It was a meeting of minds so great that if it didn’t really happen, it would be necessary to make it up. On June 15, 1792, Joseph Haydn, the most famous composer in Europe, journeyed to Slough, England, to the home and astronomical observatory of William and Caroline Herschel. As Richard Holmes wrote in his marvelous history The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (NY: HarperCollins, 2008), “Visits to his observatory were regarded as uplifting, even religious experiences. Joseph Haydn claimed that his visit to Herschel at Slough in 1798 [actually 1792] had helped him compose his oratorio The Creation.” (page 199)
The Creation is Haydn’s masterpiece, and while it is often acclaimed for its modernity — some musicologists have identified it as the first great work of the Romantic era — the suggestion that The Creation could also incorporate the latest in 1790s astronomy is quite exciting.
Haydn and the Herschels shared a native language, so they would have been comfortable conversing in German, and they would also have been comfortable discussing music, for both William and Caroline had been musicians, and William had been a composer in his younger years. But what else did they talk about?
We know that Haydn saw Herschel’s massive telescope, 40 feet in length and 5 feet in diameter. He described it in detail in his daybook. But did the Herschels invite Haydn to stay after sunset so he could gaze through the lens? As Haydn explored the depths of space, what did he see and how did he react? Was it a comforting vision or a frightening one? Did Herschel show Haydn some examples of his favorite objects, the nebulae, and discuss how they might contribute to the formation of suns and planets? Did Haydn actually incorporate this new vision of the cosmos into his music?
As the night wore on, and beverages were consumed, and the waning crescent moon rose at about 2:15 that morning, did Haydn’s notorious eye for the ladies exchange meaningful glances with Caroline’s?
Perhaps I’m getting carried away here. But the more I contemplated this encounter between Haydn and the Herschels, the more intrigued I became.
Haydn’s visit to the famous observatory in Slough occurred during the first of his two 18-month trips to England. Despite his advanced age (late 50s and early 60s) and an almost complete ignorance of the English language, Haydn considered the time he spent in England to be among the happiest days of his life. Between the 1791 death of Mozart and the emergence of Beethoven, Haydn was the most famous composer in Europe, and the English worshipped him. They called him the “Shakespeare of music” and even the “God of musical science.” Haydn composed the final dozen of his 104 symphonies for the appreciative London audience, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music from Oxford, and he developed a pleasant romantic relationship with a widow twenty years his junior named Rebecca Schroeter, who had requested piano lessons from the composer.
In 1795, when Haydn returned to Vienna from his second visit, he had with him a libretto that had originally been prepared for Handel for an oratorio based on the first chapter of Genesis. This became The Creation.
William Herschel was seven years younger than Haydn but he had been living in England since 1757, having come to the country from Hanover to find work as a musician. Herschel played harpsichord and other instruments, sang, and even composed pleasant but undistinguished symphonies. (To our ears, Hershel’s music sounds, well, Haydnesque.) His younger sister Caroline followed him to England in 1772, and gained enough proficiency as a soprano to sing in performances of The Messiah and other Handel oratorios. As William’s obsession with astronomy gradually came to dominate his life, he began grinding his own mirrors and building his own telescopes. He eventually abandoned music, and Caroline followed her brother in his pursuits.
In 1781, William spotted what he initially believed to be a comet, but which he soon determined to be much larger than a comet and less luminous. It was the first new planet discovered since antiquity with an orbit twice as far from the sun as Saturn. William wanted to name it after King George III (whose great-grandfather George I was also from Hanover), but it was eventually called Uranus. In 1786, while William was away for several weeks, Caroline discovered her first comet. She took the initiative to publish her findings, becoming a famous astronomer in her own right.
