Monday, November 23, 2009

The Smartest Classical Composer Ever

Being a classical music announcer on WTJU often means looking for stories as well as music of interest to listeners. I’ve recently finished a superb book, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, that describes the apogee of Romantic poetry coupled with the surge of scientific advancement in late 18th century England. Unlike current culture, in the 18th century science and the arts coexisted in the wonder of discovery.

A key figure was Sir William Herschel, often described as the Father of Modern Astronomy. Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, the first planetary discovery in over 1,000 years. He made seminal studies of nebulae and binary star systems. He also discovered infrared light, which exists outside the wavelength of visible light. His proof that that the solar system had movement and direction and that most stars existed at huge distances and time from Earth gave scientific credence to evolutionary hypotheses for creation of the universe and helped dismiss theologically based myths.

Overlooked by most music lovers and scientists is that Herschel began adult life as a successful professional musician. As was his more musically renowned predecessor G.F. Handel, William Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany. Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined that band of Hanover Guards and eventually moved to England with the Guards when George I, also a German, became king.

Herschel settled in the resort city of Bath, which due to its aristocratic patrons had a sophisticated musical tradition. Herschel became head of the military band, a leader of the Bath orchestra, an accomplished organist and oboist, and teacher. His compositions were heard frequently in Bath (and beyond), and Herschel regularly gave subscription concerts of his music. Herschel routinely attributed his astronomical instincts to lessons learned from musical study and composition.

We had a chance to sample the music of Sir William Herschel on WTJU on Monday, 23 November on the classical program Dawn’s Early Light. The Oboe Concerto in C major and Chamber Symphony in F major are delightful pieces and demonstrate Herschel’s competence and melodic sensitivity.

When one thinks of the smartest of all classical composers, perhaps one should look beyond the great prodigies such as Mozart and Mendelssohn or the great innovators such as Bach, Haydn, and Schoenberg. With the infallibility that comes from being a volunteer announcer on WTJU, I make the claim for the smartest composer to be Sir William Herschel, Father of Modern Astronomy.

1 comment:

  1. Who says Classical music is not great stuff!