To celebrate, to commemorate: Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018

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.

Stephen Hawking with Newton’s annotated copy of Principia Mathematica.
Photographed as part of the celebrations for Cambridge University Library’s 600th Anniversary.
Copyright Graham CopeKoga / Cambridge University Library.

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



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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4 Responses to To celebrate, to commemorate: Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018

  1. stebo says:

    A lovely tribute. Thank you. And the video is a hoot. I also heard an interview with Prof Brian Cox on LBC, which is great. By the way, I think there is an association between physics and music: physicists are often fine musicians, as I understand it, though that is just based on anecdotes that I have read.


    • mj263 says:

      I think what you say about physics and music is quite correct, maths and music often seem to go well together too – like you, this is anecdotal, but I’ve certainly noticed when teaching that musical children are often good at maths too. Sadly the maths gene seemed to pass me by!


  2. Sarah Burton says:

    I used to work at Heffers Sound, when it was a separate shop in Trinity Street, and I always remember the time Stephen Hawking came in. It was a pleasure to meet him and sell him a new box set that we were displaying in the window.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mj263 says:

      What a lovely memory. I loved the little Heffers Sound shop. Was always amazed at how many recordings they managed to cram into a small space.


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