Chess and Music Part 1: Philidor

Apart from chess, my other great passion in life is music. While my chess ability is pretty close to zero, though, my musical ability is way below zero, so I ended up becoming a chess player rather than a musician.

There are many connections between chess and music. It’s often remarked (not entirely correctly) that the three disciplines which produce child prodigies are maths, music and chess. Music is seen by some as being the art form which most resembles the logic of maths. It’s not surprising, then, that many musicians have had an interest in chess, and that many chess players are also interested in music.

Readers of The (Even More) Complete Chess Addict will be familiar with many chess playing musicians and musical chess players.

The first and greatest example must be François-André Danican Philidor (September 7, 1726 – August 31, 1795), the strongest chess player of the 18th century, and the author of Analyse du jeu des Échecs, a hugely influential volume which was, for a century or more, considered one of the standard text books of the game. Philidor came from a family of musicians. The family was originally Scottish: the name ‘Danican’ was a corruption of ‘Duncan’, and his grandfather Jean was given the nickname Philidor by Louis XIII because his oboe playing reminded the king of an Italian oboist named Filidori. As he was French it’s hardly surprising that his grandfather was called Jean, but he also had a brother, 45 years older than him (Philidor’s father was 75 when he was born), surprisingly named Anne. Perhaps this was the 17th century French equivalent of A Boy Named Sue. (A quick note for those of my readers interested in French Baroque music: Anne is remembered today for having started a series of public concerts called Le Concert Spirituel. In 1988 the flamboyant French conductor Hervé Niquet founded a period instrument group under this name.)

Not so many people outside chess realise that Philidor was also one of the leading composers of his day. Some of his music is still performed today, and is available on CD or online. While he also composed instrumental and sacred music, his most important contribution to music was probably in the development of the comic opera. You’ll find one of his comic operas, Sancho Pança, on YouTube here. If you share my love of 18th century music you’ll certainly want to hear this.

In contrast to the Modenese school of players, who favoured gambits and tactical play, Philidor preferred strategic play and endings. His analysis of the ending of rook and bishop against rook is still, even today, considered important to endgame theory. All competitive players should know the Philidor Position which demonstrates an important defensive method with rook against rook and pawn.

Philidor was also the first player who really understood the importance of pawns:

“My main purpose is to gain recognition for myself by means of a new idea of which no one has conceived, or perhaps has been unable to practice; that is, good play of the pawns; they are the soul of chess: it is they alone that determine the attack and the defence, and the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement.”

The contrast between the two rival (Modenese and Philidorian) schools of thought is reminiscent of the debate today as to whether you should encourage young players to play gambits or to concentrate on positional play, teaching them to play simple openings with fixed pawn formations and follow a logical plan. This is something I’ll write much more about in future.

The French Revolution left Philidor stranded in London: returning to France would not have been safe due to his connections with the monarchy and aristocracy. Most of his surviving games are from this final period of his life.

On 13 March 1790, Philidor played three simultaneous games, against the Hon HS Conway, Mr Sheldon and Captain Smith. The games against Sheldon and Smith were both played without sight of the board. Young players tend to play pieces much better than pawns in the opening so this game might be used as an example of how to use your pawns to gain space. The captain played without a plan and without attempting to open the position to his advantage, so Philidor was able to gain space on both sides of the board, leaving his king in the centre, and choose the right moment to strike. Watch out also for the nice sacrificial finish.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.