William Herschel the musician

The following brief extract is from the Preface of Wilbert Davis Jerome (ed.), The oboe concertos of Sir William Herschel (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1998):

The Composer

Ironically, it was because of his fame as an astronomer that Herschel was visited by the great musicians who came to England to participate in the international festivals of music in London. In 1791 Haydn came to Oxford to receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Music and visited Herschel at Observatory House near Slough. The celebrated musician Charles Burney (1726-1814) whose writings on music are still greatly admired, considered him to be the perfect embodiment of practical musical ability and scholarly learning, a combination Burney himself tried to emulate. In his honour, Burney wrote a long didactic poem entitled Poetical History of Astronomy, of which only a few lines have survived. ...

William Herschel the musician is cited in many contemporary references as a performer of exceptional ability on many instruments. One observer, Dr Edward Miller, noted, "Never before had we heard the concertos of Corelli, Geminiani and Avison, or the overtures (symphonies) of Haydn performed more chastely, or more according to the intention of the composers than by Mr Herschel." Contrary to the performance practice of his day, Herschel believed that the performer should follow the composer's directions literally. John Marsh, an amateur musician and astronomer, noted in his diaries, "As a true timist, Herschel would always adhere strictly to the original tempo, even when performing with the celebrated Tenducci." At this time the great solo oboe virtuosi, Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800) and Gaetano Besozzi (1727-1794), were the darlings of the English concert circuit, both in London and in provincial cities such as Bath. There is no evidence to suggest that Herschel attempted to promote himself as their equal. Like these performers, however, he would have protected his concertos from piracy by other oboists. One reason for this secrecy was the almost pathological desire by the eighteenth century musical public for constant innovation. A virtuoso brought ever new musical ideas to an eager public. After a concert, the celebrated novelist Fanny Burney commented, "It pained me to hear Cramer and Fischer play so divinely and to so little applause ... and especially Fischer, for he is always new."

The autograph manuscripts of the three concertos for oboe by Herschel considered here contain precise written directions for many assumed performance practices employed by eighteenth-century oboists. One of these is the messa da voce, an expressive device used frequently by singers, consisting of a gradual swelling from piano to fortissimo to piano on a single note. It can be very effective on the oboe, but through overuse, the messa da voce soon grew into a grotesque mannerism. On hearing it employed in 1778 by Carlo Besozzi, oboist brother of the aforementioned Gaetano, Mozart's father, Leopold, observed, This messa da voce was too frequent for my taste, and has the same melancholy effect on me as the tones of Dr Franklin's musical glasses."

The oboe concertos of Herschel the musician cannot be classified as great music in the tradition of Haydn or Mozart , but they are arresting, innovative works, the product of a superb analytic mind driven by an obsession for order and coherence. Stylistically individual and harmonically idiosyncratic, they were written to display Herschel's ingenuity as a composer and his virtuosity as a performer. But Herschel the scientist, with a desire to retain control of all aspects of the interpretation of this music by an unusual abundance of written performance indications, has also given us a useful pedagogical tool in our efforts to recapture something of the musical aesthetic of his time.

Last Updated November 2017