Herschel: Symphony no 13 in D major

Many scientists no doubt enjoy music as a pastime but it must be rare for a
professional musician’s scientific hobby to crowd out his music-making
completely. But this was the case with William Herschel, after his celebrated
discovery of Uranus in 1781. The identification of the first planet since ancient
times changed Herschel’s life entirely. He called it ‘Georgium sidus’ in honour
of George III. Uranus soon became a more popular alternative, particularly
overseas, but the original name helped curry royal favour for Herschel. A year
later he was given a £200 annual stipend by the king, on condition he moved
close to Windsor so the royal family could look through his super-strong
telescopes. He was also made the ‘King’s astronomer’. The more venerable title
of astronomer royal had been held by Nevil Maskelyne since 1765. The latter,
heavily involved in developing navigational aids such as longitude, only died in
1811. Herschel, by then an elderly and revered man, did not succeed but he was
knighted in 1816.
At the time of his planetary discovery, Herschel was living in Bath, principally
as organist for the Octagon chapel in the fashionable spa town. Many visitors
preferred to worship at more salubrious buildings than the dark and sombre
abbey. Rather like Bach in his various Kappelmeister positions, Herschel’s job
was to provide music for the services and other occasions, some of which he
had written himself. However, for much of his time in the town he had been
increasingly distracted by astronomy. He had made numerous large telescopes
and in the decade leading up to his discovery, he viewed the night skies as often
as the weather would allow, with his sister Caroline helping him record
Much of his music was written prior to his arrival in Bath. At his debut
performance at the Octagon chapel in 1767 his violin concerto, oboe concerto
and harpsichord sonata were played. His symphonies, including this example,
had also been composed before this date too, in the early 1760s when he was
living in the north east of England. In all he wrote 24. Herschel had arrived in
England from Hanover in 1757 with his elder brother Jakob. Both had been
musicians, like their father. all were oboists for military bands in the German
state, which was then ruled by Britain’s George II. England was seen as a safer
spot for the boys to be as the conflict that became known as the Seven Years
War flared up. However, whilst Jakob later returned to Hanover, William did
not and he was only forgiven for deserting his regiment by George III after
taking up his royal post in 1782. As a young German speaker Herschel was
forced to concentrate on his family profession, with some success, although
correspondence to his brother shows he was devoted to scientific research from
an early age. It is not surprising that Herschel is better known for his
astronomical work than his music, which whilst highly competent is not
particularly outstanding. Workmanlike is not an unfair description.
This symphony is typical of its genre and reminiscent of similar pieces by
Johan Christoph Bach, son of Johan Sebastian. The younger Bach was in
London in 1762 after a successful period in Italy. However, his style faded from
popularity in the 1770s, as presumably did Herschel’s works of the same
period. After the opening theme, a change of mood temporarily takes over in
the first movement before quickly resolving itself and returning to the original.
The second movement is a statelier dance before the jolly mood returns for the
final movement. Herschel made music for a living but his real passion was
astronomy. Once he was able to devote himself full time to the stars, and
making telescopes, he did not return to full time music-making.