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

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?

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