Music and sport are often placed at opposite ends of the creative spectrum. It’s rare to meet somebody who can put in just as good a performance on the sports field as they can in the concert hall. However, a closer look at some of the best composers of the 20th century reveals a surprising number that did just that.
Benjamin Britten for example. The creator of 16 operas and over 20 sets of song cycles also happened to be an excellent cricketer, clocking up vast batting tallies for his school team. He played squash and tennis for most of his life, and as friend Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy recalls: ‘When you were beaten by him … you literally felt that he’d been “beating” you.’ Britten would break up his working day with long walks in the countryside around his Aldeburgh home, convinced that rigorous exercise was the only way to stoke inspiration.
His coach once remarked that it was a ‘crying shame’ he spent so much time composing, as otherwise he could have been a champion sprinter
Another English composer with impressive hand-eye coordination was Ethel Smyth. Already an accomplished rider and golfer, Smyth taught fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst to throw bricks with deadly accuracy during practice sessions at Woking Golf Club where she was a member. Clearly Smyth was a good coach, for she and Pankhurst were to later find themselves in neighbouring cells after smashing several prominent members of Parliament’s windows.
Across the Atlantic a different set of sporting pursuits occupied insurance broker-come-composer Charles Ives, who as a schoolboy had captained his baseball team, before going on to play varsity football at Yale. His coach once remarked that it was a ‘crying shame’ he spent so much time composing, as otherwise he could have been a champion sprinter.
In fact, there are plenty of referenced to Ives’s extra-musical passions in pieces like his 1919 piano etude Some South-Paw Pitching, written ‘in fun and excitement’ after seeing a good game of baseball. Even more overt is his Yale-Princeton Football Game written for orchestra, which depicts the 1897 6-0 defeat of the Princeton Tigers to the Yale Bulldogs, and includes quotations of college songs as well as musical references to various players and formations.
Another extraordinary athlete was Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger, who would actually run between concert venues whilst on tour. His biographer John Bird recounts one such adventure in South Africa. Quite literally ‘running late’, Grainger had misjudged the distance between two venues, arriving in a cloud of dust just as the audience were taking their seats, and accompanied by a band of Zulu warriors who had happened to be going the same way. Grateful for their guidance and encouragement, Grainger demanded seats at the concert for his fellow travellers, but was sadly refused.
Though their musical aesthetic was starkly polarised, their mutual passion for tennis brought them close
The great European mountain ranges have provided inspiration to countless composers, and in surrounding themselves with snowcapped peaks, several even discovered a talent for mountain pursuits. Jean Sibelius, for example. In spite of his penchant for strong drink and cigars, Sibelius was an excellent skiier.
So enamoured was he by the sport that in 1925 he penned the melodrama The Lonely Ski Trail for speaker and piano. Based on a poem by Bertel Gripenberg, the piece explores themes of loneliness and mortality on the slopes near to Sibelius’s beloved hometown, Hämeenlinna. Incidentally, Leonard Bernstein was also a good skiier, sharing a downhill rivalry with Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan.
Perhaps the greatest all-rounder of the 21st century, all the more impressive for his lack of formal education, is Arnold Schoenberg. The eldest son of a shop keeper, it wasn’t until he was in his 20s, when he met and studied with Alexander von Zemlinksy, that Schoenberg started to build a reputation as both a composer and painter.
It was, however, on emigrating to California that he developed his passion for tennis, playing regularly with American composer and songwriter George Gershwin. The two lived nearby in Los Angeles during the 1930s, and though their musical aesthetic was starkly polarised, their mutual passion for the game brought them close.
They played each other every week without fail, Schoenberg often bringing an entourage of conductors and string players, Gershwin his songwriter friends Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen. Schoenberg even created a system of symbols describing the game’s aural aspects, dedicating it to his playing partner. Sadly, ‘Music Notation based on Tennis: A Tribute to George Gershwin’ was never used in an actual score, and Gershwin’s death of a brain tumour at the age of just 39 put an abrupt end to their rivalry on the court.