Music, chess and Arnold Schönberg

by André Schulz
11/16/2022 – The pianist Volker Ahmels regularly organises music festivals in Schwerin, Germany, to remember and to honour ostracised and persecuted musicians. One of these musicians was the composer Arnold Schönberg, who had to flee Austria because he was persecuted by the Nazis. Schönberg is the creator of 12-tone music but he also invented a chess variant, which he called "Coalition Chess". Last week, Volker Ahmels and the cabaret artist Matthias Deutschmann tried their hand at this demanding form of chess.

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Volker Ahmels and Matthias Deutschmann have known each other since their youth. They both share a love of music and chess. In 1978, a long time ago, they played against each other at the Junior State Championships in Hanover, Germany. Ahmels played for Hamburg and Deutschmann for Baden, and Deutschmann won, "in a study-like endgame", as he still fondly remembers.

Matthias Deutschmann, Volker Ahmels

After finishing school, Deutschmann began studying biology in Freiburg, and during his studies he successfully performed as a cabaret artist. He also learned to play the cello which became an integral part of his programmes.

He had less time to play chess, but always kept in touch with the game and his chess friends from Freiburg. However, Deutschmann was still a strong player and occasionally played for the team of Zähringen in the "Bundesliga".

When the chess programme "Fritz" learned to accompany its games with mild banter it was Deutschmann who wrote the witty lines and lent his voice to the programme.

When the pandemic stopped all public performances in 2020, Deutschmann used the time and wrote a new programme, titled "Mephisto Consulting", with which he is currently on tour.

Deutschmann, Schönberg

Volker Ahmels devoted himself entirely to music. He learned to play the piano as a child and studied at the conservatory in Lübeck after finishing school. In 1991, he became director of the "Johann Wilhelm Hertel" conservatory in Schwerin, the capital of the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. He also became chairman of the board of the "Jeunesses Musicales" in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and founded interpretation competitions for the music of persecuted artists. In 2008, Ahmels became director of the "Zentrum für Verfemte Musik" (Centre for Ostracised Music) at the Rostock University of Music and Theatre. He has also been a lecturer there since 2013.

Arnold Schönberg

At the Festival "Verfemte Musik 2022", the focus was on Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951). The Schwerin Cultural Forum in the Schleswig-Holstein-Haus presented an exhibition in memory of the Austrian artist who was persecuted by the Nazis and left his homeland in 1933 to emigrate to the USA.

Before World War I, Schönberg took on various musical commissions in Vienna and Berlin and gave music and composition lessons. Hanns Eisler, Anton Webern, Alban Berg and others studied with him. After the war, Schönberg developed the twelve-tone technique and composed the first piece in twelve-tone technique in 1921.

Since 1901 Schönberg had been married to Mathilde Zemlinskys, the sister of his composition teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky. She died in 1923 and in the following year Schönberg married Gertrud Kolisch, the sister of his student Rudolf Kolisch.

The couple had three children: Nuria (born 1932, later wife of the composer Luigi Nono), Ronald (born 1937) and Lawrence (born 1941). Ronald Schoenberg's son E. Randol Schoenberg became internationally known as a lawyer when he enforced Maria Altmann's claims against the state of Austria for the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt that had been stolen from the family during the Nazi era. The story was made into a film under the title "Woman in Gold", with Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann.

Arnold Schönberg was not only a musician, but also a painter and inventor, and he also had a connection to chess.

Arnold Schönberg: "The Red Gaze"

Draft of a zone ticket

He was acquainted with the musician Rudolph Reti, the older brother of Richard Reti. In 1911, Rudolph Reti performed Arnold Schönberg's "Three Piano Pieces". And Schönberg's second wife Gertrud Kolisch (1898-1961) came from the family of the Viennese chess master, patron and banker Ignaz von Kolisch (1837-1889).

In 1898, Schönberg converted from Judaism and joined the Lutheran Church but in 1933 he returned to Judaism.

In 1933 Schönberg emigrated with his family to the USA and in 1936 rented a villa in Brentwood, a suburb of Los Angeles, in the neighbourhood of Thomas Mann, with whom Schönberg had a two-year controversy over Mann's novel "Doctor Faustus". In 1941, the Schönberg family moved to Pacific Palisades.

Schönberg was very well connected with fellow artists - he, e.g., regularly played tennis with George Gershwin. Schönberg died on Friday, 13 July 1951.

Gershwin painting Schönberg

Recording of Arnold Schönberg (Schönberg Center Wien)

Coalition chess

The Festival "Verfemte Musik" began with the opening of the exhibition on Arnold Schönberg and ended with a performance by Matthias Deutschmann. But before that, Deutschmann tried a game of "Coalition Chess".

Coalition Chess

Schönberg developed coalition chess in the first half of the 1920s. It is played by four players, two of whom play together. The partners have different strengths. There are two major powers and two minor powers.

Coalition Chess has a total of nine different pieces that move differently. Schönberg's pieces, similar to Chaturanga, a predecessor of the modern form of chess, are very figurative and reminiscent of weapons from the First World War. There are, for example, aeroplanes, submarines and machine guns with special characteristics. A few years ago, the Schönberg Centre in Vienna was the first to revisit Coalition Chess, which is not easy to understand even for experienced chess players.

Schwerin now saw a new edition of the encounter Deutschmann versus Ahmels from 1978 mentioned above, but this time, they played coalition chess. Deutschmann and Ahmels acted as major powers (Black and Yellow) and were joined by two musicians and chess players from the SF Schwerin chess club as coalition players.

Matthias Deutschmann wonders what to do with the pieces

As does Volker Ahmels

Deutschmann was supported by Yosuke Maeno, who, like Deutschmann, plays cello and has already won prizes in both music competitions and chess tournaments. Opera lovers might know his mother Sophie Maeno, who is a well-known opera singer.

Yosuke Maeno

Volker Ahmels played together with another pianist. Jeremias Obando, who comes from Venezuela, is a piano teacher at the "Johann Wilhelm Hertel" Conservatory.

Jeremias Obando

Torsten Kath, the chairman of the SF Schwerin, observed the game, Frank Behrhorst acted as arbiter.

Torsten Kath follows the game

Before the start of the exhibition, Behrhorst and Ahmels, who once played in the Bundesliga together, had gone through and revised the rules of Coalition Chess.

Frank Behrhorst watches the game

The game ended with a victory for Deutschmann/Maeno. Obando had crashed early with his planes, while Maeno was still able to cause trouble with a small crew after losing his submarines. The two major powers held back at first and only intervened in the battle later.

The video below might give an idea of how difficult the game is.

After the game a cheerful Deutschmann changed roles to become a major power of cabaret who impressed with two hours of fine and witty satire.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.