Top Five Athletic Composers

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

It’s not just the Seattle Seahawks or the skiers at the Sochi Olympics who like to win. Many classical composers were athletes, too, and each weekday at 9 am and 1 pm this week we're featuring one of our top five athletic composers.


Benjamin Britten

Despite being a shy, retiring man, Britten was a competitive, all-round sportsman who enjoyed cricket, swimming, soccer and croquet. He was particularly fond of a round of tennis. "When you were beaten by him at squash or tennis," said one competitor, "you literally felt that he’d been 'beating' you."



Leonard Bernstein

In keeping with his omnivorous personality, Bernstein enjoyed a number of participatory sports. His brother, Burton Bernstein, recalled "his love of games, and particularly, his infuriating success in trouncing us at anagrams – the game of games, at least to him. And then there were tennis and squash and skiing and swimming and sailing and touch football – the last featuring the annual Thanksgiving classic, called the Nose Bowl [note spelling correction: not "Nose Ball"], in the backyard of his house in Fairfield, Connecticut." Bernstein also enjoyed skiing and had a small rivalry with Herbert von Karajan (pictured, left) when it came to the slopes. Bernstein's "Pass the Football" from Wonderful Town portrays a gridiron hero whose academic credentials are less than stellar.



Charles Ives

Charles Ives often projected a rugged, masculine image when it came to music, disparaging "sissies who couldn't stand up and take their dissonances like a man." That seemed to carry over to his non-musical pursuits too. As a college student, Ives captained baseball and football teams, played a lot of tennis and shone in athletics. His works included Baseball Take-Off, for solo piano and Yale-Princeton Football Game, for orchestra. Ives once spoke of playing the organ as being "as much fun as playing baseball.”




Richard Wagner

Wagner may not seem like a particularly fun-loving character, but he did find time to indulge his love of the outdoors. It was during a hiking holiday in the mountains of Bohemia that Wagner began to write the libretto for Tannhauser. Later, while living in Zurich, he took numerous expeditions into the Alps, through peaks, passes and valleys. Wagner was said to be fond of doing somersaults and headstands, and wrote in his autobiography about his ability to do gymnastics feats. This occasionally spilled over into his work: Wagner’s stage directions included much swimming, diving and aquatic gymnastics, particularly for the Rhinemaidens in the Ring Cycle.



George Gershwin

George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg seem like an unlikely pair, but once a week, the two composers met on the tennis court at the former's Beverly Hills home. According to one observer, Gershwin was "nonchalant" and "chivalrous," always "playing to an audience." Schoenberg, on the other hand, was "overly eager" and "choppy" and had "learned to shut his mind against public opinion." We're talking strictly about tennis, of course. 

Watch Gershwin on the court at :42 into this video:

Runners Up:

Debussy enjoyed an occasional game of tennis with Ravel and his ballet Jeux is based on tennis... Schoenberg played tennis (see above) and even channeled his enthusiasm for the sport into a new system of music notation, based on a transcription of the events in a match...Mozart was a pool shark at billiards table... and Prokofiev played tennis and volleyball, but apparently not so well.


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Comments [7]

Bill from Greenwich

The photo of Charles Ives is of Ives in the baseball uniform of Hopkins Grammar School , the independent boys school in New Haven which Ives attended before Yale . Ives was baseball captain his senior year .

Feb. 05 2014 01:44 PM
Chistopher Brewster from Minnesota

Norman Dello Joio was an excellent baseball player.

Feb. 05 2014 12:50 PM
John McCauley from NYC

How about Mozart? He was a huge Bowling fan.....

Feb. 05 2014 12:19 PM
Suzanne from New York

I guess Schoenberg played table tennis (ping pong) as well as regular tennis. And I guess there aren't a lot of tennis players at who supply photo captions at WQXR! :-)

Feb. 05 2014 10:22 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

John Philip Sousa should be considered for this list as the Sousa Band had their own baseball team for many of its 39-year history with Sousa himself pitching the first few innings. They are credited for playing the first game of baseball on European soil which took place at the Paris Exposition of 1900 in a game against the guards of the American Pavilion. Sousa was a avid horseman and rode Arabians; however, his love of the sport was almost his undoing after a fall in 1921 resulted in a broken neck greatly limiting Sousa's conducting abilities for the rest of his life. Sousa was an expert trapshooter and competed on a national level. His was made first president of the American Amateur Trapshooting Association and the Ithaca Gun Co. honored him by naming their finest grade of shotgun the "Sousa" model.

Feb. 05 2014 07:59 AM
Gev Sweeney from The Jersey Shore

The caption under the pic of Schoenberg playing ping-pong is a lovely example of how classical musicians can elevate sports. Schoenberg played tennis, all right. Table tennis. But only once a week???

Feb. 05 2014 05:44 AM
Eric from New York, NY

And Steven Mackey was a skier before he focused full-time on composing.

Feb. 04 2014 05:15 PM

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