Astronomer Martin Rees on Mendelssohn, Strauss and Outer Space
Felix Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings in E flat major, Op. 20. Scherzo. Emerson String Quartet. DG B0003888.
Frederic Chopin: Polonaise No. 3 in A “Military.” Arthur Rubinstein. RCA 9026-63048-2.
Stephen Paulus: “Hymn to the Eternal Flame.” Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. Stephen Layton. Hyperion CDA67832.
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem “In Paradisum.” New Philharmonia Orchestra. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Sir David Willcocks. John Wells, organ. EMI 3 79989 2.
Edward Elgar: Sea Pictures, Op. 37 “Sabbath Morning at Sea” [Excerpt]. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Vernon Handley. Janet Baker, contralto. LPO 0046.
Vangelis: Chariots of Fire. Polygram 800 020-2.
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs “Beim Schlafengehn”. Houston Symphony Orchestra. Christoph Eschenbach. Renée Fleming, soprano. RCA 9026-68539-2.
GILBERT KAPLAN: Welcome back to “Mad About Music” with my guest, the acclaimed astronomer, Martin Rees.
KAPLAN: He is one of the world’s foremost astronomers, a professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University in England – acclaimed for his pioneering work on the beginning of the universe – the “Big Bang”, and for estimating the very size of the universe. And for trying to determine if there’s really life in outer space. A prolific writer, he is also known for his lucid books on astronomy for the general public. In recognition of his achievements, he has received many awards and honors including this year’s $1.6 million Templeton Prize for helping humanity address “fundamental questions about our nature and existence.” And he has been appointed Astronomer Royal – the personal astronomer to the Queen of England, a position only 15 astronomers have held since 1675. But contemplating the cosmos still leaves plenty of room for his passion for music. Martin Rees, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
MARTIN REES: Well, it’s great to be on the program, and I’m delighted to have the chance to talk with you.
KAPLAN: Lovely, now, normally we only talk about music on the show but it’s so rare that a major newsbreak occurs in the field of one of my guests that I can’t resist. Now, as you know it was announced yesterday, and here I quote from one of the news sites: “that one of the pillars of physics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, that nothing can go faster than the speed of light, was rocked by new findings that an odd-ball type of sub-atomic particle called a neutrino was clocked going faster than the speed of light.” Now, the claim has met with some skepticism. One scientist called it “as though you could discover a flying carpet.” But what do you think about this?
REES: Well, we’re speaking when I haven’t heard the details yet, but I would say there’s an important maxim, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And it would be an extraordinary claim and I think we should suspend judgment. And if you ask me to bet, I would bet that this result will go away and be recanted. On the other hand, of course, scientists are always excited if something happens that really does overthrow what we knew before. That’s the way science advances. But in this case, my betting is that they will find that they’ve made some sort of minor error and we’ll be back to believing in Einstein as we have for more than 100 years.
KAPLAN: Let’s then talk about music and outer space. Now, as you know, the Voyager space-craft has been recording sounds that emanate from planets and various other phenomenon. Now, Voyager has not only been recording sounds, it has also been broadcasting music, classical music into outer space. Do you think there’s anybody out there listening?
REES: Well, of course, there may be people far away on planets orbiting other stars. I guess they can’t hear this music. But in fact, when Voyager was developed, there was this idea – I think spearheaded by Carl Sagan – that it would be nice to include in it some sort of memento of the earth so that if it were to be detected and picked up millions of years hence, then they would learn something about the civilization which sent it. And this message included some images to indicate what we look like, and what we were made of, etcetera, but also, a compilation of music. I don’t remember what was on it but there was certainly a Beethoven quartet and some Chuck Berry. I don’t know what else there was on it.
KAPLAN: If you had to pick a piece to introduce us to the people of the other world, not our world, what would it be?
REES: Well, I would perhaps choose my first choice for this program which is a work by Mendelssohn.
REES: This is Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings and what’s amazing is he wrote this when he was barely sixteen years old. And it’s an extraordinarily mature work, actually more mature than anything Mozart wrote at that age. And I choose this because it’s an amazingly sort of stimulating and engaging work, but also it’s one of the first classical pieces of music that I listened to. In fact, I bought an LP and I’m old enough that I’m the era of LPs not CDs and it’s one of the first that I bought. And I remember enjoying it and I remember the experience of hearing it live for the first time, when I went to university. And I think it’s a wonderful piece which really raises the spirits and I think we can hear one movement of it, I guess the scherzo.
