Haydn and the Herschels

Last night I was listening to a broadcast of a concert performance of Haydn’s “Creation” on BBC Radio 3, featuring the London Philharmonic under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington. During the interval (between Parts I and II) the presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch cast doubt in the story (which I’ve heard quite often), that Joseph Haydn was at least partly inspired to write The Creation by a trip he took during a stay in England to see the observatory of astronomer William Herschel. This story is repeated in a number of places around the web, including here, from which source I quote:

On 15 June 1792. Joseph Haydn visited William Herschel – basoonist, composer, astronomer – at his observatory near Slough. Herschel introduced Haydn to the Milky Way and, quite possibly, the planet Uranus, which he’d discovered ten years earlier. Some say Haydn took this glimpse of the infinite as the inspiration for his oratorio The Creation. Seems plausible.

It does indeed seem plausible. It is a matter of record that Haydn did  visit the Observatory House in Slough on 15th June 1792, which is where William Herschel lived with his sister Caroline at the time. (Interestingly, the day before this visit Haydn was at Ascot watching the horse-racing.)

However, according to William Herschel’s own records he wasn’t at the Observatory House on this day. In fact he had been away since May 1792 visiting various locations in England and Wales, before eventually arriving in Glasgow to receive an honorary degree. The notion that Herschel provided Haydn with the inspiration to write The Creation is therefore false.

Or is it?

William Herschel may not have been at home when Haydn called on 15th June 1792, but Caroline certainly was: Haydn’s name is recorded in her visitor’s book on that date. In his diary Haydn makes a note of the dimensions of the telescope (40ft) but does not mention actually looking through it, which is not surprising if he was there during the day.  There’s no other record of this visit of which I’m aware that says for sure what happened on that day, but Caroline certainly could have described what she had observed during her career as an astronomer, both on her own and with William, and also shown Haydn drawings, catalogues and star charts. Caroline Herschel was an extremely accomplished astronomer in her own right, so who’s to say it was not she rather than her brother who provided Haydn with the inspiration for his oratorio?

So it could well be that it was Herschel that inspired The Creation after all, but Caroline rather than William…

7 Responses to “Haydn and the Herschels”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I was in Bath recently and noticed with interest a plaque on the Herschel house there.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, the house at 19 New King Street where William and Caroline lived for a few years is now a museum. That’s actually where William Herschel was working when he discovered Uranus in 1781 using a 7ft telescope. I’ve been inside. There’s even a dress that Caroline wore. She was tiny, just over four foot tall…

      The Observatory House in Slough mentioned in the post, where the much larger 40ft telescoper was located, was demolished many years ago.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I too had encountered the story about Joseph Haydn visiting William Herschel’s observatory many times, all in popular accounts of science or music. The versions I’d come across referred to William Herschel showing Haydn the Orion Nebula through the Forty-foot Telescope, and Haydn standing “in awed silence for twenty minutes”.

    I had been unable to find reliable sources for this story, and it is interesting that the reliability is now in doubt. Some discussions on Twitter last night were illuminating.

    This article by Brain Hunt in the Daily Telegraph from 1998 provides some useful information about where the story is likely to have come from. That traces the story to Sir Donald Tovey in the early 20th century.

  3. As chance would have it, just last night I was discussing Herschel both as an astronomer and a musician, including an occasion when I heard the performance of some of Herschel’s music.

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