Herschel desired ever larger telescopes to peer more deeply into space. The 40-foot telescope was begun in 1785 with financial help from the King. During construction, the cast iron tube lay in the Herschels’ yard and its five-foot diameter was large enough for people to enter. The elderly Caroline reminisced in a letter to her niece a half century later:
Before the optical parts were finished, many visitors had the curiosity to walk through it, among the rest King George III., and the Archbishop of Canterbury, following the King, and finding it difficult to proceed, the King turned to give him the hand, saying “Come, my Lord Bishop, I will show you the way to Heaven!” (Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel, London: John Murray, 1876, page 309)
By the time Haydn visited Slough in 1792, this big telescope had been completed and was in use.
Some Haydn scholars believe that the experience of looking through Herschel’s telescope might have influenced Haydn’s music, including his Symphony No. 102, composed and premiered during Haydn’s second visit to England. The opening Largo has been described by the American musicologist and Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon as having a “feeling of great space, of cosmic loneliness (perhaps, really, Haydn’s view of eternity through Herschel’s giant telescope).” (Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Volume 3: Haydn in England, 1791 – 1795, Indiana University Press, 1976, page 582)
Even more intriguing is the connection between Haydn’s visit to Herschel, and The Creation, which Haydn composed between 1797 and 1798, fitting the music to both German and English texts. The libretto is based on the first chapter of Genesis, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and some additional texts from the book of Psalms and other sources. It was premiered in 1798 in Vienna (with Haydn conducting and Antonio Salieri at the fortepiano), and in London in 1800. The Paris premiere later that year on Christmas Eve was delayed by ten minutes when a bomb exploded near the coaches carrying First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and Joséphine to the theater.
The most famous part of The Creation remains the beginning, called the Representation of Chaos. It starts with a loud chord but then gets very quiet. The music that follows seems oddly static, alternating between loud and soft passages that don’t seem related to each other, and drifting aimlessly in a state of restless indecision. Chord progressions that seem about to climax fail to do so, and short fragmented woodwind melodies bubble up without quite going anywhere.
Then a bass voice begins singing a slow and stately declamation:
In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was…
At this point, the entire chorus and orchestra explode with pounding tympani and screaming horns in a bright resounding triumphant C-major chord:
When The Creation premiered in London on March 28, 1800, the audience burst into spontaneous applause at this sonic celebration.
The light that the chorus proclaims in The Creation doesn’t refer solely to the illumination of the universe. During the 18th century, the word had taken on an additional metaphorical meaning as an allusion to the Enlightenment and the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and wisdom. While an oratorio based on the Book of Genesis might not seem in accord with the more religiously skeptical aspects of the Enlightenment program, in Haydn’s hands the Creation story becomes a hymn to the wonders of the natural world, imbued with Haydn’s joyful and optimistic worldview.
From this perspective, The Creation is almost a work of natural theology, the musical equivalent of William Paley’s famous book published in 1802. Except for a brief mention of “hell’s spirits,” Satan is nowhere to be found in Haydn’s version of Creation, and after the sixth day, even God retreats to the background. No fruit is forbidden, and no transgressions occur. The last half hour of The Creation is turned over to Adam and Eve, who sing lovely arias and a duet while they glory in this new world and themselves. The oratorio leaves the happy couple in joyful and contented bliss with only a brief allusion to the upcoming problems when they are “misled by false conceit.”
Haydn apparently labored over the Representation of Chaos more than any other part of the oratorio. The musical language of the classical era stressed order and rationality. It did not lend itself to expressing chaos, let alone the nothingness that would have preceded Creation. Using unresolved chord progressions and melodies, Haydn manages to suggest an unsettling mysterious mistiness in a long-ago time when the strict rules of harmony were still in an undeveloped state. Still, Haydn could not write music entirely without structure: The great modern musicologist Charles Rosen identifies the overall architecture of the Representation of Chaos as a standard classical “slow-movement sonata form.” (The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Viking Press, 1971, page 370)
The most interesting analysis of the Representation of Chaos was provided by Sir Donald Tovey, an English composer and musicologist of the early 20th century whose writings are collected in six volumes of Essays in Musical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 1935–1939), of which 32 pages in Volume V, Vocal Music, are devoted to The Creation, and pages 114 to 118 specifically to the Representation of Chaos.
