In search of perfect pitch

Many composers, including me, love football so much that we are inspired by the beautiful game

James MacMillan

Unnoticed by many classical music lovers has been the steady ongoing enthusiasm for football among composers of recent times. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a fan of Leningrad Zenith and regularly attended games. His usual demeanour in photographs was the inscrutable death-mask stare, which hid all his turbulent emotions. There is a photograph of him, however, with friends at a game, possibly taken immediately after a Zenith goal, in which he appears deliriously happy. He also wrote football-related articles for the Soviet press. His ballet The Golden Age, a propaganda piece for Soviet Communism, follows the fortunes of a Russian team as they visit the corrupt and decadent West.

Edward Elgar was mad about Wolverhampton Wanderers and attended many games at Molineaux in the 1880s with his friend Dora Penny (“Dorabella” of the Enigma Variations). They watched Wolves play Stoke City in 1898, and the next day the composer read a report of how the Wolves centre-forward Bill Malpass “banged the leather for goal”. He set the line to music, but it got lost. It was found decades later and the club mounted a performance of it at a special concert in the town in 2010.

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was a supporter of Sparta Prague and his work Half-Time is dedicated to them. It was inspired by a Czech-French game. As a frenzied crowd of fans grows ever more excited, a melody emerges fortissimo in the strings and harmonised in thirds, an obvious folk-inspired gesture. This tune clearly represents the supporters, en masse, in an excited state.

There have been a couple of recent operas which feature the game — Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, based on the play by Sean O’Casey, features Belfast Celtic winning a trophy before their players go off to fight in the First World War. The Arsenal-daft Turnage has used football crowd chants in a number of his works, including his opera Greek and Momentum, the work which Sir Simon Rattle commissioned to open Symphony Hall Birmingham in 1991. In Benedict Mason’s Playing Away (1993) the ball even has an aria. Based on a text by Howard Brenton, the opera tells the story of flawed football genius Terry Bond, whose team is playing Bayern Munich in the European Cup final.

In 1996, Queens Park Rangers fan Michael Nyman produced an album of three football-related works. The first, After Extra Time, is described by the composer  as “Riff Athletic v Riff Rangers” with the instrumental forces divided into two five-a-side teams. The Final Score is meant to  evoke the Stan Bowles QPR team of the 1970s, and the third, Memorial, commemorates the dead of the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster. The music then appeared in Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and has now been worked into the composer’s 11th Symphony, Hillsborough Memorial.

The Finnish composer Osmo Tapio Everton Reihala has made a special series of Everton compositions, including Barlinnie Nine, dedicated to one-time Scottish centre-forward Duncan Ferguson who once did a stretch in Glasgow’s main prison for head-butting an opponent when he played for Glasgow Rangers. According to the composer, Ferguson “has an aggressive side but there is a lyrical undertone to him, as the fact that he keeps pigeons shows”.

I’ve written a number of football- inspired works myself which have grown out of my passion for Glasgow Celtic, including 25th May 1967 which is a brief flourish of boyhood delight (for piano solo) recalling the night in Lisbon when Celtic became the first British winners of the European Cup, and For Neil (also for piano) — a tribute to former Hoops captain (and manager) Neil Lennon who, as a Catholic, suffered sectarian abuse and even death threats when representing Northern Ireland.

The most substantial Celtic work I have composed though, is The Berserking, a piano concerto from 1989. In September that year Celtic flew to Belgrade to take on Partizan in the UEFA Cup, where they were beaten 1-0. They returned with high hopes of overturning the deficit in the home leg. Celtic were characteristically passionate in attack — and careless in defence. Their dazzling, exhilarating display was ultimately futile, for although they won 5-4 on the night, they lost on the away goals rule.

It struck me as a vivid illustration of the facility that we Scots have for shooting ourselves in the foot. It reminded me of the stories about ancient Celtic and Viking Berserkers, warriors who would work themselves into an aggressive frenzy on mead, magic mushrooms and hyper-ventilation, plunging headlong into wild, often suicidal attacks.

I was so fascinated by the misplaced energy being shown — great drives forward followed by self-damaging defending — that I tried to work it into the sonic fabric of the concerto. I can safely say that, in the history of music, I am the only composer to write a piece inspired by the away goals rule.

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