Who were the most athletic composers?

E65abb 20150306 tennis notes
What an athletic composer might see in daydreams Jay Gabler/MPR

Recently, WQXR spotlighted five highly athletic composers: Britten (a multi-sport champion), Bernstein (strong with a racket), Ives (a baseball and football captain), Wagner (an avid hiker), and Gershwin — who used to play a weekly tennis match with Schoenberg. (Now there's a one-act play waiting to be written.)

That's a good start, but it turns out that classical music has an even deeper bench — as I discovered when I polled our staff on the topic.

"Percy Grainger," notes Bill Morelock, "a messed-up, tortured soul in every other way, used to go on 50, 60 mile hikes through the Australian Outback as a young man."

John Birge notes that Ernest Tomlinson was an avid cricketer and rugby player.

"Le Chevalier de St George," a peer of Mozart's, observes Steve Staruch, "was also known as a swimmer, fencer, etc...very athletic!

"Mendelssohn too," adds Steve, "was known for his athletic prowess." According to the composer's godson Ignaz Moscheles, "Mendelssohn could throw my ball farther than anybody else; and he could run faster too."

Mendelssohn's friend Julius Schubring added that the composer was "a vigorous and skillful gymnast," "a very good swimmer," and "a good horseman."

"I always think of composer, pianist, and fitness fanatic Percy Grainger," says Fred Child. According to Sue Young,

"Grainger's energy was legendary. In London, he was known as 'the jogging pianist' for his habit of racing through the streets to a concert, where he would bound on stage at the last minute because he preferred to be in a state of utter exhaustion when playing. After finishing a concert while touring in South Africa, he then walked 105 km to the next, arriving just in time to perform. When travelling by ship on tour, he spent his free time shoveling coal in the boiler room."

"Igor Stravinsky," writes Fred, "had a morning routine that included 15 minutes of Hungarian gymnastics, including eye-rolling."

Fred also noted that a few composers have been known for scaling the heights. "Mieczyslaw Karlowicz was a Polish composer who was also a true pioneer among mountain climbers in the Tatra mountains of Poland. Alan Hovhaness claimed to be inspired by his mountain climbing. Roger Sessions climbed the Matterhorn in 1929."

Speaking of mountain climbing, Alison Young mentioned a contemporary composer who likes to hit the slopes: skilled skier Carter Pann, who's even written music in honor of his favorite pastime.

After noting that "if you go to the Falla museum in Spain, you can apparently see his dumbbells," Rex Levang observes that "when Elgar visited St. Paul, he went for a swim at the Y."