Minor Pieces 5: Francis Ptacek

Continuing from my last article about Arthur Towle Marriott, I promised a series of articles on his Leicester opponents.

This is an interesting period in chess history, witnessing the start of inter-club competitions as we used to know them before Covid-19.

The two matches between Leicester and Nottingham in January and February 1877 seem to have been Leicester’s first matches against another club. Nottingham, however, had previous form: the earliest match I can find was against Derby in 1872. Train services from Nottingham to Derby started in 1839, with trains to Leicester available the following year, but by now rail transport had become more frequent and more affordable. It was the 3.35 servicethat took the Nottingham chess players to Leicester on 25 January 1877.

The following week the Leicester Journal reported:

An interesting event in connection with this club, took place on Thursday week, in the Mayor’s Parlour of the old Town Hall, kindly lent for the occasion by the Mayor, W. Winterton Esq., when the majority of the members assembled to welcome six gentlemen of the Nottingham Chess Club, who arrived by the 3.35 train, to spend, by invitation, a few hours in friendly contest at Chess. The high reputation of the Nottingham Club, caused considerable interest to be felt in the visit, and it was thought that the home players would have but little chance of maintaining a creditable stand. When, therefore, at the close of the contest, it was found that Nottingham had won the match by only one in their favour, considerable gratification was experienced at so favourable a result. The following gentlemen represented the Nottingham Club: S. Hamel Esq., President, Messrs. Stevenson, Marriott, Glendenning, Brown, and Kirk, while Rev. W. L. Newham, Mr W. Stanyon (president), Dr. Nuttall, Herr Ptacek, Messrs. Atkins and Withers did battle for Leicester, winning eight games to their opponent’s nine. The play of the Nottingham gentlemen was much admired for the skill and ingenuity evinced, and, as a consequence of their visit to Leicester, it may be safely asserted that the impetus given to the study of this most intellectual of games among the members of the Home Club, will not soon pass away. The return match we are given to understand will be played at Nottingham on Tuesday next, February 6th, at the Club Room, Long-row. In connection with the Leicester Chess Club we are pleased to learn that its members during the present session have almost doubled, and that new life and energy seem to pervade all its movements.

Chess matches in those days were always described as ‘interesting’ (see also below). Or if not ‘interesting’, then ‘pleasant’.

(Note that the Mr Atkins active at that time was seemingly not related to the great Henry Ernest Atkins, about whom more later.)

It’s not clear from this report whether Nottingham’s Mr Marriott was Arthur or one of his brothers. Zavatarelli assumes it was Arthur: it’s possible that other reports not available online will confirm this.

The week after next, a Leicester team took the train north. Here’s the report from the Nottinghamshire Guardian:

On Tuesday evening a most interesting and spirited match at chess took place between the clubs of Nottingham and Leicester, at the rooms of the former, which are at Mr. Bingham’s restaurant, Long-row. Seven members of the Leicester club took part in the game against eight of Nottingham. About nine o’clock in the evening the members of both clubs adjourned, and sat down to supper, when Mr. Hamel, president of the Nottingham society, occupied the chair. After the usual loyal toasts had been honoured, that of “Continued success and prosperity to the Nottingham Chess Club” was proposed by the chairman and enthusiastically drunk. In the course of his remarks, the chairman referred in very feeling terms to the death of Mr. Thomas Hill, one of the oldest and most respected members of the club, and whose lost he (the chairman) was sure, must be deeply regretted and mourned by all. The president next referred to the Cambridge match, which had resulted so successfully, and to the honour of Nottingham – (hear, hear) – they having won both games, and having declared in one game a mate in ten moves, a point which the Cambridge University could not see. (Applause.) Dr. Worth, the vice-president, after alluding to his thirty years’ connection with the club, proposed, in a complimentary manner, the “Health of the Visitors”, which was responded to by the Rev.  Mr. Newham, of Leicester, and Mr. Thompson, the celebrated problem composer of Derby, in very cordial terms. The health of the respected president (Mr. Hamel) having been proposed and drunk with due honours, the members left the supper table, and again proceeded with their games, which were carried on until a late hour. The following is a list of the players – Leicester, Messrs. Ptacek, Withers, Atkins, Latchmore, Stanyon, Nuttall, and the Rev. – Newham. Nottingham: Messrs. E. Marriott, T. Marriott, A. Marriott, Roe, Alderman W. G. Ward, Hugh Browne, T. A. Stevenson, and Mellors. At midnight, the contest was concluded, when it was announced that Nottingham had won six games, lost five, and drawn one. The match resulted in favour of Nottingham by one game.

