A Chess Game for Piano and Orchestra

Checkmate! live (with introduction speech)

Checkmate! fullscreen (without introduction speech)

“Cool. A chess game for piano and orchestra based on my first game against Deep Blue”
– Garry Kasparov, Twitter

“Creating an immersive experience like this is brilliant. It’s certainly the way of the future. […] The famous game’s 73 moves translate quite smoothly from chessboard to sheet music […] creating an idiomatic form similar to that of a concerto. “
– Houston Chronicle, Elizabeth Knox

“A piano concerto unlike any other.”
– Ludwig van Montréal, Caroline Rodgers

“Everyone’s absolute favorite. […] The intricacy of this composition staggers my mind.”
– Houston Chronicle, Chris Gray

Checkmate! is a short concerto for solo piano and orchestra. The piece contains six short melodic themes, each of them representing a specific chess piece: king, queen, bishop, rook, knight, pawn. These themes are played at the beginning of the work, to introduce them to the audience. The full work is based exclusively on the use of these six themes, alternating between the orchestra and the piano. The sequence of themes follows the chess moves of the famous game played on February 10th, 1996, in Philadelphia, by Garry Kasparov against Deep Blue, a computer developed by IBM. For the first time in history, a chess-playing computer defeated a reigning world champion. The piano part is based on Kasparov’s moves and the orchestra part is based on those of Deep Blue. Of course, during the piece, the piano and orchestra will often play at the same time. However, whoever is playing the “chess move” will always remain in the foreground with one of the six themes.

During the concert, the actual chess game on which the composition is modeled is meant to be displayed, in real time, on a large screen above the orchestra. Therefore, a QLab file including animated images of every move of the chess game is included with the material of the piece. In the score, it is precisely indicated when to change from one animation sequence to another. This way, it’s the images that follow the orchestra (and not the other way around). So, unlike in film music, the musicians can have any tempo flexibility they desire, without having to worry about the synchronization with images. If the orchestra wishes to perform the piece with the projection of the chess game, it simply needs someone to control the QLab file while following the score. In this way, the chess game is integrated into the performance and this concerto is its soundtrack.

Instrumentation: piano solo / / / timp+1 / strings

Duration: 15 minutes (without the presentation speech) or 20 minutes (including the presentation speech)

Suggested program:

  • Since the chess game was played by a Russian (Kasparov) vs an American company (IBM), the program of the concert could be completed by works of Russian composers (Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc.) and American composers (Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, Barber, Glass, etc.).
  • Checkmate! could also be paired with other works that are inspired by games, such as Jeux d’enfants (Children’s Games) by Bizet, Jeux de cartes (Card Game) by Stravinsky, and Beach Ball Games for Orchestra.

Commissioned by the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, and their artistic director Alecia Lawyer.

Animated images by Creative Bearings

Dedicated to the progressive rock keyboardist and composer Keith Emerson, who, teamed up with his bandmates Greg Lake and Carl Palmer, showed a teenaged me how cool classical music is.

Premiere: September 21st, 2018, by the River Oaks Chamber OrchestraLara Downes and Paul Watkins, at the Miller Outdoor Theatre, in Houston, TX, United States.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Eric Jones Cadieux for the revision of all the piano parts.

Other Videos of Checkmate!

Launch of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra 14th season, announcing the premiere of Checkmate!

Teaser of the premiere of Checkmate! by the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra

Performances of Checkmate!

2023, Dec. 31 | Black Hills Symphony Orchestra, Diane Ketel, Bruce Knowles | Performing Arts Center, Rapid City, SD, United States

2018, Sept. 22 | River Oaks Chamber OrchestraLara Downes and Paul Watkins | St. John the Divine, Houston, TX, United States
2018, Sept. 21 | River Oaks Chamber OrchestraLara Downes and Paul Watkins | Miller Outdoor Theatre, Houston, TX, United States (premiere)