KAPLAN: The scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, performed by the Emerson String Quartet, with each member over-dubbing to cover all eight parts, the first selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the eminent astronomer and currently the Astronomer Royal, serving as the personal astronomer to the Queen of England, Martin Rees. Now, I want to ask you about Astronomer Royal which is a term most American’s don’t know. What do you do as the personal astronomer for the Queen of England?
REES: Well, the duties are really minimal indeed. I would say they’re so exiguous I could continue posthumously to perform them. But the title actually dates back to 1675 when the Greenwich observatory was founded, and the director of that observatory was called the Astronomer Royal. And so it used to be a real job, but about fifty years ago the Greenwich observatory became a museum, because of course, the British climate is not optimal for doing astronomy; it rains and is cloudy a great deal and so we now use telescopes in places like Hawaii, Chile and the Canary Islands. And so fifty years ago, the title of Astronomer Royal was taken away from the Royal observatory and just given to a senior academic astronomer. And I’m an astronomer but my day-job, as it were, is Professor at Cambridge University.
KAPLAN: I see. All right, let’s talk about how music came into your life. Was there music at home? Did your parents bring music to you? Did you study an instrument?
REES: My parents were musical and I was, as it were, “put to the piano” as a fairly young child. I had very little skill and one memory I have is trying to play Chopin’s Polonaise in A which is a piece I’d heard played and liked very much and always getting stuck after the first few bars and making a mistake and I got so frustrated that that really made me feel I had no talent whatsoever as a potential pianist and I got very discouraged after that.
KAPLAN: I see. Well that piece by Chopin wasn’t one of your selections today, but because it was an important step in your musical life, let’s listen to this daunting work.
KAPLAN: Chopin’s Polonaise in A, the “Military” Polonaise, performed by Arthur Rubinstein, a work that my guest today on “Mad About Music,” astronomer Martin Rees struggled to play as a child. Now, several of the works you’ve picked today are choral works. Did you ever sing in a choir?
REES: I did actually sing in a choir but only as a treble, and since that time I’ve sung in very large concert choirs where individual voices are rather drowned. But I, again, I have no musical talent but I have in fact become interested in choral music, particularly in the last few years because I am extremely fortunate that I am the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge which is the biggest college in Cambridge University which has a beautiful chapel and an absolutely wonderful choir.
KAPLAN: I see, now one of the works is a selection sung by the Choir of Trinity College, a work by Stephen Paulus. Tell us about that.
REES: Well, one of the most recent CDs made by the choir was called “American A Cappella.” And this was a compilation of unaccompanied choral works by modern American composers. And I have to admit that I was not familiar with most of these composers, but they are really hauntingly beautiful. And our choir which has a very eclectic repertoire; they do this sort of thing, they do traditional English music, they do work by modern Baltic composers, they produced this CD which was a CD of the month for Gramophone Magazine and got all kinds of recognition. And they sing it beautifully and that’s why I chose one piece from it. I chose a piece by Stephen Paulus, “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” and this comes from an oratorio which he wrote on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, so it’s a fairly recent work, and again, it’s hauntingly beautiful.
KAPLAN: Stephen Paulus’s “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” performed by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and led by Stephen Layton, a selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the astronomer and astrophysicist, and the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, which provided the chorus for this recording, Martin Rees. When we return, we’ll continue to explore the musical tastes of astronomer, Martin Rees.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the widely acclaimed astronomer and cosmologist, Martin Rees. Let’s turn to the role of music in your life today. When you are working, trying to fathom the mystery of the cosmos, do you keep music on?
REES: I normally don’t actually, no. I think I tend to listen to it too attentively and it distracts me from my work so I really, haven’t really gotten into the sort of Muzak-style of having background music all the time.
KAPLAN: All right, now aside from the choir concerts at Cambridge University you mentioned before, do you make your way down to London for either opera or symphonic concerts?
REES: I go sometimes to symphonic concerts. The trouble with opera is that you’ve got to plan ahead so much and I’m afraid I tend only to go to Covent Garden or Glyndebourne, which are the leading opera centers in the UK, if someone else makes the arrangements or invites me. So I’m slightly parasitic in that sense because I’m not very good at organizing my diary in advance and of course for events like that you have to plan.
KAPLAN: All right, then let’s return to your music list and it’s another choral work, this time Fauré’s Requiem.
