William Herschel



Symphony No. 14 in D major

for strings, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns, (timp), harpsichord
‘Leeds aprill the 14th 1762’
1. Allegro assai
2. Andante
3. Adagio – Allegretto

Symphony No. 8 in C minor

for strings
‘Sunderland in the county of Durh: apprill 20th 1761’
1. Allegro assai
2. [Andante]
3. Presto assai

Symphony No. 2 in D major

for strings, bassoon, harpsichord
‘Richmond Sept 1760’
1. Allegro
2. Adagio ma non molto
3. Allegro

Symphony No. 12 in D major

for strings, 2 oboes, 2 horns, (bassoon), harpsichord
‘Pontefract in Yorkshire Decemb. 1st 1761’
1. Allegro assai
2. Andante non molto
3. Allegro assai

Symphony No. 17 in C major

for strings, 2 oboes, (bassoon), 2 horns, (timp), harpsichord
‘Pontefract in Yorkshire july 3d 1762’
1. Allegro
2. Adagio ma non troppo
3. Allegro assai

Symphony No. 13 in D major

for strings, 2 flutes, 2 horns, harpsichord
‘Pontefract in Yorkshire march 24th 1762’
1. Allegro assai
2. Andante non molto
3. Allegro assai

Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was born in Hannover (in north-western Germany) on 15 November 1738. His father Isaak (1707–1767), a violinist and oboist in the infantry band there, gave his four surviving sons a basic musical education and sent them to the garrison school. Wilhelm left it in 1752, and a year later joined the Hannover Guards as a violinist and oboist like his father. From an early age he showed an interest in mathematical and scientific matters, particularly astronomy, which was later to bring him world-wide fame. With the outbreak of the Seven Years War in April 1756, Wilhelm and his older brother Jacob, as members of the Hannover Guards, were posted to England (as a precaution against a possible attack by the French) which quickly aroused in Wilhelm an interest in English ways that was to last to the end of his long life. By the time they returned to Germany in the autumn, the soldier’s life had lost its appeal for Wilhelm, and his father managed to secure his release from military service, owing to the fact that he had never been sworn in (he was not a deserter, as early biographies asserted).

Later in 1756 Wilhelm returned to England with Jacob (an organist and composer). Wilhelm found work as a music copyist; Jacob took on a few private pupils but went back to Hannover in 1759. Seeing little future in London, Wilhelm decided to ‘try for better success in the country’. Later the same year he became the director of the band of the Durham militia, and two years later, having failed to secure the directorship of concerts in Edinburgh, he moved to Newcastle, where he directed concerts in a pleasure garden. From there he moved to Pontefract and early in 1763 became director of the subscription concerts in Leeds. He made a brief visit to Hannover in April 1764. In March 1766 he was appointed organist of the church of St John the Baptist in Halifax, but became involved in disputes over the building of a new organ and the running of the ‘Messiah Club’. He left Halifax after only three months, having been offered a similar position at the newly built Octagon Chapel in Bath. He quickly established himself as a rival to Thomas Linley (1732–1795) by staging a benefit concert in the New Assembly Rooms on New Year’s Day 1767, at which he was the soloist in concertos for violin and for oboe (probably of his own composition) and in a sonata for harpsichord.

For the next ten years or so Herschel was at the centre of musical life in the city, but he was steadily more drawn to scientific matters having noted, from his youth, the close relationship between music and mathematics, and therefore astronomy. In August 1771 he went once more to Hannover, and returned with his younger sister Caroline (1750–1848), who had a good, if untrained, voice and sang in some of his concerts in Bath. But when he became a full-time astronomer she became his colleague and assistant – and proved to be a considerable astronomer in her own right, discovering no fewer than eight comets between 1786 and 1797. In 1777 Herschel commented, ‘Musical business carried on as usual. All my leisure time was given to preparing telescopes and contriving proper stands for them.’ On 13 March 1781, ‘in the course of a second review of the heavens’, he discovered the seventh planet, which he named ‘Georgium Sidus’ (The Star of George) in honour of King George III (who was an astronomical enthusiast and also of Hanoverian descent, though not a native of that city as Herschel was); it was later named ‘Uranus’.

