Six of the best: football-mad musicians

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With the arrival of the World Cup we look at great musicians obsessed by the beautiful game

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Six of the best: football-mad musicians

OK, so not everyone likes football. We appreciate that. However, with the World Cup beginning on Thursday, ignoring the beautiful game completely is going to be fairly difficult for a month or so.

And besides, millions of people are utterly besotted by it, including a fair number of classical musicians. As events in Brazil unfold over the next four weeks, there will be countless pianists, cellists, singers and all, scarcely able to concentrate on the demands of practice during the day, or rushing off stage at the end of concerts to find out the latest score.

Nor is the football-loving musician a recent phenomenon. Right from when the game started to take root in England and beyond, it has held some of our finest composers and performers firmly in its grip. Here we look at six of the most ardent followers, from the 19th century to the present day…

 

1. Edward Elgar (supports: Wolverhampton Wanderers)

Elgar’s love of football has been well documented, not least since the late 1990s when it was discovered that he wrote what is reckoned to be the earliest known terrace chant. The chant in question, which the English composer wrote down after attending Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Stoke in 1898, tells how Wolves striker Billy Malpass ‘Banged the Leather for Goal’. Wolves was very much Elgar’s team, and he would regularly cycle from Worcestershire to Wolverhampton for home games in the company of his friend Dora Penny – an impressive show of devotion to the game (or was it, in fact, devotion to Dora? Who knows…)

 

2. Dmitri Shostakovich (supports: Zenit Leningrad)

Shostakovich was, quite simply, a football nut – when he famously described the game as ‘the ballet of the masses’, it certainly wasn’t meant dismissively. The Russian composer’s letters to and from his friend Isaak Glikman give a revealing, and often amusing, picture of just how far he would take his love for Zenit Leningrad, his local team – at its most extreme, this included inviting the entire team back to his house, getting them tipsy and playing the piano for them. In 1930, he turned his football obsession into music in the form of The Golden Age, a ballet about a Soviet team that is playing in a corrupt Western city (below).  

 

3. Mark-Anthony Turnage (supports: Arsenal)

Among present-day composers, Michael Nyman (Queen’s Park Rangers), James MacMillan (Celtic) and Mark-Anthony Turnage (Arsenal) are probably the three you’d turn to first for an explanation of the offside rule, four-four-two formation and the Italian catenaccio defensive system. All three have, like Shostakovich, paid tribute to football in their music. In Turnage’s case, this means the 1999 football-based opera, The Silver Tassie, and, more obscurely but rather cleverly, the distorted quotation of the popular ‘Olé, Olé, Olé’ chant in his 1991 orchestral work, Momentum (below).

 

4. Plácido Domingo (supports: Real Madrid)

Paul Gascoigne’s tears aside, the pre-tournament concert by The Three Tenors was probably the most memorable thing about the 1990 World Cup in Italy (see the BBC Italia 1990 World Cup title sequence below) – much of the football was simply wretched. Of the three great singers, Luciano Pavarotti was a long-term Juventus fan and the Catalan José Carreras had his colours firmly pinned to the FC Barcelona mast. But Plácido Domingo’s support of Real Madrid was, and still is, on another level altogether. In 2002, the tenor/baritone was invited to mark the Spanish club’s centenary by singing and recording its new official anthem, Himno del Centenario, and he has since been made a Real ‘honorary member’. He is regularly seen wearing the team’s famous white strip and, given that the ‘Meringues’ (yes, meringues) have just won the European Champions League, presumably has no temptation of shedding it any time soon…

 

5. Nigel Kennedy (supports: Aston Villa)

Nigel Kennedy supports Aston Villa, and don’t we just know it. Run a picture search for the English violinist on Google and you’ll be greeted with photos of Kennedy wearing a Villa shirt, Kennedy playing a violin painted in Villa colours, Kennedy performing keepy-uppies on the Villa Park pitch, and so on. To be fair, he is good value when talking about the joys of following his beloved club… though it would be a brave man to point out to the man famous for his recording of the Four Seasons that it’s been, ahem, considerably more than four seasons since Villa won anything of note.

 

6. Julian Lloyd Webber (supports: Leyton Orient)

As in all walks of life, you don’t have to look far to find classical musicians who support football’s big clubs, but let’s also hear it for those who have opted to follow the game's less fashionable outfits. These include cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, who has grinned and bore a lot over the years watching Leyton Orient hoof away in the lower divisions (though the London club is, admittedly, enjoying a bit of a golden patch currently). As with all the most ardent supporters, Lloyd Webber occasionally lets his excitement get the better of him, such as the time when, after a notoriously intense match, he infamously described the fans of Oxford Utd – widely regarded as the most sophisticated and knowledgeable in the game – as ‘animals’. Tsk. An error of judgement there but, in his defence, he later apologised.

 

Jeremy Pound is the deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine and former site editor of the Total Football website. He supports Oxford Utd.