Saturday 10 December 2016

Maestros who adored knight moves

Published 22/01/2011 | 05:00

The 1980s musical Chess will soon visit Belfast and Dublin as part of a revival tour. While this modern-day entertainment -- inspired by the epic world championship between the American and Russian Grandmasters Fischer and Spassky -- boasts a score by the men behind Abba, it got me thinking about the game of chess in the world of classical music.

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There's the famous remark by Brahms about his revered musical mentor, Robert Schumann. Brahms joked he'd learnt nothing from Schumann except how to play chess.

Then there was Mendelssohn, something of a chess nut. A letter of his turned up many years ago in, of all places, the Music Department at Queen's University in Belfast. In it, Mendelssohn is thanking his host on a visit to Paris, in particular for sourcing a chess book he'd been after for a long time.

It isn't been just composers who've found chess the perfect complement to their musical work. The great conductor Thomas Beecham (whose family name is still found in many a medicine chest) was an enthusiastic player throughout his life.

The greatest chess fan in the world of music was probably the Ukrainian-Russian Sergey Prokofiev, one of the 20th century's top composers.

From symphonies and concertos to ballets and operas and of course his ground-breaking musical narration Peter and the Wolf, he covered all the ground. His Romeo and Juliet remains a popular ballet.

Prokofiev was a chess player from the age of seven. While his career in music flourished, he would follow the game avidly, and turn up at big tournaments in Moscow. He counted world champions as friends, and one of his chess games is part of Russian musical lore. He took on violinist David Oistrakh, also a good friend, with a side bet that whoever lost would give a free concert for the members. There was no winner.

Back on the stage, the musical Chess isn't the first show to be inspired by the game. Checkmate was a short ballet, composed by Arthur Bliss, choreographed by Ninette de Valois, that was the Sadler's Wells contribution to the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

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