Classical music has the stereotype of being dainty and genteel, and by extension one might not expect composers and musicians to show much interest in sweaty pursuits like The Beautiful Game.
But ever since the modern version of the game evolved, some of classical music’s finest have been unable to take their eyes off the ball.
Heading the line-up, as it were, is the English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). He was a lifelong supporter of the Wolverhampton Wanderers. He would regularly cycle for miles through the countryside from Malvern to Wolverhampton to watch their home games in the company of his lady friend Dorabella ‘Dora’ Penny, seventeen years his junior and immortalized in the tenth of his famous Enigma Variations. Elgar had an eye for the ladies, so it is possible that she was his motivation as much as the game. Be that as it may, it was discovered in the late 1990s that Elgar scored the music for the first-ever football terrace chant “He Banged the Leather for Goal” after the Wolves striker Billy Malpass scored against Stoke in 1898. Apparently he got the title of the chant off a match report! It has fallen out of use, although his ‘Nimrod’ from the Enigma Variations still gets belted out by football fans everywhere.
Jostling for top position with Elgar is Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), possibly the only famous composer to be a qualified football referee. His love of the game was legendary. He described it as ‘the ballet of the masses’. He went to the extent of actually writing a ballet ‘The Golden Age’, about a football team that falls prey to match-fixing and imprisonment in a decadent Western city, with a musical football match written into the second act. In the words of Soviet writer Maxim Gorki, Shostakovich was “a rabid fan… He comported himself like a little boy, leapt up, screamed and gesticulated at matches”.
(Shostakovich, bespectacled in the foreground in both pictures)
He supported the team Zenit Leningrad, and would cut short his composing retreats in the countryside just to watch the home matches. His friend Isaak Glikman relates how he would even invite the whole team to his house, ply them with alcohol, and play the piano for them.
It is even believed that football was the last thing on his mind before he died. He was working on his Viola Sonata and before he retired, he asked to be wakened to watch a match on television, but died in his sleep.
The famous Gloria by Francis Poulenc ((1899-1963) was partly inspired by his recollection of seeing “some solemn-looking Benedictine monks that I saw playing football one day”.
American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) captained a football team in college, while Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was an all-round sportsman with a love of sport that included football, and it was said that “he kicked a pretty corner”.
Among contemporary composers, Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960) is an avid Arsenal supporter. In 1999, he wrote a football-themed opera “The Silver Tassle” about a footballer injured during the First World War. He also concealed a distorted version of the football chant ‘Olé Olé Olé’ in his 1991 orchestral composition ‘Momentum’.
Benedict Mason (b. 1954) has also written a football opera “Playing Away” about the brilliant footballer Terry Bond.
Michael Nyman (b. 1944) and James MacMillan (b. 1959, and who recently visited Mumbai with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) support the Queen’s Park Rangers and Celtic respectively. Nyman wrote a football-inspired minimalist work called “Beckham Crosses, Nyman Scores” during the 2002 World Cup; and “The Final Score” (accompanying a film of the same name and dedicated to QPR) and a whole album of football-inspired music called “After Extra Time” which includes the funeral dirge ‘Memorial’ as a tribute to Juventus fans killed at the Heysel stadium tragedy in 1985.
David Golightly is a great supporter of Middlesbrough FC; his Symphony No. 1 is the first-ever symphony dedicated not only to a football club and its chairman (Steve Gibson), but is also an “orchestral portrait of the game”, encompassing the fluctuating fortunes of his beloved team.
Finnish composer and football fanatic Peter Laang has written a pop opera “Learning to Shout” highlighting the problems of racism and violence in football. The idea came to him while watching the 1998 World Cup. In the plot, goddesses sell beer, while football-mad Greeks and Trojans battle it out in the stands.
Compatriot Osmo Tapio Everton Räihälä (b. 1965) is an Everton supporter, and his best-known work is the 2005 orchestral portrait Barlinnie Nine, a tribute to Everton footballer Duncan Ferguson, who once did time at HM Prison Barlinnie. Incredibly, on the night of its premiere, Ferguson scored the only goal of the game at the FA Cup final in Everton’s win over Manchester United!
Last weekend I covered The Three Tenors. Plácido Domingo’s heart beats for Real Madrid. He was invited in 2002 to mark the club’s centenary by singing and recording its new anthem ‘Himno del Centenario’, and is now its ‘honorary member’. Of his tenor companions, Luciano Pavarotti supported Juventus, while José Carreras is loyal to FC Barcelona.
Violin superstar Nigel Kennedy is famed for his abiding love of Aston Villa, with internet pictures of him kitted out and playing a fiddle painted in Villa colours.
And some classical music melodies have become part of football lore in their own right. Last week we saw how Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot became a football anthem.
Sunderland use Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Montagues and Capulets’ (or ‘Dance of the Knights’ by its proper title) from his ballet Romeo and Juliet as they come onto the pitch at home games. It is also the theme music from The Apprentice. The BBCC used Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane in its coverage of the 1998 World Cup, bringing it out of relative obscurity into the popular imagination.
Is it surprising that football shares locker rooms with dance, ballet and opera? It’s all there: the footwork, the choreography, the spectacle, high-octane drama. And the score, of course!
(An edited version of this article was published on 13 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)