Arnold Schoenberg, Avant-Garde Composer, Creates a System of Symbols for Notating Tennis Matches

This time each sum­mer, as the con­clu­sion of this year’s fort­night-long cham­pi­onship at Wim­ble­don approach­es, even the most pri­vate of the ten­nis enthu­si­asts in all of our cir­cles make them­selves known. Love of that par­tic­u­lar game runs down all walks of life, but seems to exist in par­tic­u­lar­ly high con­cen­tra­tions among cul­tur­al cre­ators: not just writ­ers like Mar­tin Amis, Geoff Dyer, and David Fos­ter Wal­lace, all of whose bod­ies of work con­tain elo­quent thoughts on ten­nis, but com­posers of music as well.

Take Arnold Schoen­berg, who well into his old age con­tin­ued not just to cre­ate the inno­v­a­tive music for which we remem­ber him, but to spend time on the court as well. Though born in Vien­na, Schoen­berg even­tu­al­ly land­ed in the right place to enjoy ten­nis on the reg­u­lar: south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, to which he fled in 1933 after being informed of how inhos­pitable his home­land would soon become to per­sons of Jew­ish her­itage. Few famous com­posers of that time had less in com­mon than Schoen­berg and George Gersh­win, but their shared enjoy­ment of ten­nis made them into fast part­ners.

Accord­ing to Howard Pol­lack­’s life of Gersh­win, fel­low com­pos­er Albert Sendrey left a “reveal­ing account” of one of the week­ly match­es between “the thir­ty-eight-year-old Gersh­win and the six­ty-two-year-old Schoen­berg, con­trast­ing the alter­nate­ly ‘ner­vous’ and ‘non­cha­lant,’ ‘relent­less’ and ‘chival­rous’ Gersh­win, ‘play­ing to an audi­ence,’ with the ‘over­ly eager’ and ‘chop­py’ Schoen­berg who ‘has learned to shut his mind against pub­lic opin­ion.’ ” Any par­al­lels between play­ing style and musi­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty are, of course, entire­ly coin­ci­den­tal.

The cere­bral nature of Schoen­berg’s com­po­si­tions may not sug­gest a tem­pera­ment suit­ed for phys­i­cal activ­i­ty of any kind, but even in Aus­tria Schoen­berg had been a keen sports­man. And as a fair few ten­nis-lov­ing writ­ers have explained, the game does pos­sess an intel­lec­tu­al side, and one made more eas­i­ly ana­lyz­able, at least in the­o­ry, by a sys­tem of Schoen­berg’s inven­tion. “Toward the end of his life, Schoen­berg — always fas­ci­nat­ed by rules, analy­sis, and inven­tion — would come up with a form of nota­tion to tran­scribe the ten­nis match­es of his ath­lete son Ronald,” writes Mark Berry in Arnold Schoen­berg. You can see this sys­tem laid out on the sheet above, recent­ly post­ed on Twit­ter by Hen­ry Gough-Coop­er.

The marks look vague­ly sim­i­lar to those of cer­tain dance nota­tion sys­tems, a nat­ur­al enough resem­blance con­sid­er­ing the kind of foot­work ten­nis demands. But ide­al­ly, Schoen­berg’s nota­tion would also have ren­dered a game of ten­nis as com­pre­hen­si­ble as one of chess — anoth­er pur­suit to which Schoen­berg applied his mind. He came up with “an expand­ed four-play­er, ten-square ver­sion of the tra­di­tion­al game,” writes Berry, “involv­ing super­pow­ers and less­er pow­ers all com­pelled to forge alliances, with new pieces such as air­planes, tanks, sub­marines, and so forth.” Schoen­berg’s “coali­tion chess,” as he called it, seems to have caught on no more than his ten­nis nota­tion sys­tem did. But then, the man who pio­neered the twelve-tone tech­nique nev­er did go in for mass accep­tance.

via and Hen­ry Gough-Coop­er on Twit­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Arnold Schoen­berg Cre­ates a Hand-Drawn, Paper-Cut “Wheel Chart” to Visu­al­ize His 12-Tone Tech­nique

Vi Hart Uses Her Video Mag­ic to Demys­ti­fy Stravin­sky and Schoenberg’s 12-Tone Com­po­si­tions

John Coltrane Draws a Pic­ture Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­ics of Music

Nota­tions: John Cage Pub­lish­es a Book of Graph­ic Musi­cal Scores, Fea­tur­ing Visu­al­iza­tions of Works by Leonard Bern­stein, Igor Stravin­sky, The Bea­t­les & More (1969)

Bob Dylan and George Har­ri­son Play Ten­nis, 1969

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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