Le compositeur Benjamin Britten en pleine partie de tennis en 1949
Le compositeur Benjamin Britten en pleine partie de tennis en 1949 © Getty  /  Kurt Hutton

Tennis and classical music: a long love story

The international Roland-Garros Tennis Tournament will end on Sunday, June 11, 2017. Before the finals, let's back up a little bit to talk about the love history that has been binding together music and tennis since the 19th century.

We often picture sport and classical music as two separate - or even incompatible - universes. The Roland-Garros Tournament that will finish in a few days will prove us this isn't true. Composers and musicians became interested (and still are) in this racket sport, and the tennis world gives them a lot in return.

Composers on the tennis court

Tennis as we know it today (with a few exceptions), was born in the middle of the 19th century. What we know is that apparently the first composer who was seen holding a tennis racket is probably Arnold Schoenberg. Even if he preferred table tennis, the composer used to enjoy the pleasure of tennis with his neighbour, a man called George Gershwin.

We are in 1936, the two musicians are living in Beverly Hills, California. Once a week, they play some sets on Gershwin’s tennis court. According to some, their games were as opposed as their music. In the book George Gershwin: His Life and Work by Howard Pollack, 38-year-old Gershwin used to play a lot for his audience (orchestra directors and musicians); he was both nervous and nonchalant, tireless and chivalrous while facing his opponent, Schoenberg, 62, impatient and a real teaser.

This tennis players/composers duo also exists in France with Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, who played sometimes. Despite their differences of opinion, the two composers will be bound by sincere friendship until 1905, when their relationship is damaged.

Among the other composers in love with tennis, there is Prokofiev who used to play as he himself said during summer 1916: "I am currently staying in Kuokkala. My main activities are tennis and working on an opera”, when writing to his friends. But there is also Shostakovich photographed while playing tennis, or even Charles Ives and Benjamin Britten who played tennis with his professor: artist and composer Frank Bridge.

Musicians and tennis players: reciprocal love

If on one hand musicians often prefer their instrument (or their conductor's baton) to a tennis racket, this does not mean that they are not interested in it. For example, Russian pianist Vladimir Krainev, who died in 2011, participated in mini tennis championships when he was young. And violinist Itzhak Perlman used to have a real passion for this sport.

Another tennis fan hiding behind his conductor’s baton is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has been focusing on tennis in the past few years. He has even become one of the biggest fans of Spanish player Rafael Nadal. Maybe it is no coincidence that Nadal's grandfather was… an orchestra conductor.

The two met in 2008 and, after that, they never stopped staying in contact. The conductor and the tennis player even send each other encouragement messages, before a game or a concert, on social networks.

Why such admiration? Yannick Nézet-Séguin answered: “For his [Rafael Nadal’s] intensity, the way he goes for every shot, that is the way I like to conduct – to go for every note”, says the conductor in The Guardian.

If on one hand Rafael Nadal is a discrete music lover, Serbian player Novak Djokovic has always shown his love for classical music and opera. And it looks like he would love to launch a music career according to the videos he posts, with a violin in his hand or behind the piano

Gautier Capuçon, French cellist: “A tennis match is a choreography”

Gautier Capuçon, violoncelliste
Gautier Capuçon, violoncelliste © Maxppp  /  Frédéric Dugit

“We can find many similarities between a classical concert and a tennis match, such as rigour, demand. During a match you must hold on to the very end, just like during a concert. You can’t give up, and if you do, the audience notices it. When an artist is not into the concert, into the music anymore, you can see that on stage.

Another thing in common involves a more physical aspect: as musicians, we are sportsmen from a muscular point of view. We should see a physical therapist after every concert, as for tennis players, for our back problems, blood pressure, and so on.

On the other hand, I don't like when we are asked, before a concert: “So, you’re playing against who?” referring to the conductor. We are in the same team. A concert is not a match from that point of view. Even if, when we play for over an hour and a half, it's a performance that requires endurance and concentration. Just like in tennis, we can see it in every set…”

Is there a tennis player who inspires you more than anyone else?

Gautier Capuçon: “Roger Federer. Not only is he one of the greatest tennis players, he is also an artist, because we can compare his games to music. In his movements there is a tempo, a line, something musical. It is true that in this sport everything must start from the body, exactly like musicians do. A match is like a choreography. And Federer has some sort of elegance when he plays…

More than a matter of tempo, it is also a question of timing. A player who runs to the net a split second too soon is lost. A musician playing a note a split second too late, can transform a magical moment into a simple note”.

Music inspired by tennis courts...

Jeux (Games) by Claude Debussy is a one-act ballet composed in 1912 and choreographed for the premiere by Vaslav Nijinsky. The work describes a boy and two girls searching for a lost tennis ball.

Erik Satie tried to musically transcribe a tennis match in his Sports et divertissements (Sports and Pastimes). The match is played between the representation of an octopus and the picnic, as we can hear from minute 8 to minute 8:50 in the video below:

In the last part of the ballet Le train bleu by Darius Milhaud, the composer focuses on a “tennis champion”, as the title of this movement suggests.

Another ballet, another tennis match, this time with Shostakovich and his The Golden Age that includes a “Dance of the Tennis Players and Training Session” in the first act.

A contemporary composer, Mauricio Kagel, describes a tennis match with two cellos and an arbiter playing percussion instruments.

Another work involving a tennis match: Match Point by composer Gwyneth Walker.

Lastly, one of the 8 pieces for piano by Swedish composer Wilhelm Peterson-Berger is called Lawn Tennis on the tennis court.

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