REES: Well this is of course one of the standard parts of the choral repertoire written by Fauré in the late 1880’s. And what’s surprising actually, I realized this recently, is that this work was not well-known until much later. It wasn’t performed in either Britain or in the United States until the 1930’s. And that’s astonishing – a forty year gap before this, now very familiar work, was known in our countries and of course it makes one wonder how many hidden masterpieces there are now which have been written and will only become appreciated forty years from now. But this is of course an absolutely wonderful work and I had to decide which particular segment I should suggest for this program and I went for the final segment, “In Paradisum,” which is an absolutely beautiful piece.
KAPLAN: “In Paradisum” from Fauré’s Requiem, performed by the New Philharmonia Orchestra with the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, with David Willcocks on the podium, a musical selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the eminent astronomer, Martin Rees. I want to continue our exploration of your musical tastes. You mentioned before that they were somewhat limited. Now, when Jeremy Knowles, who was then the Dean of Harvard was on the show; he was a professor of chemistry. He picked Bach and other baroque music and he said his experience was that scientists in general prefer these composers. Now, many of your choices today are romantic and sentimental, so do you regard yourself as a romantic?
REES: I suppose I am. I mean I do appreciate Bach but perhaps I appreciate less than other people the really early music. There is a sort of cult of early music on period instruments, etcetera, and I have to say that I would prefer to listen to more modern music on modern instruments and of course it’s been said that if Bach had known about the saxophone he’d have used it and if these composers had known about the modern Steinway grand they probably would have used it. So I must say I’m not much in sympathy with the idea of performing on period instruments when we can use modern instruments. And also I perhaps appreciate more the repertoire that has devised to use the power of those instruments to the full.
KAPLAN: Very good reply. Now, do you find that when you’re listening, is music an intellectual or more of an emotional experience for you? Does music ever bring you to tears?
REES: It certainly affects my mood very much and that’s why I like so much the Mendelssohn Octet that we started with because that unfailingly cheers me up. But of course Fauré’s Requiem is not intended to cheer you up and one would not choose that if one was perhaps feeling too depressed already. So I think one’s emotional state is affected very much by music.
KAPLAN: I’ve had some guests on this show who say they cry at almost every concert or opera that they go to. I mean, does it happen to you at all?
REES: It doesn’t really, no, but I think I nonetheless appreciate the concerts and I do appreciate the choral tradition which is very strong certainly in my country.
KAPLAN: All right, then let’s come back to your music list and I see Elgar is up next.
REES: Well, of course I choose him because he is the archetypal English composer and indeed, he’s sadly unrecognized beyond England. But he was really one of the composers who started to flourish at the end of the 19th century along with Stanford and Vaughn Williams and others. And interestingly, he had rather a hard slog in his early career. He only made a big hit when he was in his forties with Enigma Variations and Dream of Gerontius. And then, although he lived another thirty years, he’d become – he became a bit demoralized in his later years. So he really had a peak around, between 1900 and 1915 when he was extremely productive and widely appreciated. But the piece I’ve chosen actually is one which he wrote when he was slightly younger, before he was appreciated. And I pick Elgar for another reason actually, because he used to write his early works for performance at what’s called the Three Choirs Festival. And this was an annual festival which still exists which is spread between the choirs of three cathedrals in the western part of England; Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester. And that’s the part of the country I come from and that’s where Elgar himself came from, so that’s another affinity I have with Elgar. And the piece I’ve chosen is part of a set of songs called Sea Pictures which he wrote just before he achieved fame with Enigma and Gerontius. And I’ve chosen one of these, it’s called “Sabbath Morning at Sea,” and I think we are hearing it sung by Janet Baker, who of course is one of the greatest British mezzo-sopranos.
KAPLAN: An excerpt from “Sabbath Morning at Sea” from Elgar’s Sea Pictures, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with soloist, Janet Baker, and Vernon Handley on the podium, a selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the eminent astronomer, Martin Rees. When we return we’ll hear Martin Rees’ “wildcard” – a work that can be neither classical nor opera.
KAPLAN: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the award-winning astronomer, Martin Rees. Let’s talk about British composers because before you were talking about Elgar and how underappreciated he is. Now, some of my other British guests on this show including Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England and Lionel Barber, the Editor of the Financial Times, confessed that they didn’t especially take to British composers. In general, how do you think they stack up?
REES: Well, I suppose, to be honest, one would say that rather few of them are in the sort of world super-league. I think we go back to Purcell, more than 300 years ago and in more modern times, Benjamin Britten would be world-wide stars as it were. But I think the choral tradition exemplified by Stanford and Vaughn Williams probably is not fully internationally appreciated, nor is Elgar. So I think there is perhaps a special choral tradition in Britain and for that reason, in that area of composition, Britain ranks high. But I think it is true that we don’t have any of the really greatest composers who we can claim. We have been better at literature and perhaps at painting than we have as composers.