Tovey believes that Haydn’s Chaos music has a scientific basis rather than a religious or mythological one, because
the Chaos he intends to represent is no mere state of disorder and confusion. He has a remarkably consistent notion of it, which harmonizes well enough with the Biblical account of the Creation; not less well with the classical notions of Chaos, whether in Hesiod or Ovid; but most closely with the Nebular Hypothesis of Kant and Laplace, which almost certainly attracted Haydn’s attention.
The Nebular Hypothesis is the idea that the sun and planets of our solar system were formed from the coalescing gasses of a swirling nebula, and that other nebulae may form their own solar systems. The theory has had a rocky and turbulent history, but with some modern modifications, the Nebular Hypothesis is currently the most commonly accepted theory of the origin of the solar system. At the time of The Creation, however, it was so new that it didn’t even have a name, so Tovey’s suggestion that The Creation begins with a musical representation of the Nebular Hypothesis is truly thrilling.
Kant’s speculations on the subject had been already published in 1755…
This reference is problematic. It is true that the young Immanuel Kant wrote a book entitled Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels (Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens) that was anonymously published in 1755. But the publisher had gone bankrupt, and later editions didn’t fare well either, with the result that few people knew about the book. Although Kant described a natural formation of the solar system based on mutual attraction and repulsion among the chaotic matter that made up the early universe, it was based on a priori reasoning and insufficient knowledge of Newtonian mechanics.
Historian of science Stanley L. Jaki’s introduction to his translation of Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (Scottish Academic Press, 1981) is an extended cold shower for any who believes that Kant’s book was either scientifically significant or influential. He writes: “Kant had no mastery of some basic laws of Newtonian physics.” (page 28) Rather than a “scientific treatise” the book is instead “a teleologico-philosophical essay ending in a flight of fancy.” (page 46) The book endured “A Century of Silence” (page 35) and wasn’t regarded as significantly contributing to cosmogony until it was resurrected by Hermann Helmholtz in 1854 (pages 51–52), at which point “the myth of a Kant-Laplace theory” (page 45) was born.
At any rate, it is highly unlikely that Haydn would have read Kant’s book, or heard about it, or been exposed to the theories within it.
Tovey's sentence continues:
… and Laplace’s discussion of it was published in a readable and popular form in 1796, two years before Haydn’s Creation.
This is Laplace’s Exposition du système du monde, which was indeed readable (assuming one can read French) and popular (no math!). In the last chapter of the second volume, Laplace discusses how all the planets revolve around the sun in the same direction and approximately in the same plane. It is highly improbable that this could have happened by chance. Earlier in the century, Newton had cited this improbability as evidence of a Creator. Laplace instead preferred to find a natural mechanistic cause. He abandoned his customary strict adherence to facts and figures to indulge in some speculation, describing how “in consequence of excessive heat, the atmosphere of the Sun originally extended beyond the orbits of all the planets, and that it has gradually contracted itself to its present limits.” The planets “have been formed at the successive bounds of this atmosphere, by the condensation of zones, which it must have abandoned in the plane of its equator, and in becoming cold have condensed themselves towards the surface of this luminary.” (Pierre-Simon Laplace, The System of the World, translated by J. Pond, Vol. II, London: Richard Phillips, 1809, pages 363 – 365)
Although that English translation of Laplace's book didn’t appear until 1809, a German translation was published in 1797 under the title Darstellung des Weltsystems, but by this time Haydn was already working on The Creation, and it seems unlikely that he would have interrupted his work to read the two volumes and then be inspired by the very last chapter for his Representation of Chaos.
