After a hard day’s work, there’s nothing like going into flop mode, a glass of something in one hand, the other gently rifling through ranks of CDs or scrolling through a digital cache of music, finding the escape hatch from office stress into down time. Pity, then, the poor composer who has been struggling all day to tailor new ideas with notes; what does he or she do to provide that decompression chamber between one day’s work and the next? And are work and play kept completely apart, or does a pastime occasionally infiltrate a composition? Our self-portrait cover image shows how Arnold Schoenberg managed his free time. How about others?
Richard Strauss loved to play skat, a card game for three players devised in Germany in the early 19th century. It remains popular not only in Europe, but also in North America. Strauss made reference to the game by including a hand in his opera Intermezzo (8.571215). He wrote the libretto himself and based the action on real incidents involving himself and his wife, so it must have seemed perfectly natural for him to involve a role for his favourite hobby.
Leoš Janáček was a gymnastics fan and if any of you are looking to shed a few kilos, forget investingin anything so trendily healthy as a mobile phone app; simply listen to Janáček’s Music for Exercise Gymnastique (8.553587), invest in a pair of Indian clubs and get swinging! Written for Janáček’s fellow enthusiasts at the Sokol Gymnastic Association, the piano music’s driving rhythms will have those calories withering in a trice.
Antonin Dvořák, who always seemed to have a new melody forming in his head, was a railway enthusiast and kept pet pigeons. So, next time you fancy that you can hear the roar of a steam engine or some gentle cooing in his music, maybe it’s less implausible than might at first seem. Billiards might be less easily translated into music but, along with skittles, it was one of Mozart‘s passions and made a memorable appearance in the film of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. When the composer hit a stress patch, he took refuge in both hands at the billiard table, one scribbling away on manuscript, the other toying simultaneously with the soothing trajectory of the billiard balls.
One of the more popular hobbies among composers has been chess. Sergey Prokofiev loved the game and some reckon hecould have been a professional player; the Russian’s sparring with the world’s top players of his time is well documented. And, if you follow this link, you can see a recreation of a game played in 1924 between Prokofiev and a certain Maurice Ravel.
Chess had been popular at the French royal court at Versailles two centuries earlier, when François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795) was a chorister in the chapel choir there. Philidor went on to pursue parallel, and equally successful, careers as a composer and a chess virtuoso. He became celebrated around Europe for his skills in the game, which included playing multiple games simultaneously while blindfolded, deprived of visual aid and reliant on memory. The English version of his tome on the game, An Analysis of the Game of Chess, was published in London in 1749; some forty years later he produced his Carmen saeculare (8.557593-94) while mixing among the intellectual circles of the same city.
There are numerous other composers and performers who were ardent chess players, including Dmitry Shostakovich, who was equally passionate about football. He occasionally contributed newspaper articles on sport and was a supporter of Leningrad’s Zenith Football Club, attending matches and recording statistics in his Grossbuch, a ledger in which he stored results of routine matches and sporting factual rarities. The team has fared better in recent times than in Shostakovich’s day.
Edward Elgar may be known as an archetypal British, stiff-upper-lip persona but he, too, was a football fan and supporter of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. Devotees of the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms Concert will be familiar with Elgar’s music for Land of Hope and Glory, but his He Banged the Leather for Goal is a less well-known crowd-rousing ditty. Penned over a century ago, it was inspired by a match between the ‘Wolves’ and Stoke City, and a subsequent newspaper report describing the winning exploits of one of the players, who had put the ball in the back of the net so impressively.
Maybe one of Elgar’s other pastimes suits the collective memory better: he was a keen cyclist and named one of his metal steeds Mr Phoebus, which seems suitably eccentric. He was slightly outclassed in terms of devotion to transport for a pastime, however, by Giacomo Puccini, who is pictured in his car, a rarity at the time, a 1902 De Dion-Bouton model.