A Tale of Two Musicians

Jack Kramer

Amateur astronomers have distinguished themselves with many significant contributions to the science of astronomy. Perhaps the most famous of these amateurs is William Herschel (1738-1822). He was born in Germany but moved to England, where he established himself as a musician of note, teaching music, playing the organ, giving violin concerts, and composing military music, symphonies, and choral works. But by age 35 he became consumed with an interest in astronomy and built the first of his many telescopes. (Some of his later telescopes were the largest of that era.) After he discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, he was appointed as private astronomer to the king of England and gave up his formal career in music.

Herschel's inquiring mind continued active throughout his life. In 1787 he discovered the Uranian satellites Titania and Oberon, and the Saturnian satellites Mimas and Enceladus in 1789. He concluded from the motion of double stars that they are bound by gravity and revolve around a common center, thus confirming the universal nature of Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation. His research on nebulae suggested a possible origin of new planets from gaseous matter. His three catalogs of nebulae increased the known tally from Messier's 103 objects to 2,500 objects, which includes some that we now know to be galaxies or star clusters.

But this isn't just about Herschel. Enter the Austrian musician and composer, Franz Josef Haydn, who was on his second trip to England. In his mid-60s when many people think about slowing down, Haydn was mulling over what would become perhaps his most honored composition - "The Creation" oratorio. (This work is also unique in that two versions of the score were written - one in German and the other in English.) Although this choral work has as its topic the biblical account of creation, Haydn was apparently aware of the nebular hypothesis, which postulated that the planets were formed by coalescing clouds of gaseous matter. The liner notes with my copy of The Creation (TELARC CD-80298) relate that on this second trip to England, Haydn had a meeting with Herschel. We might imagine that the conversation ranged from their mutual interest in music to Herschel's latest discoveries, and perhaps to a then-current scientific account of creation.

Of interest from a scientific standpoint is Haydn's grasp of chaos as the precursor of the known universe. This is reflected in the music itself. But Haydn had also remarked to a friend while working on the opening of his composition: "You have certainly noticed how I avoided the resolutions that you would most readily expect. The reason is that there is no form in anything yet." It's possible to imagine the opening movement as the expansion of the universe set to music. I especially like the "Let there be light" part. In his book An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, astronomer and science teacher Chet Raymo notes the same thing: "As you open your eyes to Haydn's fortissimo chord and to the (almost) forgotten glory of a truly dark starry night, you will feel that you have been a witness to the big bang." But while we tend to put a modern day spin on the music, it's well to remember that in the eighteenth century there was no generally accepted concept of the origin and evolution of the universe, other than perhaps the biblical one.

Nonetheless, as an amateur astronomer, it's nice to think that Herschel - one of our own - just might have had something to do with Haydn's great work of choral music.

Published in the September 2001 issue of the NightTimes