Scientists on the fiddle? Brian Foster on how Einstein and the violin inspired a festival of interdisciplinary imagination. Brian Foster reports.
Albert Einstein was arguably the world's greatest scientist; certainly he was the one with the highest media profile. Fêted by kings, princes and presidents, and attracting crowds wherever he went, he nevertheless preferred the company of the great musicians, particularly violinists, of his time. He was a personal friend of Fritz Kreisler and Bronislaw Huberman, two of the greatest violinists of the last century, and of the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and pianist Robert Casadessus. The reason for this predilection is not hard to find; countless iconic images of Einstein show him clutching a battered violin case, his constant companion and one that he often noted had given him the most pleasure throughout his life. Son of a talented musical mother, Pauline, he had languished in his early youth in Munich under the heavy hand of several unimaginative violin teachers, only blossoming as a talented musician when he came across Mozart's violin sonatas. Thus began his life-long love affair with Mozart; Bach was his other great passion. Einstein often played in public, particularly as a member of a chamber ensemble at charity concerts. After hearing him at one such event in a provincial German town, the local music critic, somewhat hazy about the biography of the famous scientist, wrote in his review: 'Einstein plays excellently. However, his worldwide fame is undeserved. There are many violinists who are just as good.'
The rise of the Nazis spelt danger for prominent Jews like Einstein. Before he finally fled from his chair in Berlin in 1934, he spent periods in several European countries. As is well known, he spent some time in Oxford as a research student of Christ Church between 1931, when he received an honorary doctorate, and 1933. This period was also marked by forays into the chamber music of the city; in particular, he played with his 'stair boy' at Christ Church, Denis Winter, also a violinist. Einstein regularly visited Winter's home in Friar Street to play with him and his father.
Einstein's abrupt departure from Germany terminated his sojourns in Oxford, and he finally settled in Princeton, New Jersey. This last period of Einstein's life was devoted to a fruitless search for a unified theory of all the forces - a search that we now know was doomed to failure. However, disappointments in his work did not lessen his passion for chamber music; his unpretentious house on Mercer Street often hosted groups of colleagues and friends in a variety of instrumental combinations, making music together until late in the night. Indeed, Dr Paul Kent, an Emeritus Student of Christ Church, remembers partaking in such evenings as a young postdoc in Princeton.
The links between science and music do not stop with Einstein; many of his contemporaries were accomplished musicians. Lord Cherwell, who had brought him to Oxford, was an excellent pianist. So too were Einstein's fellow Nobel Laureates, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg. Indeed, Heisenberg's 60th birthday present from his colleagues was to appear as soloist with a symphony orchestra in a Mozart piano concerto. The list of scientists who were avid musicians is a long one. On a contemporary Oxford note, the new Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy, is well known for his book, lecture and TV series The Music of the Primes, exploring the structure of musical notes and their links with number theory.
Of all these musical and scientific resonances, it was Einstein who inspired the creation in 2008 of the Oxford May Music festival. The artistic director, violinist Jack Liebeck, is one the brightest young stars in the UK music firmament. He and I had already spent a very considerable time developing the links between science and music, as personified by Einstein. With the support of the funding council for particle physics, currently the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), we produced the 'Superstrings' and 'Einstein's Universe' lectures (see www.einsteinsuniverse.com). The former was originally produced to mark World Year of Physics in 2005, the centenary of the annus mirabilis of Einstein's creativity, which produced the Special Theory of Relativity and fundamental advances in the atomic description of nature. The lectures convey the essence of Einstein's theories, linked by examples and demonstrations on his great love, the violin. The scientific exposition is punctuated by Jack playing some of Einstein's favourite music by Bach, as well as a piece by Einstein's friend, the great virtuoso Fritz Kreisler. At the end of the lecture, Jack and I play a Mozart violin sonata movement arranged for two violins, reflecting the great physicist's love of chamber music. We have now given these lectures more than 100 times to audiences totalling more than 10,000 all across the world.
The success of the lectures led us to envisage a more ambitious event to showcase the synergies between science and the arts. We conceived the Oxford May Music festival in order to forge closer links between sciences and the arts. The format we decided on is a six-day programme of lectures and chamber music bracketing that quintessentially Oxford occasion, May Morning, and ending on the May Day Bank Holiday. The festival was based in two of the most historic and beautiful spaces in Oxford, the Holywell Music Room and the Sheldonian Theatre. Haydn and Handel were both offered honorary degrees by the University, although only Haydn processed in the Sheldonian; Handel declined, possibly because of the cost. Both, however, played and rehearsed in the Holywell. Einstein of course also received his degree in the Sheldonian, where Jack and I gave the first lecture in the 2008 Oxford May Music festival, 'Einstein's Universe', to an enthusiastic audience.
The 2008 festival was attended by more than 1,000 people. Sponsorship was forthcoming from several sources, including Rochman Landau Solicitors, Oxford City Council, Oxford Instruments and Science Oxford. We are delighted that this year the University will be joining the sponsors. The 2009 programme is even more exciting than last year's (see below) and we are looking forward to welcoming a large audience when it gets under way on 29 April. We are confident that Einstein would have loved every minute - especially the recitals involving the violin.
Brian Foster is head of the sub-Department of Particle Physics and European Regional Director for the International Linear Collider.