KAPLAN: And you’ve done fairly well in astronomy too.
REES: In science generally we’ve been pretty good, yes.
KAPLAN: All right, now are there any other mainstream composers, household names that you just don’t connect to?
REES: Well, regarding modern composers, I think I connect to rather few of them. Although, I have what is perhaps what is regarded as a slightly down-market taste in that I do very much admire people like Pärt, the Estonian, and Tavener, whose works are tuneful and accessible. But I would never be a fan of serial music or the less accessible 20th and 21st century composers.
KAPLAN: Now, one British composer you didn’t pick is Gustav Holst who of course is the famous composer of The Planets. I’m sure you know that work very well. Do you go out of your way to listen to music which is inspired by the cosmos?
REES: I don’t think so. There isn’t a great deal actually. There is of course Holst’s Planets and I should have mentioned him perhaps in the same breath as I mentioned some of the other British composers. I think it’s the case that Beethoven claimed to have been inspired by looking up at the sky when he wrote one of his “Razumovsky” Quartets but apart from that it’s not easy to think of explicit inspirations that composers have claimed from looking up at the sky.
KAPLAN: All right, we now come to that part of the show we call the “wildcard” and I’ve tried to prepare you for this, that you have a chance to play music that is not classical, not opera. In fact, you have to. We’ve had wonderful selections – all over the place from rock music to world music to jazz. So, what did you bring us today?
REES: Well I brought something which actually is not very eclectic and probably very familiar indeed. It’s the theme music to the film Chariots of Fire by Vangelis and it’s a very familiar piece. And I choose this really for two reasons; the theme of the film you remember was the Olympics in 1924 but one of the important scenes was a race around the Great Court of Trinity College by the two main protagonists. And I work in Trinity College and I look out over Great Court every morning, and that is the place where this race was run and where every year our first year students run the same race. And the aim of the race is to go all round this court which is about 400 yards altogether, while the clock is striking 12:00. The clock actually strikes twice and so the total chimes last for more than forty seconds so it’s not impossible to complete this. It’s been done on a few occasions. So that’s a parochial reason why I’m familiar with Chariots of Fire, but another reason why I choose this is that the producer, David Puttnam is someone who I’ve had the privilege of getting to know, because apart from his wonderful films, Chariots of Fire, The Mission, and others, he is now very active in this country in politics and education. So he’s someone who is a real idealist who I hugely admire. So it’s the connection with Trinity College’s Great Court and the connection with David Puttnam which makes me want to choose this music. But one doesn’t need any reason like that to enjoy this wonderful piece of music, which is generally accepted as one of the best film scores ever.
KAPLAN: It’s ironic in a way that although your office overlooks the Great Court, it was not in that Great Court that the race was filmed for the movie, I understand but more in Eton College.
REES: Yes, that is true and whenever I see David Puttnam I’m embarrassed by this. I was not in Trinity College at that time but I understand what happened was that the members of Trinity College thought that the college staff and the then College Master came out rather badly, and they were rather worried about the impression that would be given if they agreed to this. I’m not sure exactly the reason for their unhappiness but it’s certainly the case that the then Master of the College is portrayed by John Gielgud as a rather unattractive and anti-Semitic character and I think the college was slightly worried about that impression being given. Their decision I think was rather foolish but it’s too late to change it now when the deed, as you say, the actual film was done in Eton College which has a courtyard – not quite as big as the Trinity one but adequate for the purpose.
KAPLAN: The soundtrack from the movie, Chariots in Fire, performed by Vangelis, the “wildcard” selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the astronomer, Martin Rees, who serves as the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, the scene of the Great Court Run depicted in the film, even though it was later filmed in Eton College. Now, I can’t find a real connection to music – usually a requirement for me on this show by what I’m about to ask you, but I do find it so intriguing to ask you about your “doomsday” forecasts. In interviews I’ve seen you described as a prophet of doom predicting that the Earth certainly will be gone in about a billion years, due to cosmological forces but more significantly, that there’s only a 50-50 chance that we’ll even survive the rest of the century due to human acts. What about all that?
