Game, set and match – 10 links between tennis and classical music

We take a quick look at how the worlds of tennis and classical music have inspired each other over the decades

Benjamin Britten playing tennis
Published: June 30, 2022 at 10:42 am

Now that Wimbledon is in full flow, it is time to celebrate those occasions when tennis and classical music have combined in glorious harmony. Here are ten such examples…

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1. Claude Debussy

The most famous piece of classical music based on the game of tennis, Debussy’s 1912 ballet (or ‘poème dansé’, to be precise) Jeux depicts a young man and two female friends looking for a missing ball on a warm summer’s night. Admittedly, there’s not much serve and volley going on here; instead, the three characters frolic around merrily before starting to get a little cosy with each other. Love all, as they say…

2. Erik Satie

Never one to mince his words, Satie smashed a couple of hard-hit volleys in the direction of Jeux, pointing out how little it seemed to have to do with the game itself. The following year, he had a shot of his own at the subject when he included ‘Le Tennis’ as the last of the 21 movements of his Sports et divertissements for solo piano.

3. Benjamin Britten

Britten was both a very talented sportsman and the possessor of a ferocious will to win, not least when playing tennis against his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. ‘Ben was intensely, remorselessly competitive in an almost sadistic way,’ remembers author Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy about the British composer. ‘When you were beaten by him at squash or tennis... you literally felt that he’d been “beating” you.’

4. Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin

When Arnold Schoenberg arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1930s, fellow composer George Gershwin made him welcome by inviting him over for a game of tennis. It proved such a success that further games followed on a regular basis and, despite a 24-year difference in age, the two proved a good match. Apparently, Gershwin’s style was free and easy, while Schoenberg played a more precise, safety-first game – rumours that the latter had 12 different shots which he played in rotation before repeating one are untrue.

5. Sergei Prokofiev

In 1916, Prokofiev revealed that his love of tennis had got in the way of his day job. ‘The famous international tennis star Prokofiev has arrived in Kuokkala [in Finland] and has taken part in a huge tennis competition,’ wrote the composer in a letter. ‘The Gambler [his opera] suffered most of all.’

6. Wilhelm Peterson-Berger

The Swedish composer Peterson-Berger was such a fan of tennis that, in his later years, he had a court built at his house on the island of Frösön. Long before that, however, he had ardently championed the game in Sweden and depicted its charms in ‘Lawn Tennis’, the third movement of his Frösöblomster (‘Frösön Flowers’) for solo piano in 1896.

7. Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams also had a tennis court at his house, in Dorking, Surrey. How much he himself played is not clear – given his physique, probably not a lot – though we do have letters from his wife, Adeline, inviting fellow composer Gerald Finzi over for a game of ‘very mild’ tennis on a couple of occasions in the early 1930s. History does not reveal if Finzi was any good, either.

8. Henry VIII

The famous Tudor king, often credited as the composer of Greensleeves, was mad keen on tennis – though of the ‘real’ rather than the ‘lawn’ variety. Two of his wives revealed that he would head off in a sulk when games didn’t go his way, while another two complained that he had a very choppy style of play. Possibly.

9. Isaac Stern, Joshua Bell and Pinchas Zukerman

Three of the finest violinists of recent years have also enjoyed nothing more than to head to the court for a little exercise. The great Isaac Stern (1920-2001) played the game throughout his career, constantly dismissing those who warned him about injury with the riposte that life is for living. Joshua Bell (b. 1967) was a very talented tennis player as a boy, regularly winning tournaments in between practising his scales, while Pinchas Zukerman (b. 1948) even at one point dabbled with the idea of dropping the violin to take up a professional career with the racquet instead.

10. Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic

Now that we have served nine examples of tennis-loving musicians, what about life on the other side of the net – namely classical music-loving tennis players? The three greatest players of the current era – and arguably of all time – all have musical links and loves. The grandson of a professional conductor, Rafael Nadal told GQ Magazine last year that his musical loves included both opera and orchestral music, and Novak Djokovic has also revealed a fondness for the opera, adding that only lack of time prevents him going more often. Roger Federer, meanwhile, has been seen attending orchestral concerts and in 2012 took time out to make a video congratulating the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on its 80th birthday. His own violin playing, however, could still do with a little practice…

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Top image: Getty Images

Authors

Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.

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