The Musical Mind of Albert Einstein: Great Physicist, Amateur Violinist and Devotee of Mozart


At the height of Albert Einstein’s pop­u­lar­i­ty, the pub­lic knew him not only as the world’s fore­most the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist, but also as an enthu­si­as­tic some­time vio­lin­ist. As a pub­li­ca­tion for the 2005 “World Year of Physics” puts it: “to the press of his time… Ein­stein was two parts renowned sci­en­tist, one jig­ger paci­fist and Zion­ist fundrais­er, and a dash ama­teur musi­cian.” While this descrip­tion may get at the pub­lic per­cep­tion of his com­po­si­tion, Ein­stein him­self seems to have favored the musi­cian over all of his oth­er “parts.” “Life with­out play­ing music is incon­ceiv­able for me,” he once said, “I live my day­dreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”

The famous sci­en­tist nev­er trav­elled with­out his beloved vio­lin, “Lina.” His affair with music began with vio­lin lessons in Munich at the age of 5. How­ev­er, his ear­ly expe­ri­ences with the instru­ment seem at best per­func­to­ry and, at worst, antag­o­nis­tic (one anec­dote has him throw­ing a chair at his teacher, who left the house in tears).

He did not tru­ly fall in love until dis­cov­er­ing Mozart at age 13. A high school friend report­ed to biog­ra­ph­er Carl Seel­ing that at this time, when the young Einstein’s “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.”

This gush­ing rec­ol­lec­tion must inevitably prompt the ques­tion, raised in every account of Ein­stein and music—was he real­ly any good? Since he played most­ly for his own enjoy­ment, the answer seems irrel­e­vant; yet, as par­ti­cle physi­cist Bri­an Fos­ter says in the video above, Ein­stein was “com­pe­tent.” In his Berlin years, he played with renowned musi­cians like Aus­tri­an vio­lin­ist Fritz Kreisler and pianist Artur Schn­abel (as well as with founder of quan­tum the­o­ry, Max Planck). His sci­en­tif­ic noto­ri­ety gar­nered invi­ta­tions to per­form at ben­e­fit con­certs. One crit­ic remarked, “Ein­stein plays excel­lent­ly. How­ev­er… there are many vio­lin­ists who are just as good.” Anoth­er con­cert-goer quipped, “I sup­pose now Fritz Kreisler is going to start giv­ing physics lec­tures.” Accounts of his abil­i­ties do dif­fer.

Bri­an Foster’s inter­est in Ein­stein the musi­cian tran­scends the man’s vir­tu­os­i­ty, or lack there­of. Since 2005—the 100th anniver­sary of Einstein’s “mir­a­cle year,” dur­ing which he pub­lished his most influ­en­tial papers—Foster has teamed up with British vio­lin­ist Jack Liebeck and oth­er clas­si­cal musi­cians to present lec­tures and con­certs on the role of music in Einstein’s life and work. Einstein’s devo­tion to Mozart may be of par­tic­u­lar inter­est to his­to­ri­ans of sci­ence. Fos­ter describes Einstein’s tastes as “con­ser­v­a­tive”; he found Beethoven too “cre­ative,” but Mozart, on the oth­er hand, revealed to him a uni­ver­sal har­mo­ny he believed exist­ed in the uni­verse. As anoth­er author puts it:

Ein­stein rel­ished Mozart, not­ing to a friend that it was as if the great Wolf­gang Amadeus did not “cre­ate” his beau­ti­ful­ly clear music at all, but sim­ply dis­cov­ered it already made. This per­spec­tive par­al­lels, remark­ably, Einstein’s views on the ulti­mate sim­plic­i­ty of nature and its expla­na­tion and state­ment via essen­tial­ly sim­ple math­e­mat­i­cal expres­sions.

While the inter­pre­ta­tion of Ein­stein as a “real­ist” has its detrac­tors, his insis­tence on the beau­ty and sim­plic­i­ty of sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries is not in dis­pute. Fos­ter points out above that part of Einstein’s lega­cy is his push for beau­ty, uni­fi­ca­tion, and har­mo­ny in our phys­i­cal under­stand­ing of real­i­ty, a push that Fos­ter cred­its to the scientist’s musi­cal mind.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten as Albert Ein­stein Reads ‘The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence’ (1941)

James Joyce Plays the Gui­tar, 1915

Albert Ein­stein on Indi­vid­ual Lib­er­ty, With­out Which There Would Be ‘No Shake­speare, No Goethe, No New­ton’

Albert Ein­stein Express­es His Admi­ra­tion for Mahat­ma Gand­hi, in Let­ter and Audio

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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