Einstein’s violin playing took a gypsy turn while he improvised, often while thinking about mathematics.
He was a very good musician, and could navigate the piano well enough, but his real love was for the violin.
So generous was he that in later life, when offered a priceless Guarneri violin, he turned it down and insisted that it be given to a more promising musician.
Einstein’s violin playing was not of the first rank, and yet such was his love for the violin that he played and practiced anyway.
There are countless gifted amateurs who play ardently and masterfully without any hope of fame and fortune. Such is the spell that musical instruments cast on people’s minds.
Later in his life, when he was hailed as a famous mathematician, he was besieged by offers to play concerts, most of which he took and donated the money to charity.
In addition to studying the classic violin pieces of Bach and Mozart that he adored, Einstein was also given to improvisations. Some have told of the haunting, gypsy-like quality of these rhapsodies.
Einstein himself stated that many of his greatest mathematical ideas came when he was improvising on the violin.
Improvising, in terms of musical skills, requires unbelievable intelligence and reflexes on the part of a musician, and the brain is firing on both hemispheres, plotting several moves before they come as well as managing the current move, and drawing the whole into a strategy that has a beginning, middle, and end.
One is both intoxicated and absolutely in control at the same time.
Think of improvising music as a double-hemisphered musical brain circus, with both halves furiously, and happily, collaborating on a result that is instantly hearable.
Now consider the supposition that we are improvising, in this hypothetical Einstein reverie, in a style governed by the rules of classical music, which Einstein’s likely was.
That’s even more of an achievement, mentally, because the classic style requires an absolutely perfect knowledge of harmony and counterpoint, as well as the creative spark to get it all going in a way that is pleasing.
Remember that improvising, until advent of the dry modern classical recital, was a zesty affair that had a place almost at the head of musical events in the golden age of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, all the way through Liszt and the turn of the century.
In those days, one could not really call oneself a virtuoso unless the crowd could call out the name of a popular tune, and the performer could come up with a dazzling, audience-satisfying piece on the spot.
Bach improvised in this manner, and so did everyone from Chopin to Liszt and further.
Beethoven was a legend for rhapsodies that the crowd egged him on to create. Perhaps the first “performance art,” in the modern sense, was musical improvisation.
As exhilarated as Einstein felt while improvising, he had real limitations as a classical musician, all acknowledged.
Einstein had mathematical flaws, too.
Once the famed Einstein was rehearsing with the Budapest String Quartet as a guest soloist, and kept missing his entrances because he was not keeping proper time.
Finally the leader, Alexander Schneider, stopped the quartet and gently reproved the famous scientist.
“What’s the matter, Albert?” joked Schneider to the world’s most famous mathematician. “Can’t you count?”
Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press