REES: Yes, I’m not quite as gloomy as that. It’s true that the Earth itself won’t survive the death of the Sun which will happen in a few billion years. But I did write a book which I called “Our Final Century?” – with a question mark. My publishers in Britain took away the question mark and the American publishers changed the title to “Our Final Hour” – so I guess you Americans want instant gratification and the reverse. But that book, it wasn’t quite as gloomy as you implied, it didn’t say that we were going to wipe ourselves out by this century. But I did think that the chance of some severe setback to our civilization, between now and the end of the century was probably 50 percent; something like a nuclear war, some biomedical disaster or something else due to misuse of technology. And I do think that we are vulnerable because we are – I do think we are vulnerable because we are placing greater pressures on the planet, because there are more of us, each of us more demanding of resources and energy, and this is putting pressure on the environment and also we are more empowered by technology to the extent that even a small dissident group or disaffected individual can cause tremendous disruption in our interconnected world. So I did emphasize that there are going to be difficulties in insuring that we don’t have severe setbacks to our civilization in the years to come. But I don’t think we’ll wipe ourselves out. I think that’s very unlikely.
KAPLAN: All right, well after that less than gloomy forecast, we better get back to music, especially for inspiration and we come to your final selection, one of Richard Strauss’s stunning last songs.
REES: Well, I had several reasons for suggesting this. We started off with Mendelssohn who was hugely creative and talented in his early youth and, of course, it’s often said that scientists do their best work when they’re young and that’s true to some extent. But if they keep going, keep their determination, scientists can continue on a plateau – as it were, but some composers of course go on, and indeed often their best works are their latest. And they have a deep internal development and their works get deeper as they get old. And perhaps an extreme example of this is Richard Strauss who of course started fairly young with his Horn Concerto in his early twenties, but one of his greatest works, in my opinion, was written when he was eighty-four years old; the famous Four Last Songs. And I think he’s a remarkable example of someone of sustained creativity for over sixty years and of course an inspiration to those of us who are wondering if one day we’ll be able to go on into our 70s and our 80s.
KAPLAN: “Beim Schlafengehn” (Upon Going to Sleep), one of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, sung here by soprano Renée Fleming, with the Houston Symphony led by Christoph Eschenbach, the final selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the eminent astronomer, Martin Rees. Now, in describing the reason you picked this work you said it demonstrated the capacity of people to continue to produce wonderful things, even at a late stage in their life. Now, you wondered about yourself. Now, you’ll turn seventy next year, and do you think some of your greatest achievements are still in front of you?
REES: I would like to think so but realistically, probably not. Certainly not my main scientific achievements but I would give myself the excuse that that’s partly because I have diversified my energies into doing politics, administration, popular writing, lecturing, etc., and perhaps, if I had stayed focused on research, I could have kept going.
KAPLAN: Well, I understand what you feel are the limitations now of cracking big, big solutions, but if you could name one mystery, which would be the highest on your list to solve, if you could do it, what would that be? Is there something like that?
REES: Well, there are lots of things that I’d like to know. It’s amazing what we’ve learnt about the universe in recent decades. One discovery that certainly grabs our big imagination has been realizing that many of the other stars have planets orbiting around them, just like the Sun has the familiar planets, including the Earth. This has been discovered just in the last fifteen years or so and this is one of the fastest developing areas of astronomy. It’s quite fascinating. But of course, the question everyone then asks is: is there any life on any of these other worlds? And I would really like, very much before I die, to know the answer to that question.
KAPLAN: So sometimes science fiction can become real and maybe that’s a good segue-way into the last section of our show called “fantasyland” where every guest is called upon to reveal a fantasy – a musical fantasy. And the question is always the same, that if you could be a superstar – not to use a pun with you – if you could be really famous as a musician, would you like to be a composer, a conductor, finish that piano, play the violin, another instrument? What would it be?
REES: I think I would like to be a composer, indeed I’d probably like to be a composer more than anything else because your work then is durable and as compared to being a performer. A composer is judged posthumously by their best work, whereas performers are often judged by their latest performances. And so I think to be a composer would be my summit but of course since I can’t even play the piano properly it’s not an aspiration that I’ve ever had.
KAPLAN: Well, these are supposed to be fantasies and -
REES: But I think my second fantasy would be to follow your example and be a conductor.
KAPLAN: Well, we can’t have any more competition in that field. Martin Rees, you’ve been a superb guest, relating music a bit to the cosmos for us and for sharing the music that touches you so personally. Thank you for appearing today. This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”
“Mad About Music”
Gilbert Kaplan, Executive Producer
Heidi Bryson, Producer
Marcela Silva, Associate Producer
Leszek Wojcik, Recording Engineer