Herschel had been publishing articles about nebulae in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society since the early 1780s, but these nebulae were large and composed of many stars. Much of their importance to Herschel was in understanding the construction of the universe (or “heavens” as it called it). Unlike Laplace, he didn't explore how a solar system might come about from a much smaller nebula, and Laplace didn’t use the word “nebula” in his description of the evolution of the solar system.
It’s not clear to what extent Laplace was familiar with Herschel’s publications on nebulae, but Laplace and Herschel met in 1802 when Herschel visited Paris. Beginning in the 4th edition of Exposition du système du monde (1813), Laplace began incorporating some of Herschel’s work into his speculations. (A comparison of the six editions of Exposition du système du monde is available in Charles A. Whitney’s The Discovery of Our Galaxy, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971, pages 137 –153.)
Back to Tovey:
Haydn, who did a certain amount of dining-out in fin-de-siècle London, was as likely to have heard of the Nebular Hypothesis as a modern diner-out is likely to hear of Einstein and Relativity.
Except that Haydn was back in Vienna by the time Laplace’s book was published, so even if Laplace’s theory was being discussed during social dinners in turn-of-the-century London (which I'm afraid I find preposterous), Haydn wasn’t present.
Moreover, nobody at the time was talking about the “Nebular Hypothesis.” The term did not exist. There was no name for Laplace’s speculation until William Whewell called it the “Nebular Hypothesis” in his Bridgewater Treatise, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (London: Pickering, 1833), Book II, Chapter VII. It was only with Whewell’s book that the idea of a coalescing solar system began seeping into the public consciousness, helped along greatly by astronomer J. P. Nichol’s Views of the Architecture of the Heavens, in a Series of Letters to a Lady (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1837), Letter VII. (The early popularization of the Nebular Hypothesis is discussed by Ronald L. Numbers in Creation by Natural Law: Laplace’s Nebular Hypothesis in American Thought, University of Washington Press, 1977.)
If Haydn knew anything about nebulae and their role in the early universe, his only exposure to the subject would have been through discussions with William Herschel himself.
Tovey continues his discussion of Haydn:
Moreover, he visited Herschel at Slough, saw his famous forty-foot telescope and his less famous but more successful other telescopes, and doubtless had much conversation with Herschel in German on both music and astronomy, Herschel having been a musician before he made astronomy his main occupation.
Yes! It is these conversations that we really need if we are to accept Tovey’s astonishing analysis of “Haydn’s symphonic nebular hypothesis” and to believe that “Haydn, like Herschel, proceeds to explore the musical universe with higher and higher powers of his telescope.”
For a long time, the definitive account of Haydn’s visits to England was the second volume of Carl Ferdinand Pohl’s Mozart und Haydn in London (Vienna: C. Gerold’s Sohn, 1867). Pohl provides no details on Haydn’s visit to Slough except to quote from Haydn’s daybook (Tagebuch) (page 206) followed by a two-page biography of William Herschel.
