Archive for Observatory House

Haydn and the Herschels

Posted in History, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by telescoper

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…