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William Herschel Is Famous for Science. What About His Music?


Nevertheless, Herschel was unwilling to entertain a move to the busy but musically competitive London. So, after a transient stint as organist of Halifax Parish Church in West Yorkshire — based on Miller, he informed the panel in his audition that he had already accepted a greater offer elsewhere — he moved to Bath in 1776, entering a city of emergent upper-class sophistication, with a budding mental scene and the newly built Octagon Chapel, from which Herschel constructed a small musical empire built around oratorio performances and subscription concert events.

Several years earlier, William’s sister Caroline had followed her brothers to England. Accounts of her story also obscure her early musical interest. The primary woman to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the primary published woman to publish scientific research and the primary female scientist to receive a salary, Caroline moved to England after an intervention from her brother — to rid her from a lifetime of household drudgery following the death of their father — and commenced 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 considered one of the 4 liberal arts of the quadrivium, alongside arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. With the help 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 identical autodidactic zeal employed when learning English through the dense texts of John Locke. And considered one of his first homemade Newtonian reflector telescopes led to a change that will turn Herschel into an overnight celebrity: the invention, in March 1781, of Uranus, which he initially believed to be one other 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 big pay cut from his profitable music business, but Herschel nevertheless abandoned music to focus his gaze on the heavens. Because the Herschels moved to Slough to be closer to the king, the telescopes got greater, the surveys more ambitious and the celebrity more intense.

Although Herschel’s musical compositions had ground to a halt with the move, there’s mystery surrounding his relationship with Haydn, who visited the observatory in June 1792. In “Essays in Musical Evaluation,” classic volumes from the Thirties, Sir Donald Tovey concluded that searching through Herschel’s famed 40-foot telescope provided the cosmic inspiration for the famous opening of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation.” The issue: Records show that Herschel was out of town on the time. But perhaps Caroline, at this point his trusted assistant, could have ushered Haydn toward his moment of clarity?

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