Haydn’s four London daybooks were translated by H. C. Robbins Landon in The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1959). Aside from their importance in recording Haydn’s account of his trip to Slough, they provide surprisingly entertaining reading. Haydn apparently jotted down pretty much anything that caught his fancy, whether they be anecdotes or facts, particularly if numbers or money were involved. Here are a few excepts just to get you inside Haydn’s peculiar mind:
The national debt of England is estimated to be over two hundred millions. Recently it was calculated that if they had to make up a convoy to pay this sum in silver, the wagons, end on end, would reach from London to Yorck, that is, 200 miles, presuming that each wagon could not carry more than £6000. (page 253)
In France the girls are virtuous and the wives are whores; in Holland the girls are whores and the wives are virtuous; in England they stay proper all their lives. (page 253)
If anybody steals £2 he is hanged; but if I trust anybody with £2000, and he carries it off to the devil, he is acquitted. Murder and forgery cannot be pardoned; last year a clergyman was hanged for the latter, even though the King himself did all he could for him. (page 257)
On 21st May, Giardini’s concert took place in Renalag. He played like a pig. (page 257)
Once, when an Archbishop of London asked Parliament to silence a learned public preacher of the Moravian religion, the Vice President answered that it could be easily done; just make him a Bishop, and he will remain silent the rest of his life. (page 258)
Every canal-lock costs £10,000. (page 258)
In the month of January 1792, a roasting chicken cost 2 shillings, a turkey 9 shillings, a dozen larks 1 crown. N.B.: a duck, if it is plucked, costs 5 shillings. (page259)
When Mʳ Fox was seeking votes in elect him to Parliament, a citizen said he would give him a rope instead of a vote. Fox answered that he would not rob him of a family heirloom. (page 260)
During the last 31 years, 38,000 houses were built in London. (page 268)
The future George IV was just about 30 years old at this time, but was already renowned for certain predilictions:
The Prince of Wales’ punch: 1 bottle champagne, 1 bottle Burgundy, 1 bottle rum, 10 lemons, 2 oranges, 1½ lbs. of sugar. (page 270)
And lest anybody believe that Haydn’s honorary degree from Oxford (or as he spells it, Oxforth) was entirely a gift from the university, here’s his tally:
I had to pay 1½ guineas for having the bells rung at Oxforth in connection with my doctor’s degree, and ½ a guinea for the robe. The trip cost 6 guineas. (page 274)
With the character of Haydn’s daybook now apparent, we are ready for his one-paragraph description of his visit to Slough. I have retained Haydn’s misspelling of Herschel’s name, as well as a blank space. Apparently Haydn didn’t know exactly where he was, and he intended to fill in the name later.
On 15th June I went from Windsor to ________ to Doctor Hershel, where I saw the great telescope. It is 40 feet long and 5 feet in diameter. The machinery is very big, but so ingenious that a single man can put it in motion with the greatest ease. There are also 2 smaller, of which one is 22 feet long and magnifies 6000 times. The King had 2 made for himself, each of which measures 12 feet. He paid him 1000 guineas for them. In his younger days Dʳ Hershel was in the Prussian service as an oboe player. During the seven-years’ war he deserted with his brother and went to England, where he supported himself as a musician for many years: he became an organist at Bath, but gradually turned more to astronomy. After having provided himself with the necessary instruments, he left Bath, rented a room near Windsor, and studied day and night. His landlady was a widow, fell in love with him, married him, and gave him a dowry of £100,000. Besides this he has a yearly pension for life of £500 from the King, and his wife, at the age of 45, presented him with a son this year, 1792. Ten years ago he had his sister come, and she is of the greatest assistance to him in his observations. Sometimes he sits for 5 or 6 hours under the open sky in the bitterest cold weather. (pages 254 – 255)
Haydn certainly packs a lot of information into this paragraph, but not the kind we’re looking for. As Daniel Gregory Mason remarks in Beethoven and His Forerunners (NY: Macmillan Company, 1922), page 187:
The entire diary exhibits a similar thriftiness, shrewdness, and practicality; by impressing the reader with the curiously prosaic and matter-of-fact quality of Haydn’s mind, it throws as much light on the essential character of his music as on that of his personality. Fancy Beethoven, or any other speculative, imaginative mind, going to see Dr. Herschel’s great telescope, looking through it at the stars, and then carefully recording in his journal: “It is forty feet long and five feet in diameter”!
Fortunately, some other biographies provide additional information. In The King’s Astronomer: William Herschel (J. Messner, 1968), Deborah Crawford first tells the story of the Archbishop of Canterbury and continues (page 142):
After that auspicious afternoon, it became the fashion of visitors in the Windsor area to visit the telescope for a stately, slightly scary promenade. The popular and prolific composer Franz Joseph Haydn snatched a day from the turmoil of London engagements to seek out the musician-astronomer and admire his latest accomplishment.
“I could conduct a small orchestra inside it!” he marveled. William rose to the occasion.
