Chess Themes and Music

The first musical connection with a chess theme occurred in 1607.  A ballet with a chess theme was written and performed for Louis XIV of France.  It was called Ballet des Eschecs (Chess Ballet).

In 1810, the first opera with a chess theme was performed.  The opera, Das Schachturnier (the chess tournament), was composed by Traugott Eberwein (1775-1831).

In 1910, Leevi Antii Madetoja composed the suite Shakkipeli (Chess Game).  It was composed for a play called the Chess Game by Eino Leino.

In 1924, Peter Petrovich Saburov composed a Love Symphony for a big orchestra.  One of the pieces was called Simultaneous Games of Chess.  The composition was first played in Monte Carlo in May, 1924.

In 1927, Henri Rabaud composed a musical piece called The Chess Player for a film with the same name, directed by Raymond Bernard.

In 1937, a 50-minute ballet called Checkmate was performed at the Paris World Exhibition.  The ballet was composed by Sir Arthur Bliss and choreographed by Ninette de Valois.

In 1945, Vittorio Rieta composed Chess Serenade: suite for two pianos, four hands.

In 1947, an operetta, The Sea Captain, was performed in London which presented a game of living chess.

In the 1950s, Bohuslav Martinu composed the ballet, Chess of the King.

In 1953, the first ballet on ice with a chess theme was performed.  Called Sinbad the Sailor on Ice, the skaters played out a chess game on ice.  The work was composed by Reginald Charles Noel-Johnson.

In 1957, Jean Absil composed Chess, Suite for Piano, op. 96.

In 1960, Wayne Shorter composed The Chess Players on the album The Big Beat by the band called Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

In 1964, Bob Dylan released Only a Pawn in Their Game on his The Times They Are a-Changin album.  It was more of a chess metaphor than actually about chess.

In 1965, Paul Reif composed Philidor’s Defense: a musical chess game.

In 1966, Grace Slick sung White Rabbit for the album Conspicuous Only In Its Absence by the band Great Society.  In 1967, the song was recorded for the album Surrealistic Pillow by the Jefferson Airplane.  The song has several references to chess (“When men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go,” White Knight, and Red Queen).

In 1968, a ballet called Pawn to King 5 was performed in London.  The music was provided by Pink Floyd.

In 1970, Black Sabbath released the album Paranoid.  One of the songs, Luke’s Wall/War Pigs has a line, “treating people just like pawns in chess.”

In 1971, the group Yes composed Your Move, which was included in The Yes Album.  The lyrics were written by Jon Anderson.  There are several chess references (white queen, black square, captured piece, etc).

In 1971, Ladidalv Simon composed Chess Queen.  It was a blues piece for a jazz orchestra.

In 1971, Elton John released Madman Across the Water.  One of the songs was Levon, which has the line, “He was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day.”

In 1973, a band called Flash wrote several songs with chess themes.  The songs included, None the Wiser (King), Farewell Number One (Pawn), Man of Honor (Knight), Dead Ahead (Queen), and Bishop.  The album was called Out of Our Hands.

In 1974, a band called Gryphon composed the album Red Queen to Gryphon Three.  The album consists of instrumental pieces called Opening Move, Second Spasm, Lament, and Checkmate.

In 1975, Elton John released Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.  One of the songs was Someone Saved My Life Tonight.  It has the lines, “I’m strangled by your haunted social scene, Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen.”

In 1978, Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), released a song called Checkmate on her album It Begins Again, with several references to chess (I’m a queen to your king).

In 1979, Sten Hanson composed The Chessmen of Mars for his John Carter Songbook.

In 1980, Aerosmith released Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits.  The song entitled Draw the Line has several references to the queen and checkmate (Checkmate, honey; Checkmate, don’t be late).

In 1986, the musical Chess was produced, with lyrics written by Tim Rice.  It was the most expensive musical play ever put together, costing over $4 million.  The music was composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (both formerly of ABBA).  The musical was inspired by the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship match.  The most famous song from the musical is One Night in Bangkok.

In 1990, a ballet called Ana was performed based on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.  It included a chess game being played.

In 1990, the heavy metal band Defiance released the song Checkmate (the kings and queens send their pawns off to war.)

In 1992, R.E.M. released Automatic for the People.  One of the songs, Man on the Moon, mentions the game of life, monopoly, twenty one, checkers, and chess.

In 1993 the Wu-Tang Clan released Enter the Wu-Tang.  One of the songs was called Da Mystery of Chessboxin.’ (The game of chess is like a swordfight, you must think first, before you move).  In 2005, Wu-Tang’s GZA released “Muggs vs. GZA: Grandmasters.”  GZA has several songs with chess references in them.

In 1993, Akinyele, an American rapper, released Vagina Diner.  One of the songs was Checkmate (I play you like a game of chess).

In 1993, Annihilator released Set the World on Fire.  One of the songs on the album was Knight Jumps Queen, with many chess references.

In 1997, They Might be Giants, a band from New York City, released Then – the Earlier Years.  One of the songs on the album was called Chess Piece Face.

In 1997, Metallica released Reload.  One of the songs is Where the Wild Things Are.  It has the line ”Toy horses start the charge; Robots, chessmen standing guard.”

In May 1999, Slick Rick, a British-American rapper, released The Art of Something.  One of the songs on the album is King Piece in the Chess Game.

In 1999, Will Smith released the album Willennium.  One of the songs, Freakin’ It, mentions chess (Every time I shoot I score, so many awards I can start a Grammy chess board).  Will Smith is a chess player.

In May 2000, Dr Feelgood, a British pub rock band, produced an album called Chess Masters.

In 2001, B.G., an American rapper, released an album called Checkmate.

In 2001, John Mayer released Room for Squares. One of the songs on the album was called My Stupid Mouth, which has a line, “I played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shaker.”

In 2003, the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their Greatest Hits album.  One of the new songs was Fortune Faded.  The first line is “They say in chess you’ve got to kill the queen and then you made it.”

In 2005, Papoose, an American rapper, released the album called Chess 12” with the title song called Chess.