Stephen Hawking loved Stravinsky, Poulenc and the music of the spheres

Stephen Hawking loved Stravinsky, Poulenc and the music of the spheres


norman lebrecht

March 14, 2018

The Cambridge cosmologist, who died today, discovered serious music in his teens:

‘I first became aware of classical music when I was 15,” he said. “LPs had recently appeared in Britain. I ripped out the mechanism of our old wind-up gramophone and put in a turntable and a three-valve amplifier. I made a speaker cabinet from an old book case, with a sheet of chip-board on the front. The whole system looked pretty crude, but it didn’t sound too bad.

‘At the time LPs were very expensive so I couldn’t afford any of them on a schoolboy budget. But I bought Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms because it was on sale as a 10” LP, which were being phased out. The record was rather scratched, but I fell in love with the third movement, which makes up more than half the symphony…’

Read more here.



  • Dominic Stafford says:

    He was a regular visitor to Covent Garden, where he was much admired by the staff for his wry sense of humour.

  • Rob says:

    Just what is it he’s supposed to have achieved?!?

    • Cubs Fan says:

      What, you think these highly paid, underworld cosmologists have to actually do something? They sit around dreaming up unprovable theories backed up by mathematics which few really understand and then wait until the next unprovable theory comes about. It’s all BS…just like string theory. They have nothing to show for their work. And you thought conductors overpaid! Still, in Hawkings case, he did a lot to popularize science and that’s good enough for me. He was the Leonard Bernstein of physics, and there’s no one out there to replace him. RIP.

    • buxtehude says:

      Look up “Hawking radiation” and take it from there,

      • rob says:

        More useless speculation ?

      • Cubs Fan says:

        Hawking Radiation is unproven. The literature is full of speculation and some studies that it “may have” been observed, and that radiation “similar to” it might have been recorded. But it’s all based on quantum theory, a lot of scary mathematics, and until someone actually gets to a black hole and touches an event horizon will remain unproven.

        • buxtehude says:

          @ Cubs: By all means be the first to “touch” an event horizon, I surrender any claim to that honor. (So l o o o o o n n n n n n n g….)

          A general understanding of what science is and how it proceeds doesn’t seem to have fully penetrated here. Music being the math-y kind of a thing it is, I’d have thought it might be different.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Music is an aural, flexible mathematics that flows along ever changing articulation points.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The more science / cosmology refines its methods and theories, the less real things appear to be. Like the speed of light, which has been defined as a constant (i.e. a fixed, unmovable law of nature), but measuring over long periods in the last century have shown variations over some periods, so scientists take averages. Laws of nature appear to be statistical truths rather than fixed ‘laws’, which means there are little holes here and there in their logic. But from there, our idea of reality gets a bit ‘unhinged’, as quatum theory shows. A materialist world view does not quite appear to match reality which is a living thing, and it makes one think of postwar serialism which tried to impose a materialist way of thinking on music.

          With all his brilliance, Hawking was – according to the stories – a materialistic mind. His interest in classical music seems to have balanced such limitation. His tragic handicap prevented him from developing a wider range of life experiences, which appears to have encapsulated his mind within a rationalistic framework. I observed the same with Dr Puffet in Cambridge, well-known musicologist admired by his peers, but with an ultra-rationalistic mindset which ignored things in music which are related to life experiences he had no access to. He had the type of mind of a cutting torch, achieving so many things, but being very one-sided. Such is my impression of Hawkings.

    • Bruce says:

      Nicely done, Rob. You’ve convinced everyone.

    • Alex Davies says:

      A classical music forum seems to be an odd place to come to ask that question. Would you go to a cosmology forum to ask just what it was that Haydn, Schoenberg, or Messiaen achieved?

      • mr oakmountain says:

        I would love to read that, though.
        Since we’re here: I guess before you open the violin case after a flight, the violin is both intact and broken.

  • Nik says:

    Also, several of the obits today mention that he dealt with his diagnosis aged 21 by locking himself in his room and listening to Wagner.

  • Simon Scott says:

    Stephen Hawking was obviously well ahead of his time.
    Let’s face it,to date most of us haven’t got very far in fully understanding Einstein’s theories

  • Seamus O'Donnell says:

    Hawking has expired almost as often as Osama bin Laden.

  • 18mebrumaire says:

    For those of us rather wanting in our intellectuals, there are many highly amusing Hawking anecdotes to enjoy, one of which concerns his finals viva at Oxford. When H was asked: what do you intend to do once your degree is confirmed? he allegedly answered: If I get a first, I’ll do research at Cambridge; if not, I’ll stay here at Oxford. Needless to say, he went on to Trinity Hall.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Stephen Hawking made 2 statements that have nothing to do with his research but that we all should think about: he opposed sending messages to the outer space (if there is intelligent life forms in other planets we should hide from them, not expose us), and he pointed to the dangers of creating “artificial intelligence.”

  • Stephen says:

    As a contemporary of Stephen’s I remember those extremely expensive LPs: £2 (41 shillings for DGG). At the end of the 50s Ace of Clubs came out at £1, though the sound was poor and there were also World Records at the same “low” price in good sound. Their issues included the first recordings of Colin Davis as well as people I’ve never heard of since like the pianist Kyla Greenbaum.

    • Simon Scott says:

      In the late 1950s £1 was £20+ in today’s money.
      LPs were expensive indeed.
      What would have been the wages of say a 20 yr old working in a shoeshop in that era?

  • Martin Smith says:

    Norman, I also remember the first time I heard ‘Symphony of Psalms’. It was the first broadcast of the Proms season of I think 1977. Supper was due, but the broadcast began at 8 and I stayed mesmerized in my room. When the twenty minutes it takes had expired, I felt that I had been absent for centuries. Brushing off reproaches for my lateness to the table, I had been transfigured.
    These are the kinds of experiences which illuminate the Stations of the Cross of Hawkings’ life journey. I glimpsed him only once in Cambridge; but we all knew that he was concocting brilliance away somewhere in the tessellated perspectives of the old university city. He means, of course the Fugue, one of the most perfect in all music. As for the Gloria – I think it’s a coded way of saying that this is a kind of faith he could take: apparently not Jane Wilde’s Anglican one, musical as that developed (to an ironic extent, I think SH would say now!). I am sure he will spring us an April Fool’s joke of some kind. His reach is as great as any Enlightenment mind; perhaps we have to go back to the Renaissance to find another mind like his. He could perform complex calculations just as Mozart could remember and later transcribe the entire Allegri Miserere in the papal chapel, when aged 13. I simply love him. And my love is set to increase – along with my love for Poulenc – in every season and year of my life’s remaining years, until I too – with them – to rearrange George Herbert – am made into an even more extraordinary kind of music.

  • Francois says:

    …weird how much he loved Poulenc, considering how deeply RC a lot of his music is.

  • Martin Smith says:

    Ma foi, Francois! Leave out the ‘R’. Goodness, he is here now!* – deeply quivering. “Man lives not to die but to live!” Norman – can you kick this can a little further down Fred Hoyle’s northern ‘mean street’.You spotted it on Day1. I am in tears!

    near, near … in the Abbey … Eliot: ‘the communication of the dead
    Is tongued with fire beyond the * language of the living” (check out tomb!

  • Martin Smith says:

    The vitriol of some other part-timers will be taken care of by lab technicians.