In common with the university community across Cambridge, we were saddened this week to hear of the death of Professor Stephen Hawking. I wondered what place music played in his life, and was delighted to discover that it was important to him. In fact he once defined physics and music as the two great enthusiasms of his life.
During the Cambridge Music Festival in 2006, whose theme was “Mozart, Music and Maths”, Hawking revealed that the first classical music LP he bought was Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (CD in the Pendlebury CD.M.333, score at the UL M319.d.2.204). At the time it was less the music itself that drew him than the inexpensive 10″ LP – a species of vinyl that was being phased out. The work would become important to him though, when he became hooked by the third movement.
As you might suspect from the title of the 2006 Festival, Mozart was also important to Hawking. Indeed, Mozart’s Requiem (facsimile edition at the UL – MR472.a.95.212) was the single piece that he chose to accompany him to his virtual desert island, when the physicist was a Christmas special castaway on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.
He seemed to have a bit of a penchant for unfinished pieces, as Turandot (DVD at the Pendlebury Library DVD.C.113) also featured in his Desert Island selection. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that a scientist such as Stephen should have had a soft spot for works that had extended beyond their composers’ lifetimes. After all this was someone who dealt with “deserts of vast eternity” of time. He once wryly commented in a lecture about the beginning of time:
When I gave a lecture in Japan, I was asked not to mention the possible re-collapse of the universe, because it might affect the stock market. However, I can re-assure anyone who is nervous about their investments that it is a bit early to sell: even if the universe does come to an end, it won’t be for at least twenty billion years.
Wagner was another favourite of Stephen Hawking’s. He enjoyed going to the opera, and had his first taste of Bayreuth with his sister, Philippa in the early ’60’s, ironically around the time that he was first diagnosed with ALS. Philippa later became a librarian at the Needham Institute – there’s a link with MusiCB3, as staff in the Music Department also look after the readers of the AOI (East Asian) Reading Room – so we often meet up with researchers from the Needham. Joseph Needham, the founder of the Institution had a huge influence on musicologist Laurence Picken, who has been mentioned previously on MusiCB3.
On the lighter side, Stephen Hawking enjoyed listening to Edith Piaf, with a special fondness, most appropriately, for Non, Je ne regrette rien. A translation of Piaf’s biography can be found in the UL at M517.c.95.30, and there is a snippet of Piaf on the CD France: music rough guide, order in the Anderson Room CD.078.64.
My personal musical favourite featuring Stephen Hawking is his rendition of Monty Python’s Galaxy Song. As Brian Cox revealed in a behind the scenes look at the making of the Galaxy Song, a line which was used to great effect in Monty Python’s O2 show, was actually a throw-away quip by Stephen Hawking. It’s a great example of his humour, and his place within popular culture.
Professor Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018