance; but as a chess player as well as a musician, I wish there was more of an organic connection between the two domains linked through the piece.

In 1968, the technology for the performance of Reunion required a cumbersome work of bricolage. Nowadays, of course, the coordination of moves an a board with triggers for a sound system is much easier to achieve via a computer or a website. And, predictably enough, there is an app for Reunion that allows you to recreate the piece for yourself, using specially-composed new music. It is hosted by The John Cage Trust, and there is a page describing the pieceand in addition an essay describing how the app interprets Cage’s original work. Finally, there is the app itself, although when I try it, the music seems to start immediately, which isn’t how I thought it should work. Anyway, click on the link and hear how your favourite opening sounds!