Herschel immediately became a star himself; in 1782 the King awarded him a modest annual stipend of £200, so that he might devote himself entirely to astronomy and give up his career as a musician. He also insisted that William (as he now was) and Caroline should move house to somewhere near the royal castle at Windsor, which meant, of course, leaving their beloved Bath. Reluctantly they went to a new home in Datchet, but eventually settled in Slough. Herschel was flooded with honours by learned societies, knighted in 1817 and elected the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1821. (His son, Sir John Herschel [1792 –1871], was later scarcely less distinguished as an astronomer than his father.) The largest of the various telescopes made by the man who told the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell that he had ‘looked further into space than ever human did before me’, was a giant ‘reflector’ commissioned by the King in 1787 and completed in 1789, with an iron tube forty feet long and almost five in diameter. Caroline later recalled that ‘many visitors walked through the tube; among them was George III, who helped the Archbishop of Canterbury, saying, “Come, my lord bishop, I will show you the way to heaven”.’

In The Herschel Chronicle (Cambridge University Press, 1933) his granddaughter Constance Lubbock wrote:

During the first twenty years of his life in England, William Herschel’s main pursuit was music; but though in his letters to his brother he wrote pages on pages of disquisitions on harmony and the rules of composition, he never, in the opinion of good judges who have taken the trouble to read his scores, arrived at any important or original ideas. His own taste in music was simple; music must express emotion; he loved melody and hated fugues.

Most of Herschel’s compositions date from between about 1759 and 1770; they include twenty-four symphonies, a dozen concertos for various instruments (violin, viola, oboe, and organ); sonatas for harpsichord and violin; pieces for harpsichord and organ; and some psalm-settings and anthems. The symphonies (all in three movements) were composed between June 1760 and June 1764 and all bear the place and date of completion; in 1967 the composer’s own scores and parts were sold by his descendants to the British Museum. Constance went on:

The symphonies which he composed during these early days in Yorkshire are graceful and melodious, but do not indicate much originality. The scores, beautifully written out by himself, are preserved at Slough and have given much pleasure when performed at family gatherings.

Basic details of the six symphonies recorded here, in chronological sequence, with Herschel’s own numbering, place and date of completion (in his often decidedly individual spelling), and instrumentation, are as follows: No. 2 in D (‘Richmond Sept 1760’) for strings, bassoon and harpsichord; No. 8 in C minor (‘Sunderland in the county of Durh: apprill 20th 1761’) for strings; No. 12 in D (‘Pontefract in Yorkshire Decemb. 1st 1761’) for strings, two oboes, two horns, (bassoon) and harpsichord; No. 13 in D (‘Pontefract in Yorkshire march 24th 1762’) for strings, two flutes, two horns and harpsichord; No. 14 in D (‘Leeds aprill the 14th 1762’) for strings, two flutes, two oboes, two horns, (timpani) and harpsichord; and No. 17 in C (‘Pontefract in Yorkshire july 3d 1762’) for strings, two oboes, (bassoon), two horns, (timpani) and harpsichord. The first movements, some of which show the influence of sonata form (two main, contrasting themes; exposition, development and recapitulation), are in two sections with repeats (not all of them observed here), the second section longer than the first. There is a three-part keyscheme: tonic to dominant (or major to minor) about two thirds of the way through the first section and a return, after brief tonal excursions, to the tonic at about the middle of the second (‘development’) section. Several of the symphonies recorded here make discreet, but telling, use of solo strings. The slow movements are in contrasting but related keys, and are basically in two sections with repeats. The prevailing mood is elegiac, but is gentler and more lyrical in the case of No. 13 and No. 17 (the only one which is not restricted to strings). The last movements are also in two sections with repeats (again, not all observed here), but brisker and more straightforward than the first movements and mostly in triple time.

Robin Golding (2003)