Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Albert Einstein on music

If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I see my life in terms of music. I get most joy in life out of music.
— Albert Einstein

As is well known, Einstein played a violin. I find it interesting how strong his opinions on music were. (Also, this touches the question of taste vs. objective quality, but I won’t go into that here.) From here (quoted from Albert Einstein: The Human Side, where I read it first when I was doing a paper on Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman). From his answers to a questionnaire regarding his taste in music:
(1) Bach, Mozart, and some old Italian and English composers are my favorites in music. Beethoven considerably less — but certainly Schubert.

(2) It is impossible for me to say whether Bach or Mozart means more to me. In music I do not look for logic. I am quite intuitive on the whole and know no theories. I never like a work if I cannot intuitively grasp its inner unity (architecture).

(3) I always feel that Handel is good — even perfect — but that he has a certain shallowness. Beethoven is for me too dramatic and too personal.

(4) Schubert is one of my favorites because of his superlative ability to express emotion and his enormous powers of melodic invention. But in his larger works I am disturbed by a certain lack of architectonics [German: "Architektonik"].

(5) Schumann is attractive to me in his smaller works because of their originality and richness of feeling, but his lack of formal greatness prevents my full enjoyment. In Mendelssohn I perceive considerable talent but an indefinable lack of depth that often leads to banality.

(6) I find a few lieder and chamber works by Brahms truly signficant, also in their structure. But most of his works have for me no inner persuasiveness. I do not understand why it was necessary to write them.

(7) I admire Wagner's inventiveness, but I see his lack of architectural structure as decadence. Moreover, to me his musical personality is indescribably offensive so that for the most part I can listen to him only with disgust.

(8) I feel that [Richard] Strauss is gifted, but without inner truth and concerned only with outside effects. I cannot say that I care nothing for modern music in general. I feel that Debussy is delicately colorful but shows a poverty of structure. I cannot work up great enthusiasm for something of that sort.
It certainly makes me feel better about my tastes. Not in the sense that they “agree” with Einstein’s — I am rather fond of Beethoven, for instance — but in the sense that I feel less guilty not appreciating some famous musicians (I don’t particularly like Chopin, for example, to my chavrussa’s disgust). On the other hand, it is more likely that I don’t appreciate them because I have bad or undeveloped taste and no first-hand knowledge of music, while Einstein’s taste was probably grounded on something more substantial.

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