“But Maestro,” he said, laughing, “think of the echoes!”
Other sources fail to elaborate on the conversions between Haydn and Herschel. Here’s Rosemary Hughes in Haydn (London: J.M. Dent, revised edition, 1966), page 84:
He found time for a trip to Windsor, where he duly admired St. George’s Chapel and the ‘divine’ view from the terrace, Ascot races, of which his description is as racy as a Rowlandson print, and Slough, home of the famous astronomer Herschel and his sister Caroline. He respectfully noted down the measurements of Herschel’s giant telescope, and perhaps (as Tovey suggests) stored away at the back of his mind some impression of the vastness of the interstellar spaces, which later fired his imagination as he worked on The Creation.
The author of an article in the scholarly periodical The Haydn Yearbook seems to not want to make a commitment to any influence for the composition of The Creation. The back-to-back uses of “It has been suggested” and “He is said to have been” are ideal realizations of cautious scholarship:
It has been suggested that the idea to compose such a work arose in Haydn’s mind after he had attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah during the first sojourn in England, and after a visit to the astronomer William Herschel, both in 1792. He is said to have been deeply impressed by what Herschel told him about the wonders of the universe when he observed the skies through a telescope. (Joachim Hurwitz, “Haydn and the Freemasons,” The Haydn Yearbook, Volume XVI, University College Cardiff Press, 1985, page 70)
Pauline D. Townsend in Joseph Haydn (London: Sampson Low, 1884) dangles a morsel and then just as quickly drops it in the dust (page 101):
Haydn’s diary mentions his acquaintance with the astronomer William Herschel and his sister as one of great interest to him.
The standard biography of Haydn is probably Haydn: A Creative Life in Music, third revised and expanded edition by Karl Geiringer in collaboration with Irene Geiringer (University of California Press, 1982), but the description of Haydn’s visit barely goes beyond the daybook (page 127):
The next day the indefatigable traveler went to Slough to meet William Herschel. Haydn was very much interested in this German musician who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 after working on astronomy as a hobby and was now universally acclaimed as an astronomer. The main attraction for Haydn was of course Herschel’s gigantic telescope. Before it was raised skyward Herschel’s most prominent visitors were allowed to take a walk through the enormous tube. In 1787, King George III and his retinue did so and the monarch was delighted thus to be able to show the Archbishop of Canterbury “the way to Heaven.” Haydn had to content himself with gazing at the monster, the measurements of which he faithfully put down in his notebook, together with facts regarding the astronomer’s very felicitous financial status. (He had married a widow with a dowry of one hundred thousand pounds.) Apparently Haydn was much impressed by Herschel’s ability to “sit from five to six hours under the open sky in the severest cold weather.”
The Geiringers take a cue from Tovey in describing the chromatic harmonies of the Representation of Chaos (page 356):
Tovey even goes so far as to compare them to the music of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. He suggests moreover that Haydn, who had met the astronomer Herschel, may have heard about the evolution of the cosmos out of chaos, and that these ideas inspired him to write the overture.
The other major modern biography of Haydn is British musicologist David Wyn Jones’ The Life of Haydn (Cambridge University Press, 2009) but he provides less than a sentence while quoting from Haydn’s daybook:
June was more relaxed. He went to Windsor Castle (‘The view from the terrace is divine’), the races at Ascot (‘The riders are very lightly clad in silk, and each one has a different colour . . . they are as lean as a greyhound’) and to Slough to one of the great attractions of the day, Herschel’s telescope (‘It is 40 feet long and 5 feet in diameter. The machinery is very big, but so ingenious that a single man can put it in motion with the greatest ease’).
