For Stephen Hawking on his 75th birthday.

  • 8S+6A+5T+7B
  • 4 min
    • 25th October 2022, Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, United States of America
    • 11th November 2022, Trinitatis Kirke, Copenhagen, Denmark
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Programme Note

Premiered by Gonville and Caius College Choir conducted by Geoffrey Webber at a private dinner to celebrate Professor Stephen Hawking's 75th Birthday on 15th May 2017, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. It was performed again at Professor Hawing's funeral at Great St. Mary's Church, Cambridge, on 31st March 2018.

In May 2017, Gonville & Caius College Cambridge presented Professor Stephen Hawking with a specially-commissioned space-themed piece of music, composed by a Caian and performed by the College's choir, to mark his 75th birthday. Prof Hawking, a Fellow of Caius for 52 years, welcomed the gift, saying the piece - inspired partly by NASA space recordings - "captured the vastness of space” and helped him understand what makes the universe exist.

The cosmologist, who celebrated his 75th birthday earlier this year, heard the world première of the ethereal choral work, Beyond the Night Sky, at a celebratory dinner in the College Hall. To mark the milestone birthday, Caius commissioned composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 36, a former music student at Caius, to write a piece of music to be performed by the Choir of Gonville & Caius, taking the universe as its theme.

Cheryl, who attended a specialist music school and had not even taken a science GCSE, threw herself into research, reading Prof Hawking’s famous book A Brief History of Time and recruiting a theoretical cosmologist at Caius to help her understand some of the complex ideas underlying the text. She also spoke to Prof Hawking’s daughter, the writer Lucy Hawking, to learn more about his preferred style of music.

In search of lyrical inspiration, Cheryl found a short yet beautiful children’s poem, Universe, by the American poet Stephen Schnur. She interposed lines of the poem, which describes how "indigo darkness like velvet embraces the farthest reaches of the mind”, with questions from A Brief History about the nature of the universe. The resulting four-minute composition, sung by the College’s world-renowned mixed choir under the direction of Dr Geoffrey Webber, is an ethereal work full of evocative harmonies and textures (including whistling and 'shh' sounds inspired by listening to NASA's recordings of space) that seeks to convey a musical sense of wonder in the face of a seemingly infinite universe.

Scientific thought both ancient and cutting-edge influences the music, with harmonies altering as if affected by gravitational waves one minute, and the rapid-fire singing of 'Everything' (at many different speeds by the members of the choir) being inspired by Newton's theory of corpuscular light.

In the last section of the piece Cheryl also hid two (only slightly altered) quotes from Happy Birthday, sung to Professor Hawking's words as a nod to Stephen's famous sense of humour.

© Lucy Ward