We only have the names here, but, fortunately the Leicester Chronicle provided more details:

Leicester Chronicle 10 February 1877

Here, we’re told that Arthur Towle Marriott played on board 4 against Herr Ptacek, winning both his games.

Nottingham’s chess star Sigismund Hamel was present, but, for some reason, didn’t play in the match. However, he annotated (rather inaccurately, according to Stockfish 14) Arthur’s two games for the Nottingham Daily Express (not available online).

In the first game, Arthur’s opponent put up little resistance. This is why I often recommend the Ruy Lopez to novices. If Black isn’t familiar with the opening he can end up in a lost position very quickly. This is just the sort of game I like to use when introducing my pupils to this opening.

But who was Herr Ptacek? What was someone with such an exotic name doing in Leicester?

It’s a very good question, with a very interesting answer.

I really need to introduce you to Robert Ralph Noel.

R R Noel (1802-1883) was born in Kirkby Mallory (as in Mallory Park race circuit), the son of a clergyman. He was very well connected: knowing, either directly or indirectly, almost everyone who was anyone in 19th century England: George Eliot, Charles Darwin, Lord Byron (Ada Lovelace, a distant relation, lived in Kirkby Mallory as a young girl). He married a German Baroness whose family had an estate in Bohemia, which gave him connections to the likes of Goethe right across Europe. He wrote a book on phrenology, which you can, if you so desire (but I wouldn’t bother if I were you), read today.

However, his day job involved running the Leicestershire Militia (the volunteer forces), and, like all forces in those days, they needed a good military band, with a good bandmaster to lead it. For much of the 19th century England was known as ‘the land without music’, so when a musician was required it was tempting to look abroad. Mrs Noel had heard good things about a young man from Prague called Franz Ptacek (he’d often be known as Francis in England), and, in 1854, he was engaged to run a military band in Leicester. It seems he was very successful and popular, but, after 12 years or so, following some sort of dispute, he felt obliged to resign his position.

He then set up a new orchestra and concert society, and resumed giving concerts in Leicester. He was also a composer, pianist and organist seemingly much in demand. Light classical music concerts (think the Strauss family: waltzes, polkas, marches, that sort of thing) were a very popular entertainment at the time. He was more ambitious than this, though, writing an opera and programming two of Handel’s great oratorios: Saul and Samson.

It’s time for some music. Ptacek was particularly renowned for his interpretation of the famous Dead March from Saul. I’d have liked to offer you the Leicester Militia playing this in 1860, but instead you’ll have to do with the next best thing: the Band of the Coldstream Guards recorded in 1910.

Band of the Coldstream Guards play Handel’s Funeral March – YouTube

He also found time to indulge in his (and our) favourite hobby: chess. He was selected to represent his adopted city in what was perhaps their first competitive match, where he met our hero, Arthur Towle Marriott.

His play in the first game wasn’t at all impressive, but he conducted his troops rather better in the return game. Perhaps the supper provided by Bingham’s Restaurant had some effect. His Scotch Gambit led to a winning position, only for him to throw away the win with one careless mistake.

Chess matches in those days served a social rather than a competitive purpose. The result, while eagerly anticipated, didn’t really matter that much. It was more an excuse for players from neighbouring towns or cities to meet for some enjoyable games, with a supper in between. Over the next decade or so there would be many changes, as you’ll see in future Minor Pieces.

A few years later, though, something went wrong. For a second time he lost his orchestra and had to resort to teaching the pianoforte, taking private pupils as well as acting as a peripatetic teacher at Miss Lomas’s school.

At Christmas 1885, Ptacek travelled to Chatham to spend the holiday period with his friend Rudolf Sawerthal, another Czech born military musician. He was just about to return to Leicester when he suffered a fatal heart attack, at the age of only 52.

The Leicester Chronicle published a lengthy obituary:

