The Music of the Spheres : Sir William Herschel not only discovered Uranus and infrared radiation, but composed two dozen symphonies as well.
The Music of the Spheres

William Herschel (1738-1822) came to Britain from Hanover hoping to avoid war with France. He became not only one of the country’s greatest astronomers, but also one of its most prolific composers, and his son John was, like William, knighted for services to astronomy.

WILLIAM Herschel, an oboist in the Military Band in his native Hanover, came to England in 1757, aged nineteen.*

In 1761, he became leader of the Durham Militia band, and first violin of Charles Avison’s orchestra in Newcastle, before taking a post in Halifax as an organist, where he regularly performed symphonies and concertos he had composed himself.

After moving to Bath, he was joined by his sister Caroline in 1772, and they began to take an interest in building telescopes.

It was using one of these that in March 1781 William discovered Uranus, the first new planetary discovery since classical times, for which he was appointed King’s Astronomer by George III. Unusually, the King also awarded Caroline a pension as William’s assistant.

After a move to Slough in 1785, William added to his historic discovery not only Saturn’s moons Mimas and Enceladus, and two moons of Uranus, Titania and Oberon, but also infrared radiation, with modern applications in astronomy, medicine, and the military.

* When George, Prince-Elector of Hanover, became King George I of Great Britain in 1714, Hanover was united to the British crown in a ‘personal union’ which lasted until the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. Nonetheless, Hanover remained wholly independent of London in terms of its government throughout this time.

Oboe Concerto in C Major

Herschel performed his own oboe concertos, and this movement from his Oboe Concerto No. 2 in C Major, probably written around the time he went to live in County Durham in 1761, suggests he was quite the virtuoso.

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, played here by Richard Woodhams, with the Mozart Orchestra directed by Davis Jerome.

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Picture: Photo from NASA, via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
This picture of Uranus, the seventh planet from the sun (lying between Saturn and Neptune), was taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft on 25th January, 1986, on its way to Neptune. Uranus was spotted by William Herschel on 13th March, 1781 from his house in Bath using one of his powerful home-made telescopes, the first planet in our solar system to be discovered since classical times.

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