In the square opening of William Herschel’s Symphony No. 8 is a phrase that sounds like one of Bridgerton’s finely re-orchestrated pop songs. The first violins play a driving, syncopated refrain as the harmony tumbles beneath and glides to resolution before merging into a grand second subject. It’s an outstanding moment and a catchy tune.
That is, if you ever get a chance to hear it.
“William Herschel (1738-1822) discovered Uranus, infrared radiation and moons of Saturn. But until he was 44, he was also a tireless freelance musician.”
When people talk about Herschel (1738-1822) today, it’s probably not because of his music. He is better known in the scientific world as a respected astronomer, known for the discovery of Uranus, infrared radiation, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Mimas; for the idea that stars are born and die like other living things; and for a rigorous approach to cataloging the night sky at its celestial curves, which initiated a method for conducting scientific research.
“He was the Einstein of his time, said Sarah Waltz, associate professor of music history at the University of the Pacific in California. But of course Herschel was much better at music than Einstein.”
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Herschel’s death and an opportunity to explore his musical life. The range of works extant today – 24 symphonies, a dozen concertos, the same number of violin sonatas, six published harpsichord sonatas, music for church services – suggests that he was no compositional moron.
But in the crowded market of 18th-century symphonies, does it stand out among the dominant works of Mozart and Haydn? Gramophone critic Stanley Sadie reviewed one of the few commercial recordings of Herschel’s compositions and wrote that this was not Music of the Spheres, lamenting its structural predictability and erratic modulation.
Perhaps, however, composing was one of many tools in the arsenal of a talented and successful freelance musician who plied his craft until he was 44. He was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1738, the son of an oboist who directed the city’s military band. Intellectual curiosity was encouraged in the family, with William and his brother Jacob engaging in lengthy musical debates on the fringes of their correspondence. William learned oboe, violin and organ and followed his father into the band. But when war with France loomed in 1757, he fled to England.
In the early 1760s Herschel worked as a teacher, composer, performer and impresario throughout northern England. Although he later became a regular organist, his contemporary Edward Miller noted his particular talent on the violin: never before had we heard the concertos of Corelli, Geminiani and Avison, or the overtures of Haydn, performed more chastely, or more chastely according to the composers’ intentions, than by Mr. Herschel.
Herschel was not entirely content with a freelance life. From one place to the next; from one social circle to another; from one lifestyle to another; What an unbearable state! he wrote in 1761. A paper trace of his many movements exists almost by accident, with most of his symphonies giving the exact places of their composition: Pontefract, Leeds, Sunderland, Richmond.
However, Herschel was unwilling to move to busy but musically competitive London. After a brief stint as organist at Halifax Parish Church in West Yorkshire, Miller said he told the body at his audition that he had already accepted a better offer elsewhere when he moved to Bath in 1776 and entered a city of the burgeoning upper class sophistication, with a burgeoning intellectual scene and the newly built Octagon Chapel from which Herschel built a small musical empire built around oratorio performances and subscription concerts.
A few years earlier, William’s sister Caroline had followed her brothers to England. Accounts of her history also obscure her early interest in music. The first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first published woman to publish scientific research and the first woman scientist to be paid a salary, Caroline moved to England after her brother freed her from a life of household drudgery after her father’s death and began taking singing lessons, eventually becoming the resident soprano in Williams oratorio performances, at a time when family performances were in vogue.
Herschel believed that music was one of the four liberal arts of the quadrivium, along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. With the help of two 18th-century books by Cambridge scholar Robert Smith, Harmonics and A Complete System of Opticks, he began to study astronomy with the same self-taught zeal with which he learned English from the dense texts of John Locke. And one of his first homemade Newtonian reflecting telescopes brought about a change that would make Herschel an overnight celebrity: the discovery of Uranus in March 1781, which he initially thought was another comet. Herschel humbly named this planet Georgium Sidus to the delight of King George III, who later offered him a salary with the title of Royal Astronomer.
The position involved a large pay cut from his profitable music business, but Herschel quit music nonetheless to keep his eyes on the sky. As the Herschels moved to Slough to be closer to the king, the telescopes got bigger, the surveys more ambitious and the fame more intense.
Although Herschel’s musical compositions had come to a standstill with the move, there is some mystery surrounding his relationship with Haydn, who visited the observatory in June 1792. In Essays in Musical Analysis, classic volumes from the 1930s, Sir Donald Tovey concluded that the need to look through Herschel’s famous 40-foot telescope provided the cosmic inspiration for the famous opening of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. The problem: Records show Herschel was out of town at the time. But perhaps Caroline, his trusted assistant at the time, could have guided Haydn to his moment of clarity?
Waltz, the music historian, and Woody Sullivan, astronomy professor at the University of Washington, are currently working on a critical Herschel biography that combines science with music.
‘“We’re trying to remind people that a musician in this era isn’t necessarily a composer first, the way we think of them today,” Waltz said. They composed as part of the package.”
Much like Herschel’s groundbreaking studies of the heavens, studying his life requires starting with the big picture and then adding detail bit by bit.
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