Einstein, who professed a general non-belief in God, nonetheless saw a guiding hand in the symmetry and beauty of the universe and manifested an abiding contempt for atheists. As he once wrote: “The fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who – in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ – cannot hear the music of the spheres.”
As we shall see, not only did Einstein hear “the music of the spheres,” but music drove his entire life as a physicist, particularly his discovery of the General Theory of Relativity.
Einstein’s musicality was evident at a young age. As his sister reported, despite the intense secularism of his family, Albert composed his own Jewish hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school. He was six when his mother, Pauline, herself an accomplished pianist, taught him piano and arranged for him to take violin lessons. Playing, though, was little more than an unpleasant routine for young Albert, who found the drilling and practice so dull that he threw a chair at his teacher.
A dramatic change in his outlook took place, however, shortly after his bar mitzvah, when he discovered Mozart’s violin sonatas, which became an enduring passion in his life. Though he also embraced Bach for the composer’s “enchanting tone and incomparable rhythm,” Mozart became his guiding light: “Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe,” he said.
Einstein once declared that while Beethoven “created” his music, Mozart’s “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.” He applied the same idea to his study of physics, which he characterized not merely in the traditional scientific methodological terms of observation, theory, and testing but, rather, as seeking to uncover “the music of the spheres” which, he said, revealed a “pre-established harmony” exhibiting magnificent and awesome equilibria.
In other words, just as Mozart’s music was plucked already complete out of space and time, the fundamental laws underlying the arrangement of the universe – which are essentially musical constructs – already exist complete just waiting for someone with a discerning ear to come along and expose them. Einstein saw both himself and Mozart as “musical physicists” who did little more than uncover the beauty, simplicity, and harmony that already existed.
Einstein saw the entire universe in musical terms. For example, he characterized fellow physicist Neils Bohr’s work on the structure of the atom as “the highest form of musicality in the realm of thought.” He explained that his ideas on the universe had their origins in his “aesthetic discontent” with the predominant existing theories regarding space and time which, he believed, failed to reflect the symmetry, inner unity, and beauty of the cosmos.
He defined relativity itself as “a musical thought” and, as he later told Shinichi Suzuki, the great pioneer of musical education (renowned for the “Suzuki method”): “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition…. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”
Thus, the theory of relativity turned out to be his own view of how the universe ought to be, a manifestation of the music of the spheres, which many scientists still characterize as the most beautiful theory ever formulated.
Einstein’s love for music was so essential to his life that he commented: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.” From his teen years until late in his life, when he could no longer physically play, his violin remained his most steadfast companion: “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me…I know that the most joy in life has come to me from my violin.”
Einstein would come out and regale trick-or-treaters with spontaneous violin serenades on Halloween evenings, and he would often accompany local Christmas carolers on his violin. He regularly performed at musical evenings and on stage in string quartets with some of the greatest musicians of his time, and he and his second wife, Elsa, hosted “musical evenings” every week in their Princeton, New Jersey home. (He served as the vice president of the Princeton Symphony from 1952 until his death in 1955.)
Elsa once told a friend that she fell in love with her husband not because of his handsome Bohemian looks and brilliant mind but, rather, “because he played Mozart so beautifully on the violin.” His proficiency was the subject of much debate but, as one pithy critic wrote, he “acquitted himself with aplomb, if not distinction.”
Einstein carried his recognizable battered violin case with him everywhere, and he played “Lina” – his affectionate name for his instrument, short for “violin” – with the same passion that he brought to his study of the universe.
Elsa Einstein related that her husband, totally lost in thought, wandered back and forth for a period of some two weeks between his piano – which he would play while occasionally scrawling some notes – and his room, in which he would entomb himself for periods of time, before emerging with a working draft of the theory of relativity.
This practice was hardly unusual for Einstein. His son Hans explained: “Whenever [my father] felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties.” His sister, Maja, added that, “[a]fter playing piano, he would get up saying ‘There, now I’ve got it’ – something in the music would guide his thoughts in new and creative directions.”
Two interesting notes. First, Einstein celebrated the day in 1919 that his General Theory of Relativity was substantiated by purchasing a new violin since music was so “instrumental” to his scientific work. Second, a violin presented to Einstein shortly after his arrival in the United States after fleeing Nazi Germany was sold at auction earlier this year for $516,500.
Shown here is an October 17, 1946 correspondence on Einstein’s blind-stamped personal Princeton letterhead, which he wrote (in German) to synagogue music composer Heinrich Schalit. It reads: “Thank you for your gift of the musical manuscript. I have written to Rabbi Stephen Wise who will know all the ways to bring this good thing to realization.”
The musical manuscript to which Einstein refers, “The 98th Psalm” (for tenor solo, mixed chorus, and organ) – “Sing to God a New Song” – was dedicated by Schalit to “The Genius and Humanitarian Albert Einstein.” The cover and first page of the piece are also exhibited here.
A widely respected composer, poet, organist, and musical director, Schalit (1886-1976) was a leading composer in the 20th century renaissance of American (Reform) synagogue music. He wrote choral anthems, instrumental works, and sacred Jewish liturgical pieces, including “Hasidic Dances, “In Eternity,” “Builders of Zion,” “Songs of Glory” and “Friday Evening Service,” which is considered his magnum opus. (“The 98th Psalm” was a part of that larger service.) He is credited with developing a distinctive contemporary musical idiom in bringing modern musical developments, including atonality, to Jewish music.
Due to German anti-Semitism during World War I, Schalit decided to dedicate himself to writing music specifically of “Jewish content and character,” which served to link him to newly-vibrant Jewish cultural movements, including Zionism. He was the musical director/organist at the Great Synagogue in Munich before it was obliterated by the Nazis. Forced to leave Germany in 1933, he served as the musical director of the Great Synagogue in Rome until he was exiled by Mussolini and came to America, where he worked as a music director in American synagogues and continued to compose.
As evidenced by our letter, the composer and the physicist had mutual admiration for each other, and Einstein did forward the work to Rabbi Stephen Wise (1874-1949), a leading American Reform rabbi, an important Zionist leader, and a very close friend of Einstein’s, who apparently took the necessary steps that led to the publication of the seminal “98th Psalm.”