The most extensive account of Haydn’s visit is provided by German-born journalist (and author of several other books on German composers) Heinrich Eduard Jacob in his book Joseph Haydn: His Art, Times, and Glory translated by Richard and Clara Winston (NY: Rinehart, 1950). A three-page chapter entitled “Glimpse of the Cosmos” (page 210) begins
Shortly after his departure from London, Haydn made a visit he never was to forget. Armed with a letter of recommendation from Burney, he visited the man who was “closer to the heavens than any other Englishman of his time” — to paraphrase a saying of King George III. This man was William Herschel, the astronomer. On June 15, in the afternoon, he received Haydn at his tower at Slough, near Windsor, where stood the great telescope that he himself had built. Earlier that same day, Haydn had attended a horse race in Ascot. . . . But his enthusiasm over the horse race was soon forgotten in the presence of the great astronomer.
Charles Burney was a well-known music critic and music historian of the era, and a champion of Haydn’s music. Burney is perhaps best known today as the father of the pre-Austen novelist Fanny Burney, who also has a connection with the Herschels. When Caroline discovered her first comet, Miss Burney had the opportunity to view it through a telescope and wrote in her diary “The comet was very small, and had nothing grand or striking in its appearance; but it is the first lady’s comet, and I was very desirous to see it.” (Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, Henry Colburn, 1842, Vol. III, pages 130 – 131)
Heinrich Eduard Jacob continues his chapter on Haydn and Herschel with a brief outline of Herschel’s life, including how he had begun to build his own telescopes and polish his own mirrors even when he was still working as a musician.
Haydn, who had had such a struggle in his youth to acquire the tools of his trade, could not fail to be moved by the similarity of Herschel’s experience. The latter had, without assistance, done in astronomy what Haydn had accomplished in music. But what touched Haydn most was the fact that Herschel’s astronomical researches were an avocation; he earned his living by music and since he was a member of an orchestra, his time was constantly taken up by rehearsals and evening performances. “Often,” he told Haydn, “I stole away from the concert hall or theater to glance up at the starry sky, but I always returned in time to take my place in the orchestra.”
Not until Herschel had discovered the planet Uranus, in 1781, did King George III take steps to free him from his wearing daily occupation. From then on, with an annual stipend, he was able to live for his researches. The long winter nights, with darkness falling at six o’clock, gave the astronomer a chance to work for extended, uninterrupted periods. “Would you believe me,” he said almost casually to Haydn, “that in a strip of space fifteen degrees long and two degrees wide there were 50,000 fixed stars and 466 nebulae?”
The vastness of space was staggering to the imagination, and Haydn was awe-stricken as he stood in the semi-darkness of the observatory with this man who was on a familiar footing with the stars. Food and wine were brought. The woman who served them in silence . . .
I will pause here in anticipation of the reader’s facepalm.
. . . was the astronomer’s sister, Caroline Herschel, who worked as his secretary. . . .
Haydn at first refused to look. Later he did look, but very briefly. At his first glimpse of the cosmos through this monster forty-inch telescope, his perception of space was so shocked that he became cold. Trembling, he turned up his collar, although it was a June night. More than twenty minutes elapsed before he could utter a word. Then he murmured, “So high . . . so far . . .”
. . .
That night, Sir Donald Tovey believes, the germ of The Creation sprang to life within Haydn.
Heinrich Eduard Jacob’s biography was evidently a primary source for North Carolinian poet and author Fred Chappell’s fictional treatment of Haydn’s encounter with Herschel. Chappell’s wonderful short story “Moments of Light” was first published in The George Review (Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring 1979, pages 47 – 63) and thereafter in the collections Moments of Light (New South Co, 1980; Boson Books, 1996), The Fred Chappell Reader (St. Martin’s Press, 1987), and Ancestors and Others: New and Selected Stories (St. Martin’s Press, 2009).
In Fred Chappell’s short story, Charles Burney accompanies Haydn to the Herschel home, and perhaps for the benefit of Dr. Burney, they all speak English. Haydn is at first reluctant to look through the telescope. “New discoveries in the supralunary heavens seemed to be reported almost daily in those years and they disturbed profoundly the four-square fabric of Haydn’s nature.”
