Wednesday , 22 May 2019
Albert and ‘Lina’

Albert and ‘Lina’

Luis Dias

The violin is not at the top of any list of ‘babe magnet’ options, but it does work for some.

Nobel Prize Laureate theoretical physicist Albert Einstein’s wife Elsa (née Löwenthal) fell in love with him “because he played Mozart so beautifully on the violin.”

If there’s one thing that leapt out at me from the extremely informative ‘Nobel Prize Series India 2018 Science Exhibition’ at the Kala Academy in February, it was the remarkable affinity for music possessed by so many Nobel Prize Laureates across all disciplines (physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and peace) from an early age. I came across this time and again during the exhibition as I read the life histories of these great men and women. This association between exposure to music at a very young age, and brilliance in one’s pursuits in later life, cannot be coincidental.

This exposure to music came early to Albert Einstein (1879-1955). His mother Pauline Koch Einstein, herself a reasonably accomplished pianist, started him on the piano and violin at the age of five, not only to instil in him a love of music, but “to help him assimilate into German culture.”

Although Einstein didn’t enjoy violin lessons at first, he “fell in love” with the music of Mozart later, at the age of thirteen, after discovering his violin sonatas. His interest in music and his instrument grew much more serious after this. This is a lesson for parents, teachers and students: an initial diffidence towards music and practice in one’s younger years shouldn’t deter us, as it could evolve into a deeper engagement over time if we give it this chance. Regrettably, all too often, the decision is taken to discontinue lessons because initial progress is slow.

Einstein would write that Mozart’s music “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”

A schoolmate Hans Byland described Einstein’s playing of Mozart: “When his violin began to sing, the walls of the room seemed to recede – for the first time, Mozart in all his purity appeared before me, bathed in Hellenic beauty with its pure lines, roguishly playful, mightily sublime.”

Einstein was also drawn to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In an interview, Einstein once remarked, “I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere—and keep your trap shut.”

When at seventeen, Einstein played Beethoven’s violin sonatas to a school examiner, the latter observed that the teenager’s playing “was remarkable and revealing of great insight.” He added that Einstein “displayed a deep love of the music, a quality that was and remains in short supply. Music possessed an unusual meaning for this student.”

This “deep love of the music” crept into every aspect of Einstein’s life. He would write later: “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.”

Another famous Einstein quote: “A table, a chair a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?”

Although taking up music professionally was never his ambition, he played to a very high level, making chamber music with professional musicians (that included violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and the Zoellner and Juilliard string quartets) and peers (notably Max Planck and son).

Unfortunately, we have no recordings of Einstein’s violin playing, but most listener accounts (some of them quoted above) shower praise. The Juilliard quartet members heard him in his later years and were “impressed by Einstein’s level of coordination and intonation”.

One amusing anecdote survives from one of his string quartet sessions; when Einstein missed one entrance too many, Fritz Kreisler exasperatedly reprimanded the father of the Theory of Relativity: “What’s the matter, professor? Can’t you count?” Other accounts have Piatigorsky make this remark, so the whole story might be apocryphal.

Einstein’s violin was his companion even on his travels, wherever he went. His wife Elsa reminisced, “Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories… He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”

Although Einstein possessed several violins in his lifetime, his affectionate nickname ‘Lina’ (apparently, short for ‘violin’) was given to each one of them. He would love to surprise Halloween trick-or-treaters with serenades on his ‘Lina’ of the time, and would join carolling groups at Christmas.

One of Einstein’s violins was in the news last week, having fetched ₤373,000 (over 3 crore Indian rupees) at auction by Bonhams Fine Art division, New York. It is believed to be the only one of Einstein’s violins to have come on the market. It seems surprising that the instrument didn’t fetch an even higher price.

The violin was handcrafted specially for Einstein in 1933, the year he fled Nazi Germany to the US. Already considered “one of the most prominent intellectuals of his time”, his arrival created a sensation. It inspired Oscar H Steger, a cabinet-maker and a member of the Harrisberg Symphony Orchestra, Pennsylvania, to make a violin for him.

An inscription inside the violin reads: ‘Made for the Worlds [sic] Greatest Scientist Profesior [sic] Albert Einstein By Oscar H. Steger, Feb 1933 / Harrisburg, PA.’

In an act of touching generosity, Einstein later gifted it to William Hibbs, son of a janitor, Sylas Hibbs, at Princeton University where Einstein was a resident scholar, when he was told that William was learning to play the violin. The Hibbs family had the violin in their possession until the time of auction.

It is humbling to think that the instrument would have been a source of nourishment, inspiration and refuge. His older son Hans Albert would recall: “Whenever he 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. That would usually resolve all his difficulties.”

Perhaps this should not surprise us so much. Several Einstein biographers have pointed out the qualities of “beauty, clarity, simplicity and architectural perfection”, the “inner unity” in the music of Bach and Mozart that Einstein sought in his own theories in physics.

When asked about his Theory of Relativity, Einstein responded: “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.”

Scientists are struck by the “beauty” of the Theory of Relativity. Einstein himself would say: “Hardly anyone who has truly understood it will be able to escape the charm of this theory.” He recognised and revelled in that same charm and beauty in music, particularly of Bach and Mozart.