TOM LEHRER – Mathematician and Musical Satirist, by Stewart Hendrickson

Sometime in the late 1970s there was a student/faculty talent show at St. Olaf College where I taught chemistry. My colleague Dewayne Wee, a piano professor in the music department, and I decided to perform a song. We wanted to look very professional and appear musically cultured, so we dressed in formal tuxedos. Dwayne sat down at the grand piano, and I stood beside it and began to sing a beautiful love song:

I hold your hand in mine dear
I press it to my lips
[a lovely beginning…]
I take a healthy bite from your dainty fingertips
[a bit weird, but…]
my joy would be complete dear
if you were only here
[why would she not be here if I’m holding her hand?…]
but still I keep your hand as a precious souvenir
[what? a few chuckles from the audience…]
the night you died I cut it off
I really don’t know why
[what happened to this lovely love song? ]
[more laughter…]
for now each time I kiss it
I get blood stains on my tie.
[uproarious laughter from the audience…]
I’m sorry now I killed you
For our love was something fine!
Until they come to get me
I shall hold your hand in mine!

Few students in the 1970s were aware of Tom Lehrer, and this came as a complete  surprise.

Tom Lehrer, born in 1928, grew up in New York City’s Upper East Side. He will turn 91 in April of this year. He began classical piano lessons at age seven, but was more interested in popular music and began writing show tunes. He obtained a MA in mathematics at Harvard University and continued there as a PhD graduate student. During those years he began to write and perform comical songs to entertain his fellow students.

In 1959 Lehrer performed at Harvard what he called a “completely pointless” song. The Elements sets the names of all the elements known at that time to the tune of the Major-General’s Song from the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. In rapid fire he precisely enunciated each of the 102 elements with perfect end rhymes. The song ends with the lines, “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard / And there may be many others but they haven’t been discarvard.” His completely flawless performance can’t be repeated by many others.

In 1953 Lehrer released his first album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, recorded in a single one-hour session at the TransRadio studio in Boston. It included such songs as The Old Dope Peddler, Be Prepared (the Boy Scouts’ Marching Song), Lobachevsky (a nineteenth century Russian mathematician), When You Are Old And Gray, I Hold Your Hand In Mine, and The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz. The New York Times review said, “Mr. Lehrer’s muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” His wit and irreverent social satire hit a note with many in the United States. Songs such as Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and The Old Dope Peddler  illustrate his ability to satirize the cultural norms of society. Poisoning Pigeons in the Park:

During the cold war in the 1950s and ‘60s Lehrer turned his satire and cynical outlook to political songs such as So Long Mom, I’m Off to Drop The Bomb, and We Will All Go Together When We GoWe Will All Go Together When We Go:

In the rousing song Wernher von Braun – the former Nazi who designed the V-2 rocket in World War II and later became a key engineer in the US Apollo program and a grotesque US hero – Lehrer wrote: “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?/ ‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” Lehrer was a guy who crunched numbers for the National Security Agency as a draftee in the mid 1950s. Wernher von Braun:

There was a connection between his mathematical studies, which began as a prodigy math student at Harvard at the young age of fourteen, and his earlier musical studies, which progressed from classical to popular music. He summed this up in an interview in 2000: “The logical mind, the precision, is the same that’s involved in math as in lyrics… It’s like a puzzle, to write a song.” As the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, one of the builders of the atomic bomb, said, rhyming “forces novel associations… and becomes a sort of automatic mechanism of originality.”

As his fame as a performer spread by word of mouth – radio stations refused to play his ‘controversial’ material – he began to consider abandoning academia and beginning a career in music. After returning to Harvard from touring in 1960 he resumed his thesis work, but concluded he had nothing original to contribute to academic mathematics. As he wrote in his song Lobachevesky, named after a nineteenth century Russian mathematician: “Plagiarize! / Let no one else’s work evade your eyes! /… So don’t shade your eyes, / But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize- / Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.” He dropped his graduate studies and taught mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961, and at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 1972 – also teaching classes in musical theater – until he retired in 2001. Lobachevsky:

Lehrer largely gave up song writing and public performances in the early 1970s. Following the award of a Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973, he said “Political satire became obsolete.” Later he remarked: “Things I once thought were funny are scary now. I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”

Will there ever again be a musical satirist like Lehrer? I don’t know, I can’t think of anyone in current times.



One thought on “TOM LEHRER – Mathematician and Musical Satirist, by Stewart Hendrickson”

  1. The Lehrernerds will be reprising Tom’s songs again this year at Folklife. Come and see us at the Cornish Courtyard on Sunday (May 26th), 3 to 3:50 pm for a therapeutic sing-a-long! The outpatients will be out in force.

    Great article by the way.

    Wayne Palsson, Dan Roberts, Philip Boulding, and Kelley Kenison

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