Football-inspired music: composers find their perfect pitch
The Guardian : Jun 11th, 2010
On the first day of the great international kickabout in South Africa, and as a lorry-load of national anthems and novelty records flood the airwaves and the internet, everywhere from South Korea to Spain, it’s worth remembering the musical inspiration that the beautiful game has had on composers whose ambitions stretch even further than Chris Waddle’s on Top of the Pops. So here’s my pick of the football-indebted pieces you won’t be hearing on the terraces this summer …
The first-ever football chant written by a great composer was by Elgar in 1898, whose devotion to Wolverhampton Wanderers is commemorated with a plaque at the club’s Molineux ground. Elgar saw the phrase “he banged the leather for goal” in a newspaper report of a match, and was so inspired by this quaint locution that he set it to music – this music, to be precise. Not sure it ever actually caught on at Molineux, but Wolves’s fans reportedly sing Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations at home matches.
The same year (1898 was a corker for sports-related music), Charles Ives composed the single best two-minute condensation of a football match (OK, American football) ever written. This is his Yale-Princeton Football Game, marking the Yale Bulldogs’ 6-0 victory over the Princeton Tigers. Everything’s in there, from Yale chants, to dodged tackles, and the concluding touchdown. A terrific performance this too, from the Malmö Symphony Orchestra and James Sinclair on YouTube.
Back with euro-soccer: Bohuslav Martinu’s Half-Time, a Rondo for Large Orchestra, was composed in 1925 as a football-crazy round-dance, and the earthiness of Poulenc’s Gloria came to him, the composer said, after seeing “some serious Benedictine monks … revelling in a game of football”.
Among today’s British contemporary composers, there’s a rich seam of football-related works: Arsenal fan Mark-Anthony Turnage includes a terrace chant in his orchestral piece Momentum, and there are football scenes and references in his operas Greek and The Silver Tassie. James MacMillan is a celebrated Celtic fan, who is unafraid to involve himself in some Rangers-Celtic chant-related stooshie, and there are traces of the terraces in the football rattles in his Britannia, an orchestral work from 1994. Michael Nyman has done more than both of them, though: there’s his Beckham Crosses, Nyman Scores, which uses John Motson’s commentary as the basis of a Different Trains-style fusion of sampled speech and instrumental music, and After Extra Time, a whole album of football-related pieces that takes in a musical five-a-side between “Riff Athletic and Riff Rangers”, a homage to Nyman’s beloved Queen’s Park Rangers, and a memorial to the Juventus fans killed at the Heysel stadium in 1985.
There are many other musical connections with football, like the games nostalgically remembered by AE Housman in his poem, Is My Team Ploughing, and set in my favourite musicalisation of it by George Butterworth; the fact that critic, musicologist, and radiophonic guru Hans Keller was a passionate football fan and wrote a book called Music, Closed Societies and Football; and that Percy M Young was a biographer of Handel, Vaughan Williams, Elgar – and Bolton Wanderers. Thanks to Radio 3 producer, and Aldershot Town fan, Lindsay Kemp, for these last football-related thoughts. You will have your own, so let’s hear them. And if you want to hear a genuinely well-crafted bit of football-pop, with nary a perm in sight, my mate Jono Buchanan has written a new song that was part of the World Cup Kick-Off concert in South Africa last night – you can hear Believe here.