Within the four-square opening of William Herschel’s Symphony No. 8 is a phrase that sounds like one of the delicately reorchestrated pop songs in “Bridgerton.” The first violins play a goading, syncopated refrain as the harmony lurches underneath, slithering to a resolution before launching into grand second subject. It’s a standout moment, and an earworm.
That is, if you ever get the opportunity to hear it.
If Herschel (1738-1822) is talked about today, it’s probably not for his music. He’s better remembered in the world of science, as a distinguished astronomer notable for discovering 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 on his sweeps of the skies that set in motion a method of conducting scientific research.
“He was the Einstein of his time,” said Sarah Waltz, an associate professor of music history at University of the Pacific in California. “But of course, Herschel was much better at music than Einstein was.”
This year is the bicentennial of Herschel’s death, and an occasion to explore his musical life. The range of works that survive today — 24 symphonies, a dozen concertos, the same number of violin sonatas, six published harpsichord sonatas, music for church services — suggests he was no compositional slouch.
But does he stand out in the crowded marketplace of 18th-century symphonies, among the reigning works of Mozart and Haydn? Assessing one of the few commercial recordings of Herschel’s compositions, the Gramophone critic Stanley Sadie wrote that this is “no music of the spheres,” and bemoaned its structural predictability and lurching modulations.
Perhaps, though, composing was one of many tools in the arsenal of a talented and successful freelance musician who plied his trade until the age of 44. He had been born in Hanover, Germany, in 1738, the son of an oboist who led that city’s military band. Intellectual curiosity was encouraged in the family, with William and his brother Jacob engaging in detailed musical debates in the margins of their correspondences. William learned to play the oboe, violin and organ, and followed his father into the band. But, as war with France loomed in 1757, he fled to England.
In the early 1760s, Herschel worked as a teacher, composer, performer and impresario across northern England. Although he would later be regularly employment as an organist, his contemporary and peer 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 according to the intention of the composers than by Mr Herschel.”
Herschel’s was not entirely happy with a freelancer’s life. “From one place to another; from one social circle to another; from one lifestyle to another; —— what an intolerable condition!” he wrote in 1761. A paper trail of his many movements exists almost by accident, with most of his symphonies including the precise locations of their composition: Pontefract, Leeds, Sunderland, Richmond.
However, Herschel was unwilling to entertain a move to the busy but musically competitive London. So, after a brief stint as organist of Halifax Parish Church in West Yorkshire — according to Miller, he informed the panel in his audition that he had already accepted a better offer elsewhere — he moved to Bath in 1776, entering a city of emergent upper-class sophistication, with a budding intellectual scene and the newly built Octagon Chapel, from which Herschel constructed a small musical empire built around oratorio performances and subscription concerts.
Several years earlier, William’s sister Caroline had followed her brothers to England. Accounts of her story also obscure her early musical interest. The first woman to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first published woman to publish scientific research and the first female scientist to receive a salary, Caroline moved to England after an intervention from her brother — to rid her from a life of household drudgery following the death of their father — and began to take singing lessons, eventually becoming the resident soprano in William’s oratorio performances, at a time when performing families were in fashion.
Herschel believed that music belonged as one of the four liberal arts of the quadrivium, alongside arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. With the aid of two 18th-century books by the Cambridge scholar Robert Smith — “Harmonics” and “A Compleat System of Opticks” — he began to tackle astronomy with the same autodidactic zeal employed when learning English through the dense texts of John Locke. And one of his first homemade Newtonian reflector telescopes brought about a change that would turn Herschel into an overnight celebrity: the discovery, in March 1781, of Uranus, which he initially believed to be another comet. Herschel obsequiously named that planet Georgium Sidus to the delight of King George III, who later offered him a salary with the title of “the King’s Astronomer.”
The position involved taking a large pay cut from his profitable music business, but Herschel nevertheless abandoned music to focus his gaze on the heavens. As the Herschels moved to Slough to be closer to the king, the telescopes got bigger, the surveys more ambitious and the celebrity more intense.
Although Herschel’s musical compositions had ground to a halt with the move, there is 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 looking through Herschel’s famed 40-foot telescope provided the cosmic inspiration for the famous opening of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation.” The problem: Records show that Herschel was out of town at the time. But perhaps Caroline, at this point his trusted assistant, could have ushered Haydn toward his moment of clarity?
Waltz, the music historian, and Woody Sullivan, an astronomy professor from the University of Washington, are currently undertaking a critical biography of Herschel that combines science with music.
“We’re trying to remind people that a musician at this time period is not necessarily a composer first, the way that we think of them today,” Waltz said. “They were composing as part of the package.”
Much like Herschel’s pathbreaking surveys of the heavens, studying his life requires starting with the big picture, then adding details, piece by piece.
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