The death of English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, University of Cambridge, Professor Stephen Hawking on 14 March (incidentally also Pi Day, and the birthday of Albert Einstein(shook the world.
Last year, to celebrate his 75th birthday, his Cambridge college – Gonville & Caius – commissioned composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad to write a new piece of music in his honour.
Frances-Hoad is herself a graduate from Gonville and Caius college, although some four decades junior to Hawking. Dr. Geoffrey Webber, conductor of the Choir of Gonville and Caius college, approached her with the idea of such a piece, which excited her immediately.
In an interview shortly after completing the work, she said, “I think I’ve been more inspired writing this piece than I have for quite a while, really. Because when you’ve got the universe as your source of inspiration, it’s just kind of overwhelming.”
She “panicked” in the initial stages, as she didn’t even possess a GSCE qualification in science. However, she did speak to a theoretical cosmologist who told her all about his research, and deepened her understanding about the field, which was “an amazing privilege”.
Frances-Hoad also read a lot of texts, “but none of it was very poetic.” Her ultimate creative spark came from a children’s poem by Steven Schnur, children’s writer, essayist and editor.
The poem is titled “Universe” from his anthology “Autumn: An Alphabet Acrostic”.
“Up beyond the
Night sky, an
Indigo darkness like
Embraces the farthest
Reaches of the mind,
Sun, moon, stars,
What resonated most to Frances-Hoad from the lines of the poem were “the farthest reaches of the mind”, and the very last word, “Everything.”
At a point in the composition, the choir repeatedly sings “Sun, moon, stars” while three soloists sing out some of the questions pondered by Hawking in his groundbreaking book “A Brief History of Time”: “We find ourselves in a bewildering world. What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is?”
Frances-Hoad wishes to convey that same sense of overwhelming awe about the universe reflected by those questions, in her own composition. The work ends in hushed silence.
After hearing the work performed, Hawking responded “I am honoured to have this piece dedicated to me on my birthday celebrations this year…..Listening to her [Frances-Hoad’s] music takes us all on a mental journey around the universe.” He was quick to spot the hidden “Happy Birthday” reference within the music. In conclusion, he said “The piece put into lyrical form one of my quotes ‘Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist.’ Perhaps I can be forgiven for saying that tonight I am wondering no longer.”
That Hawking’s milestone birthday should have a musical commemoration is not surprising. Last Sunday I commented upon the remarkable affinity for music among so many Nobel Prize winners. Although Hawking never won a Nobel Prize (due to the precondition that theoretical scientific discoveries have to be confirmed by observational data before the prize can be awarded, and it would take years and cost millions to verify Hawking’s theories), his exposure to classical music began in his teens, at University College Oxford, along with a keen interest in science fiction.
When asked for his choice of music for his Desert Island discs if he were ever cast away on one, Igor Stravinsky’s three-movement choral symphony, ‘Symphony of Psalms’ topped his list.
It was the first piece of music he ever purchased. He gave the background to his choice:
“I first became aware of classical music when I was 15. 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.”
His next choice was Henryk Wieiawski’s Violin Concerto no. 1, F# minor. Hawking first heard his Second Violin Concerto on Radio 3 in the 1990s, and upon buying more of the composer’s music, preferred the First, in particular for its “haunting phrase in the first movement”. For what it’s worth, I prefer Wieniawski’s First Violin Concerto to the much-more-popular Second as well.
Hawking’s third choice: Francis Poulenc’s setting of the Gloria for soprano, orchestra and chorus, a work he first heard at a music festival in Aspen Colorado. He called it “one of a small number of works I consider great music.”
Other choices included Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major; Beethoven’s string quartet no. 15 in A minor, Op. 132; Wagner’s second opera from his Ring cycle, Die Walküre; Mozart’s Requiem in D minor; the aria ‘O Principe, che a lunghe carovane’ from Puccini’s Turandot; Please Please Me (Beatles); and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ (Edith Piaf).
A big Monty Python fan, he readily agreed to lend his copyrighted voice-over to their sketch, the Galaxy song, and consented to the music video showing him running down English physicist Brian Cox with his wheelchair. When the first take was being played to him and Cox explained what he was saying (nitpicking over the scientific inaccuracies in the lyrics) in the clip before being run over, Hawking adlibbed, “I think you are being pedantic.” The remark went into the final version of the Python sketch. It is well worth a watch, and with his voice-over reciting the lyrics in perfect cadence to the accompaniment, with him sailing through the galaxy in his trademark wheelchair, it is perhaps the perfect way to remember and salute Stephen Hawking, the genius with a sense of humour to match.
(An edited version of this article was published on 25 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)