It is with feelings of sincere regret that we announce the death of Herr Ptacek, which took place at Chatham on Thursday morning. The death of this eminent local musician was totally unexpected, and the intelligence of his sudden decease was received with great surprise amongst his intimate friends. About ten days ago Herr Ptacek proceeded to Chatham on a visit to Herr Sawerthal, the accomplished master of the band of the Royal Engineers, whose performance in the Floral Hall during Christmas week gave such exceptional satisfaction to everyone who heard them. He contemplated returning to Leicester on Thursday morning, and had made every preparation for his departure, when he was suddenly seized with pain at the heart. A medical man was immediately summoned, but before he could arrive Herr Ptacek had expired. A telegram was shortly afterwards despatched to Mr. J. Herbert Marshall, of the Rutland-Street music depot, one of the deceased’s most intimate friends, and that gentleman communicated the sad intelligence to his friends in Leicester, all of whom heard the occurrence with much regret. To many the name Herr Ptacek will be unknown, but his name will not be forgotten by those ardent lovers of music who twenty years ago were charmed with the brilliant company of artistes he gathered around him. The deceased came to Leicester a comparative stranger, but his abilities soon won favourable recognition, and he speedily became possessed of a merited reputation for musical accomplishments, which was not confined to the limits of the borough. In 1855 Herr Ptacek was introduced to Leicester by Major and Mrs Noel, who were convinced of his sterling worth as an organiser and conductor. He left Prague, where he had been brought up under cultivating influences, and took charge of the militia band, which was in want of complete and thorough organisation. So well did Herr Ptacek succeed at his appointed task that before long the band was selected to play before the Queen at Aldershot, and the fine playing of the men under his control elicited warm expressions of Royal approval. The band subsequently played several times before a distinguished company at Belvoir Castle. Some disagreement ultimately took place between him and the officers of the regiment, in consequence of which – in order to maintain his self-respect – he felt it necessary to resign. The resignation was accepted, and he renounced the position of bandmaster, amid many expressions of regret. His efforts to improve the musical taste of the town were not, however, forgotten. On December 16, 1867, he was presented by Mr. T. T. Paget, M.P., at a largely-attended meeting of influential inhabitants, with a purse containing 150 guineas, as some acknowledgement of the efforts he had put forth for twelve years to cultivate musical taste and provide for the public enjoyment. The purse was worked by Mrs Noel, and, in accepting the gift, Herr Ptacek made a humorous and appropriate speech. Some time after his severance of the connection with the militia band, Herr Ptacek organised a band of his own, which he trained to an exceptional point of perfection, and also became the conductor of the New Orpheus Society, a  musical association partly, if not completely, antagonistic to the then Philharmonic Society. His charge of that society was marked by masterful activity, his abilities in controlling the resources of an orchestra being strikingly exhibited. Under the auspices of this society, Samson and Saul were given before large audiences in the chief hall of the town, and the magnificent way in which the “Dead March” was rendered has not yet faded from the recollection of those who heard it. Herr Ptacek also for about 14 years filled the position of organist at St. George’s Church, where his cultivated playing was greatly appreciated. He excelled more as a pianist than as an organist, although his skill in playing the more ponderous instrument was of no mean order. Upon his retirement from active musical life he was again the recipient of a testimonial subscribed for by his admiring friends. He lived in comparative retirement, and his name has not been connected with musical efforts in the town for many years past, although we believe he continued to take pupils who  wished to e instructed in the mysteries of the pianoforte. From the commencement of his labours in Leicester his energies had been invariably directed towards the education of the inhabitants, and in this respect he has probably never been excelled, although it would be idle to say he has not been equalled. He was uniformly courteous, and his geniality endeared him to all who came in contact with him. His life was arduous and self-sacrificing, and the news of his death will not fall to awaken feelings of sorrow. He was about 52 years of age. We understand that instructions have been given to have the deceased interred in the Leicester Cemetery.

His memorial unfortunately misspells both his names, making him Frances rather than Francis (‘i’ for ‘im, ‘e’ for ‘er, as my mother taught me).

The inscription reads, in part:

An accomplished musician he was endeared to his many pupils and to all who knew him, not more by his varied attainments than by his honesty and frankness and by the warmth of his attainments. Those who now sorrow over his grave may well say he came among us as a stranger and he departed leaving many warm and devoted friends.

This site provides more information: his date of birth is given as 1831, but this may be wrong: other records suggest it was 2 December 1832. It’s also incorrect in stating that his wife was Czech.

Further information, including from a source about Masonic Music and Musicians in Leicestershire and Rutland, can be found here.

As far as I can tell, none of his music has survived, but I did find a polka written by his friend Rudolf Sawerthal, arranged for accordion:

Polka Arlequín – YouTube

There you have it: Arthur Towle Marriott’s opponent Francis Ptacek leads us on a tour of chess and musical life in Leicester in the 1870s and 1880s. Who will we discover next? You’ll find out here soon enough.

And, by the way, if you’re interested in the sociology of chess in the English Midlands in the 19th century, you can read Rob Ensor’s 2016 Masters Thesis on Nottingham chess here. My thanks to Rob for making this available, and also to John Swain for bringing it to my attention.

 

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