We all knew that one kid at school who seemed to miraculously excel at everything: they played in the football team, sang in the choir and starred in the school play, effortlessly straddling the full spectrum of achievement much to the envy of the rest of us.

And from the anthology of classical music greats there springs a surprising number of multi-faceted composers. 12th-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, whose repertoire of 69 musical compositions is amongst the largest of the medieval period, also wrote three volumes of theology, 70 poems and a bounty of medicinal and botanical texts which led to her being dubbed the founder of scientific natural history in her native Germany. 

Fast forward a few hundred years to the early 19th century to siblings Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. Both were multi-linguists, poets and pioneers of musical romanticism, although many of Fanny’s works were published under her brother’s name. Felix also found the time to produce over 300 works of art, including drawings, oils and watercolours.

A caricature of accomplished composer and chef Gioachino Rossini.
© Pineway | Wiki Commons

If you think yourself a dab hand in the kitchen, let me turn your attention to chef extraordinaire Gioachino Rossini. He was regarded as the greatest Italian composer of his time, producing 39 operas, but he also co-created the world-famous recipe for fillet of beef, Tournedos Rossini and published a cookery book. He once wrote: "I known of no more admirable occupation than eating … appetite is for the stomach what love is for the heart." 

A few decades on, Master of the King’s Musick Edward Elgar cooked up a storm not in the kitchen but in his back garden chemistry lab. The amateur chemist patented a device for synthesising hydrogen sulphide and would often set off controlled explosions, although conductor William Henry Reed recalls at least one accident where Elgar left a fresh batch unsupervised, having rushed inside to attend to fresh musical inspiration, to disastrous consequences: "Just as he was [...] writing in horn and trumpet parts and mapping out woodwind, a sudden unexpected crash, as of all the percussion in all the orchestras of the earth, shook the room." But it is Russian Alexander Borodin who holds the prize for most prolific composer-scientist. A chemist by trade, he earned great respect in scientific circles for his work on aldehydes and halocarbons.

Ethel Smyth used her golfing prowess to teach suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst how to throw bricks.
© GPP | LSE Library

The seemingly rare breed of composer-sportsman has also cropped up more often than you might expect, with Britten, Ives and Wagner all displaying a flair for the physical. Britten was by all accounts an excellent cricketer and played tennis throughout most of his life. Another English composer with impressive hand-eye coordination was Dame Ethel Smyth, who taught fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst how to throw bricks with deadly accuracy during practice sessions at Woking Golf Club. Clearly Smyth was a good coach, for she and Pankhurst were to later find themselves in neighbouring cells after smashing several prominent members of Parliament’s windows.

Charles Ives as a young man had played varsity football for Yale.
© Abourgeois P | Wiki Commons

Across the Atlantic, insurance broker-come-composer Charles Ives, who as a young man had played varsity football for Yale, made his extra-musical passions evident in pieces like his 1919 piano etude Some South-Paw Pitching, written after seeing a good game of baseball, and the Yale-Princeton Football Game written for orchestra, which includes quotations of college songs as well as musical references to various players and formations.

Another extraordinary athlete was Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger who used to run between concert venues whilst on tour. His biographer John Bird recounts how Grainger had misjudged the distance between two venues in South Africa, arriving in a cloud of dust just as the audience were taking their seats, accompanied by a band of Zulu warriors who had happened to be going the same way.

The great outdoors has provided inspiration to countless composers across the ages, and several even discovered a talent for mountain pursuits. Richard Wagner went on regular hiking expeditions into the Alps, and wrote the libretto to Tannhäuser whilst battling the elements in the mountains of Bohemia. Jean Sibelius also found solace in the mountains, and in spite of his penchant for strong drink and cigars, developed a talent for skiing that led him to pen the the 1925 melodrama The Lonely Ski Trail for speaker and piano. Leonard Bernstein was also an excellent skiier, sharing a downhill rivalry with Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan.

But perhaps the greatest all-rounder of the 21st century is Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian-American founder of the Second Viennese School. The eldest son of a shopkeeper, it wasn’t until he was in his 20s, when he met and studied with Alexander von Zemlinksy, that he started to build a reputation as a composer, with late-Romantic works of astounding maturity such as Verklärte Nacht for string sextet and his symphonic poem Pelleas et Melisande. From 1908 onwards he began to experiment with tonality, and by the 1920s had abandoned it altogether in his groundbreaking 12-tone technique. After emigrating to the States, he published multiple books on harmony, theory and his musical philosophy, lectured at several Californian colleges, and served as musical director and principal conductor of the LA Philharmonic.

He was also a highly accomplished artist, passion nurtured by his friendship with expressionist Wassily Kandinsky. He produced 76 oil paintings as well as numerous watercolours, pastels, charcoals and drawings, some housed today at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich. Another of Schoenberg's great friendships was with American composer and songwriter George Gershwin. The two lived nearby in Los Angeles during the 1930s, and though their musical aesthetic was starkly polarised, their mutual passion for painting and tennis brought them close. Schoenberg even created a system of symbols describing the game’s aural aspects: Music Notation based on Tennis: A Tribute to George Gershwin was sadly never used in an actual score.

So what can we take from this motley crew of polymaths? I suppose we can either bottle up our envy just as we did in school, or instead marvel at their achievements, using them as inspiration to fuel our own ambitions. I expect I shall do a little of both.