- Liz Publika
The Mathematical Elements That Comprise the Awesome Satirical Songs of Tom Lehrer
The immeasurably witty mathematician, satirist, balladeer, and educator Tom Lehrer was born in New York in 1928. Growing up on the Upper East Side, he was drawn to songwriting in his teens and attempted to learn to play classical music on the piano; but, after failing to respond to his training, the amateur musician switched to the study of popular music. He was recognized as a child prodigy and entered Harvard College at just 14-years old, where he wrote and performed humorous songs for his friends, while somehow managing to make time for his studies.
“In 1950, he teamed up with four other musically-inclined members of the university community to form a singing group. One of the group's members taught a freshman physics course, and the quintet put on a performance for the benefit of the students in that course.” The group performed “The Elements” — where Lehrer listed the elements (not necessarily in order) to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major General" — a song he casually referred to as “completely pointless.” Despite that, it is now one of his most cherished works.
Lehrer began recording music in 1953. He rented the Transradio Studio in Boston for $15 dollars, where he completed his first album Songs by Tom Lehrer that was released in the early part of 1953. Four hundred LPs were made at Lehrer’s expense and were sold for $3.50 each. Although U.S. radio stations refused to play the “controversial” material, Lehrer’s fame spread by word of mouth. While all of this was happening, the teen was still a graduate student, who had successfully published at least one technical math paper.
Despite a lack of radio play, Lehrer was able to sell his music around the Harvard campus, which caused its popularity to grow slowly but steadily. Soon, it even attracted nationwide attention. Of course, Lehrer, was still rather surprised when a large number of orders came in from San Francisco, which — as it turned out — was the result of Herb Caen (1916 - 1997), a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, giving his album a rave review. Eventually, Songs by Tom Lehrer, sold 350,000 copies and was distributed by RCA.
“He then decided to leave Harvard in 1953 to work for the technical firm Baird-Atomic.” Lehrer had to put his music career on hold when, in 1955, he was drafted into the army, where he spent the following two years serving as an enlisted soldier despite having completed his master’s degree before joining. He exited the army in 1957 resumed his musical career almost immediately, releasing his second album, More of Tom Lehrer — based on his concert, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer — in 1959. It sold almost as well as his first.
Lehrer “toured the United States and the English-speaking world to entertain his audiences with new songs, interspersed with acerbic commentary.” Although he earned an unexpected fan, Britain’s Princess Margaret, and the game-changing support of BBC, he also managed to get bored. Lehrer returned to Harvard by 1960, aiming to complete a long-standing mathematics PhD on modes in statistics. He ended up being a “graduate student at Harvard for a total of ten years and at Columbia for one year.”
Lehrer began teaching mathematics at MIT's Political Science Department in 1962. He completed all of the work that was required for his degree, except for the dissertation, by 1965. It was around this time that he became the resident songwriter for the show That Was the Week That Was. Even though his music was heavily featured in it, Lehrer did not appear on the show. Then, in 1971, he became a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where taught until his retirement in 2001.
His work as a math teacher, however, did not stop Lehrer from performing his music; the British magazine The Spectator reported in 1998 that Lehrer had made "109 concert appearances" over the course of his career. Lehrer seems to be aware of the connection between his mathematical training and his compositions. “The logical mind, the precision, is the same that’s involved in math as in lyrics,” he said in an interview back in 2000. “It’s like a puzzle, to write a song.”
Although Thomas Lehrer largely gave up songwriting and public performing in the early 1970s, his work undoubtedly remains as some of the most original and mathematically elegant American art to come out in the twentieth century. Take a look below.