This week the world lost one of its brightest minds. To myself and countless others, Stephen Hawking was the subject of reverence and that rare awe with which we look upon people who are much, much smarter than most of us will ever be. We know he was important; he was one of those extraordinary people who emblazon their names in history long before their death. We know he wrote groundbreaking theory in the fields of physics and cosmology; although those of us without scientific training probably can’t explain his theories in their entirety, and generally grasp enlightenment from “A Brief History of Time” and his other books and lectures, from which we can maybe pull out at a quote at a particularly opportune schmoozing moment. We know he survived, endured and created despite an illness which was believed to be a quick death sentence. But even with all his public speeches and pages of words, and those iconic appearances on the Simpsons, it still feels like there is so much of Hawking that seemed beyond knowing, that seemed distant, abstract, complex.
There is a heartbreaking scene in The Theory of Everything, the 2015 film based on his life, where a doctor gives the young Hawking his diagnosis. He says “the brain isn’t affected; your thoughts won’t change. It’s just that, eventually, no one will know what they are”. Spine-chilling. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (ALS), has been described as an imprisonment- the entrapment of one’s mind and consciousness in a body that refuses to respond to it. Thanks to modern science, Hawking was never fully imprisoned in his body, he gave speeches and cracked dry jokes right up until his death. But his motor neuron disease- and the consequential fusion of man with machine that became Hawking’s functional existence- took him one step further from common accessibility, and one step further from uniformity or simple understanding. As a child, I was completely baffled by this “mind-reading computer” that replaced Hawking’s voice, and HBO’s John Oliver once jokingly asked him if it was really him speaking or if a “sentient computer” had taken over him- a question for which he got righteously burned. But this is the point; every time we saw Stephen Hawking and heard his voice synthesizer, we were reminded that we were staring at a feat of humanity- both the man himself and the technology that allowed his thoughts to be expressed. In every sense, Hawking was exceptional, something that made him even more enigmatic.
Any glimpse into the essence of such a man is a valuable one, and so it really excited me to hear about the times Hawking described his passion for music. Famously, he loved Wagner, and classical music more generally. Giving an interview to the Cambridge University newspaper, he recounted how he built his own sound-system from an old gramophone at the age of 15, which he used to play Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a 10-inch LP which was the first piece of music he ever bought. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” in 1992, he chose Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as his favourite track. On the show, he declared physics and music to be his “two main pleasures”, and described a world in which the two could be combined as “ideal”. Two of his other classical choices were the grand and ecclesiastical orchestral piece- Poulenc’s Gloria, and the sweeping tide of Brahm’s Violin Concerto. For me, both these pieces have an air of otherworldliness- the apostolic Gloria with its stained-glass loftiness and the piety of the church, and Brahm’s romantic, theatrical violins with their “Midsummer Nights Dream”-esque mysticism, lend to a vision of this world that is firmly grounded in the idea of transcendence- if that isn’t an oxymoron.
Hawking’s third choice came from Beethoven’s String Quartet №15, and when he spoke of his fourth choice he said that Wagner “soothed the dark and apocalyptic mood” he was in after his diagnosis. This idea of healing through music, combined with his lifelong study of the limitless physics of the universe, had me thinking that perhaps Hawking’s love for grand classical music was, in some ways, destined. Classical music actively and compellingly rejects the baldness and banality that so often creeps up on us when we are focused on the mundanities rather than the marvels of our world. The notes dance along straight lines and ripple through the orchestra in a composite that is anything but simplistic or boring. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that a man whose mind was captured by the stars, and who decried the staleness of the 50s and the straightforwardness of his undergraduate studies, would choose music that soars and thunders, and reminds us more of the sky above than of earth below. For Hawking, Wagner was a tonic for the stark sterilization and the clinical realities that soon became a large part of his life, and as a man who rejected religious mythologizing, both the orchestra and the cosmos represented reminders of the infinite complexities and possibilities of our lives, here and now- if only we care to look, as he said, “up at the stars, not down at your feet”. From the depths of a black hole to the heights of a soaring violin, music and the universe are two of our clearest expressions of the limitless, of the immortal, of wonder.
If anyone deserves the description of a “star”, it is Stephen Hawking, who taught us so much- both about the fantastic workings of the interstellar and about the infinite capacity of the human mind. If his life was a music piece, surely it would need the weight and intricacy of a grand orchestra to represent it. Just like the universe he studied and the music he loved, Hawking was expansive and magnificent. He was the complexity and wonder of a symphony and a star, personified.
Listen to Desert Tapes with Stephen Hawking HERE!