Einstein’s Piano


– Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Amid all the celebrations and conferences, it is easy to forget about the real human being who actually did it. But if you live in Princeton, and his piano is in your living room, he is always present.

Everyone thinks of Einstein musically as a violinist. At six, he took lessons and proved to be a talented pupil. After he became famous, he willingly gave benefit concerts on the best stages in the world. He sometimes said that if he had not chosen scholarship, he would have become a musician.

His love for music was nurtured from the cradle. His mother Pauline was a pianist and brought music into his family. On his violin he played solely the work of others — preferably Mozart, Bach, Corelli and Schubert. His musical mentors stopped somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century.

But while playing the piano, he was daydreaming. There are many stories about Einstein, and who knows which are true. But one of them is that while improvising at his piano, he daydreamed about his relativity theory. Music and mathematics came from the same wellspring in his brain.

Einstein purchased his Bechstein grand piano when he lived in Berlin. He often played music at home with his friends. When he left for America in 1933, fleeing from the Nazis, he shipped his piano. I imagine it bobbing across the ocean in his wake.

In Princeton, he put the piano in his small white at 112 Mercer Street. Here his friends and colleagues would often gather to make music. After Einstein died in 1955, and later his stepdaughter Margot died in 1986, the Bechstein might have gathered dust someplace. But a generous patron took —> Read More