When Worlds Collided: Classical Music Inspired by the Beautiful Game

By Adela Skowronski |

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Cheers ripple through the streets of Europe. Stadiums fill with bright blocks of color and bated breaths. As summer concerts have opened up around the world, so has the Euro Cup: a competition where countries bet their pride on their national soccer teams.

This year’s Euro Cup Finals nearly upon us, chants and songs are breathing life into the stadiums. Yet as it turns out, the relationship between music and football extends way beyond chants and national anthems. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous examples of composers being inspired by “the beautiful game.”

Shostakovich: Referee & Composer

Dmitri Shostakovich

One of the biggest pieces about football was penned by none other than Dmitri Shostakovich. Despite Shostakovich’s tumultuous relationship with the Soviet Union, he was nonetheless an avid fan of football in the USSR, reporting on teams for local newspapers and even becoming a licensed referee! His love for this team fueled his 1930 ballet The Golden Age, which follows the misadventures of the Soviet soccer team as they play against Western opponents. The ballet wavers between satire and propaganda: after the Soviet team's captain gets captured by the Western opposition, the Western working class rises up to free him, and leads all into a celebratory dance. To this day, historians aren't entirely sure what final message Shostakovich was trying to send.

The idiosyncratic ballet wasn't terribly well-received during its time either. It ran only for about 20 performances after its debut. Still, if the topic intrigues you, check out the Bolshoi Ballet’s full performance of The Golden Age!

Francis Poulenc

The Monks' Match

While Shostakovich was very forward about his love for the sport, other composers were a little more discreet. For example, Francis Poulenc's Gloria is a large-scale choral work that features neither dancing football players nor references to any teams. Yet the sport played a role: the work would not be the same had Poulenc not witnessed some Benedictine monks playing a competitive match of football. Poulenc attributed the high-spirited, occasionally playful moments of Gloria to the monks' love of the game: with a moment of joy appearing otherwise severe-looking persons.

At the time, some critics viewed this work to be sacrilegious; Poulenc viewed the excitement as a way of breathing extra joy into the work. As for the French composer's football favorites? We're not sure. There's not much evidence that he followed the sport as a serious fan.

Michael Nyman

A Football Triptych

A more contemporary example of a composer writing from football inspiration is Michael Nyman. The innovative British composer and bandleader wrote not just one, but multiple pieces inspired by football! These three pieces are all featured on his 1996 album After Extra Time.

It's a work where the tracks transition effortlessly. The title track references going into overtime during a soccer match. Coincidently, the abbreviation for After Extra Time — AET — also happens to be the name of Nyman's ex-wife! Excitement follows into the next track, The Final Score, a dedication to Nyman's favorite football club, Queens Park Rangers. Yet the album's final track deserts the themes of joy and excitement. Memorial is a dedication to the 39 people killed during a stampede outside of Heysel Stadium before the start of the 1985 Euro Cup Final between England and Italy.

In a 2014 interview, Nyman referred to composing as "pushing notes around a piece of paper." Yet, it is evident that some share of football-related emotion is nonetheless trapped in the music below.

Writing for Wolves

Edward Elgar

Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C. crest

Yet it’s not just orchestral music that was created under football’s influence. Edward Elgar — the well-respected conductor who composed some of Britain’s most recognizable melodies — is also thought to have created one of Europe's first football chants. Elgar was a big fan of the Wolverhampton Wanders: according to his companion Dora Penny, the atmosphere of witnessing a live football game "delighted him." Inspiration struck Elgar when he stumbled up the phrase "he banged the leather for goal" in a newspaper article.

He hastily wrote a tune with that same name, "He Banged the Leather for Goal." However, it's evident the song didn't do well; there are no known recordings, and the song is not sung by modern-day Wolves supporters.

Wingers & Webber

Andrew Lloyd Webber (Photo: Tracey Nolan , CC BY-SA 2.0)

In pop culture, many associate the name Andrew Lloyd Webber with hit musicals like Phantom of the Opera or Evita. Yet did you know that he has also written a musical centered around football? Aptly named The Beautiful Game, Webber's 2000 musical combines football, religion, and regional politics into a story about a football team struggling to deal with their differences off the field.

The musical did fairly well when it came out; though not a smash hit, it did run for 11 months at London's Cambridge Theater. The ending song, "Let Us Love in Peace," was also used in memorial services for those who lost their lives on 9/11.

Extra Time: Headers & Handel

Finally, we get to the piece that is more suitable for the club season: Tony Britten's UEFA Champions League Anthem. Though Tony Britten may not be well known to most fans of classical music, Britten's source material might ring some more bells. He based his 1992 UEFA Champions League Anthem off of Zadok the Priest, a coronation anthem composed by George Frideric Handel in 1727.

The original recording of the Anthem was performed by the Royal Philharmonic and the Academy of Saints Martin in the Fields. It is now so iconic in the United Kingdom that UEFA has not allowed anyone to buy or download the anthem legally, reserving it only for special occasions when fans need to be called to the stadiums (or TVs!)

Aside from small films and other sports events, Tony Britten has not had any other major hits apart from the UEFA Champions League Anthem.

Compare the UEFA Champions League Anthem with Zadok the Priest. Do you think they are similar?