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Sir William HERSCHEL (1738-1822)
Symphony No.14 in D major (1762) [11:20]
Symphony No.8 in C minor (1761) [11:41]
Symphony No.2 in D major (1760) [9:33]
Symphony No.12 in D major (1761) [11:23]
Symphony No. 17 in C major (1762) [11:49]
Symphony No. 13 in D major (1762) [12:05]
London Mozart Players/Matthias Bamert
rec. 29-30 April 2002, All Saint’s Church, Tooting. DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN10048 [68:23]
Experience Classicsonline

Music and the stars have long - since at least the time of Pythagoras - been intellectual bedfellows. The lengthy tradition of such thinking is amply, and very valuably, illustrated in a book such as Joscelyn Goodwin’s The Harmony of the Spheres: A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music (1993). One might cite as examples the Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596) and Harmonices Mundi (1691) of Johannes Kepler or the writings of the Florentine Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino - supplemented, perhaps, by a hearing of the fascinating Secrets of the Heavens (Riverrun RV RCD53) which features words by Ficino and music by Bartolommeo Tromboncino, Alexander Agricola and others. Or, indeed, one might think of compositions as varied as Holst’s Planets and Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, Mary Howe’s Stars and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 2 (Copernican), Per Norgard’s Luna or Hovhaness’s Star Dawn. Kepler’s thought directly shapes Hindemith’s Harmony of the World and astronomical data feeds into a series of works by David Bedford, such as Great Equatorial and Star Clusters, Nebulae and Places in Devon - the list could, no doubt, be greatly extended.

Given such traditions it ought not to come as a surprise that a man we know of primarily as an astronomer, as discover of Uranus and of infrared radiation, should, as a youth, have been a composer of some talent. The future Court Astronomer and President of the Astronomical Society was born in Hanover, the son of an oboist in the Hanoverian foot-guards. At fourteen William, too, became a member of the band of the guards. Military defeats led him to make his way to England where he initially earned his living as a music copyist in London and then took charge of the band of the Durham militia - the beginning of a successful career as a teacher and performer in the North of England. It was in the late 1750s that he began to compose and these symphonies are early works. He worked as a church organist in Halifax and then in Bath - where he quarrelled with Thomas Linley the elder. His study of the mathematical basis of harmony led him into the wider study of mathematics and that, in turn, led to an interest in astronomy (Herschel Museum of Astronomy). This amateur interest in astronomy developed alongside - and gradually overtook - his professional life as a musician. By the mid 1770s astronomy had become his dominant concern and livelihood.

His surviving compositions - in addition to twenty-four symphonies - include concertos for violin, viola and oboe and a number of pieces for organ as well as songs, psalm and anthem settings and six ‘Sonatas for the Harpsichord with Violin and Cello Obbligato’. The manuscripts of the six symphonies recorded here provide details (in Herschel’s own hand) of the place and date of composition. Thus No. 12 is marked “Pontefract in Yorkshire Decemb. 1st 1761” and No. 14 carries the words “Leeds aprill the 14th 1762”.

The music of these three-movement symphonies is not, perhaps, remarkable - save in who its composer was - and certainly isn’t especially individual. But it is thoroughly competent and well made; anyone who enjoys the work of, say, J.C. Bach will surely find things to enjoy here. Indeed, there are some touches in the slow movements that make one think of C.P.E. Bach and the music of empfindsamkeit. On the whole these symphonies are of more interest for what they do harmonically and rhythmically than for their relatively unexciting melodic invention.

There is a nice circularity in the fact that after Herschel had given up composing, his astronomical work inspired new music! In 1788 the Florentine composer Giuseppe Moneta composed his cantata L’Urano, marking Herschel’s 1781 discovery of Uranus - which he had wanted to call ‘Georgium Sidus (The Star of George) in honour of George III - for the wedding of Archduke Francesco. One wonders whether Herschel ever heard, or even heard of, this musical tribute to the scientific achievements which had grown from his own study of music.

Glyn Pursglove 


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