Wednesday, May 4, 2011

5/4 Why Einstein Didn't Like Beethoven (Except the Missa Solemnis)

Even though it was recently revealed to me that Stephen Hawking is a big Beethoven fan, apparently another icon of 20th century genius felt differently. Albert Einstein was an actual musician and played the violin (tho not extremely well) and as seen below he much preferred Bach and Mozart...however...

After his colleagues updated the music system they had given him five years earlier, Einstein began repeatedly to play an RCA recording of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. It was an unusual choice for two reasons. He tended to regard Beethoven, who was not his favorite composer, as “too personal, almost naked.” Also, his religious instincts did not usually include these sorts of trappings. “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever,” he noted to a friend who had sent him birthday greetings. “This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”
- From Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon and Schuster, 2007)

Responses to a questionnaire. Though the questionnaire itself appears to have been lost, "...the questions on it can be inferred more or less from Einstein's responses..."

(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.
(from Albert Einstein's Taste in Music (on Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, et al.))

Missa Solemnis in D, Op.123 (1823)
Luba Orgonasova, soprano, Catherine Robbin, mezzo-soprano, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor, Alastair Miles, bass
NDR-Chor / Monteverdi Choir / NDR Sinfonieorchester / John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Recorded at Marienkirche Lübeck, 1994

Linklist (71 min)


  1. Einstein certainly was not very clear about what he did not like about Beethoven---I think Beethoven went completely over his head, and the fact that he said so little about him and was so vague when he did is proof of that. The mystery to me is why he liked the Missa---especially since he was an atheist. My opinion of Einstein has certainly dropped---not just because of what he said about B, but his arrogant generalizations about other composers as well.

  2. I read that his musician friends used to dread when he wanted to play the violin with them, haha!
    He was pretty good at math tho :)

  3. Well, I'm an atheist and the Missa is one of my most favorite works. Like all sacred music, but to a greater degree than most, the Missa is a profound expression of the human condition and our deepest aspirations of peace and love. Trust me, you don't need to believe in god for that :)

    For someone so concerned as he seemed to be with musical structure I find that Einstein's lack of love for B's music to be weird. If Beethoven is anything he is the ultimate master of structure! I think Einstein was wary of Beethoven's power. To be confronted with a genius superior to his own must have been unsettling!

  4. Haha, yeah - at least we know Hawking loves Beethoven and he's probably smarter than Einstein, though I'm not sure if that's a fact...

  5. Love Mozart. Love Bach. Love Beethoven. Why choose a side when you can enjoy them all?
    I remember in high school, there was a battle of who is better, The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. I hated that. I listened to both because I love music no matter how different one sound might be from the other.


  6. It's funny to see all the cavemen attack Einstein simply because he didn't worship Beethoven the way they do. It went over his head? the guy who completely revolutionized our conception of the universe? yes, I'm sure your cognitive abilities are greater than Einstein's. LOL; or maybe he heard something in Beethoven's music that he simply didn't like.

  7. it seems to be a matter of taste, not discernment here. He doesn't really enjoy the more passionate work -- it's too much for him-- "almost naked" is a bad thing (!??!). and he is looking for easily understood, structural music. somebody asked his opinion and he gave it, i don't think he meant for it to make an impact (unless he was incredibly arrogant) especially since he was just filling out a form.. Anyway, composers rise and fall in popularity and interpretation. i am sure in discussion he would be more illuminating and intelligent.

  8. Love Bach, love Mozart, so much Beethoven but above all, Wagner.