2022 sees the 200th anniversary of the death of William Herschel, a profoundly significant figure in the field of astronomy, but one who made his early living as a musician - as an oboist, violinist, harpsichordist, organist, composer and impresario.
After leaving a military band in his native Hanover for an unsuccessful two-year stint in London (1757–59), Herschel moved to the north of England (1760), where he composed his symphonies and many other works as an itinerant musician in Richmond, Newcastle, Sunderland, Durham, Pontefract, Doncaster, Leeds and Halifax. In 1766 he accepted an invitation as organist at the new Octagon Chapel in Bath, where he became a mainstay of the musical scene for over fifteen years. In Bath he was joined by other musical family members including his sister Caroline, who assisted William first in musical and then in astronomical duties, ultimately becoming a distinguished astronomer in her own right.
Herschel’s astronomical interests and construction of very high-quality telescopes, beginning in 1773, brought him to international and lasting fame when he discovered the planet now called Uranus in 1781. He came to the attention of King George III, who summoned him to Windsor and effectively ended the musical portion of his career, at age 43. For the rest of his life Herschel made numerous groundbreaking contributions: designing large telescopes; mapping the Milky Way system of stars and the Sun’s motion in it; cataloguing and classifying thousands of star clusters, nebulae, variable stars and double stars; proving the effectiveness of gravity outside the solar system; discovering several moons around Saturn and Uranus; discovering infrared radiation (from the Sun); postulating an evolving universe with stars and nebulae that are born, age and die; estimating the age of the Universe; and arguing that all stars and planets are populated with intelligent beings.
Contemporary academia’s separation of music and astronomy across the arts and sciences is something Herschel and other eighteenth-century thinkers would have found hard to understand, given both endeavours proceeded for them on mathematical principles.
Join us as we take the bicentenary of William Herschel’s death as a cue to explore new aspects of his work as composer, instrumentalist, impresario and astronomer in the intellectual, creative and cultural contexts of his time.
These Festival Focus events are supported by the John Templeton Foundation.
William Herschel and the Universe - Sunday 19 June
Join us for a wonderful film directed by George Sibley, showing how William Herschel’s telescopes, observations and theories transformed the clockwork universe imagined by Isaac Newton into the evolutionary and wonder-filled cosmos we know today.
The Herschels: Music and science - Sunday 19 June
Keynote speaker Tom McLeish gives an insightful talk that celebrates the extraordinary creative imaginations of William and Caroline Herschel, both in astronomy and music. Followed by a panel discussion and reception, including new music inspired by science, chaired by Rachel Cowgill and Herschel biographer Woody Sullivan.