Chess and Music Part 4: Oistrakh plays Prokofiev

If you click here you’ll hear David Oistrakh, whom you will have heard playing Tchaikovsky a couple of weeks ago, playing Sergei Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. You’ll also find Oistrakh playing the first violin concerto, the two violin sonatas and other works by the same composer on YouTube. Even if you’re not a classical music buff you’ll have heard some Prokofiev in your life. The BBC television programme The Apprentice uses the Dance of the Knights (spot the chess reference) from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet as its theme tune. You probably remember hearing Peter and the Wolf as a child, narrated here by the late David Bowie, also a chess aficionado, but not, as far as I know, a serious competitive player.

When you were listening to Oistrakh playing Prokofiev, you’ll have seen a picture of the two musical giants playing chess, watched by a young lady, the violinist Elizabeth Gilels, sister (not daughter, as stated in various places online) of the great Soviet pianist (and, of course, chess player) Emil Gilels. In 1937 a chess match was arranged between Prokofiev and Oistrakh. It took place in Moscow, with Alatortsev and Kan as arbiters. The match was supposed to be of ten games, but only seven were played. A contemporary report states that the first four games were drawn and Prokofiev won the fifth game. We don’t know what happened in the sixth and seventh games, but it’s believed that the composer won the match.

One game has survived. Prokofiev really should have won with two extra pawns in the ending but somehow let Oistrakh get away with a draw.

Sergei Prokofiev (23 April 1891 – 5 March 1953) is generally considered one of the greatest comopsers of the 20th century. He was a chess addict from an early age, and, according to Tartakower, a player of master strength. Like Alexander Goldenweiser, he was a regular participant in grandmaster simuls, beating Lasker, Capablanca and Rubinstein. His other opponents included Alekhine, Botvinnik and Tartakower, whom he beat in a casual game in 1933.

David Oistrakh (30 September 1908 – 24 October 1974) was one of the greatest classical violinists of his time. According to various sources he was a 1st category player (just below master standard) but there’s little information about his chess available apart from the match against Prokofiev.

Here’s Oistrakh on his chess friendship with Prokofiev: “Prokofiev was an avid player, he could spend hours on end thinking over his moves. Living next door to each other, we often played blitz-contests and I wish you could see how excited he was drawing all kinds of colorful diagrams of his wins and losses, and how happy he was with each victory, as well as how devastated each time he lost…”

Other classical musicians who were reputed to excel at chess included the pianist Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946) and the violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967).

Edward Lasker claimed that Rosenthal, one of Liszt’s last surviving pupils and peerless in Chopin, was the strongest musician he played.

Mischa Elman, heard here in Mendelssohn, was reputed to play to a similar standard, and claimed, in a 1916 interview, to have won a casual game against the Maryland champion. Chopin and Mendelssohn, of course, both also enjoyed a game of chess.

Listen to the music, even (especially) if you’re not familiar with classical music, and play through the games before next week.

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.