Caroline joins the men while they consume some port and talk about the possibility of life on other worlds, but she takes leave of them because she “was engaged in a series of elaborate astronomical calculations and could spare little time during these weeks.”
After dinner, as it’s getting dark, and the man are having more port, they finally decide to go out to the telescope.
Against the purple horizon the telescope presented a startling aspect. It was seated within a tall open-work pyramid of joists, crossbeams, and ladders, stark against the sky like the skeleton of some monstrous insect. At the huge mouth of the instrument open to the stars were two platforms, a smaller above a larger. The other end rested within or upon a little hut situated within the base of the pyramid. The tube of the glass was thicker in diameter than Haydn had expected. As they mounted the ladder to the first platform Haydn — a little breathlessly — remarked upon this.
Herschel did not reply until they reached the safety of the platform. Then he said, “The diameter often surprises those who have only heard of its length. Before the optical part was finished and the tube lay yonder on the grass, many visitors had the curiosity to walk through. Two of those so moved were King George and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In their passage the Archbishop happened to stumble slightly on one of the interior supports. The King then reached him his hand, saying, Come, my Lord Bishop, I will show you the way to Heaven.”
Some stories are just too good to avoid repeating.
At first Haydn refuses to look into the telescope. He seems to be suffering vertigo. Caroline is called to administer some wine and cakes to Haydn. “Caroline stayed by Haydn; and he was grateful, for he was always soothed by the presence of women.”
When Haydn at long last does venture to look through the telescope, he is sucked through the tube and propelled into outer space, and I’m not sure I should go any further without ruining the story, except that Fred Chappell notes towards the end:
Two scholars at least have declared that this acquaintance with the cosmos made Haydn’s mind more receptive to the music of the young composer Beethoven, who was then twenty-three. . . . And Sir Donald Tovey, in his Essays in Musical Analysis, declares that it was on the platform of Herschel’s observatory that The Creation was born. . . .
Still, neither Heinrich Eduard Jacob nor Fred Chappell in their elaborate recountings of this memorable evening mention the Nebular Hypothesis, which Tovey claims is depicted in the Representation of Chaos at the beginning of Haydn’s oratorio.
Disappointment awaits as we get closer to the Herschels and their recollections. The Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel (London: John Murray, 1876) does not mention Haydn at all, and he’s not in the index.
I have not been able to find any mention of Haydn in several of Michael Hoskin’s many books on the Herschels, but the search has not been exhaustive.
The book The Herschel Chronicle: The Life-Story of William Herschel and His Sister Caroline Herschel (Cambridge University Press, 1933, reprinted 1997), “edited by his Granddaughter Constance A. Lubbock,” is generally considered a trustworthy source because it’s largely based on William Herschel’s autobiographical notes, Caroline’s journal, letters, and other documents. It is here that we find something else going on with William in 1792 (page 233):
Early in this year, 1792, William Herschel accepted an invitation from the University of Glasgow to visit their city and to receive in person the honor of the degree of Doctor of Laws.
The next paragraph, however, contains an error:
In August, 1792, William Herschel and General Komarzewski set out on a leisurely tour of the north, their ultimate goal being Glasgow. Herschel kept a very detailed Journal, in pencil, of this tour; some extracts may be of interest.
The error is the mention of August. We know this is a mistake because it doesn’t agree with any other date on the next four pages. Right after that paragraph, the first quoted except from Herschel's Journal says “May 29, 1792. Set off from Slough.” On the first day they travelled 46 miles, through Henley, Benson, Oxford, and Woodstock, and then Chapel House, Halford Bridge, and Warwick on May 30. By June 3, they were in Birmingham, where Herschel dined with James Watt. The next day they visited the Soho Manufactory, an early assembly line, and on June 8 “We saw the making of a steam boiler fifty feet long.” From there they went into Wales, and then further north to Scotland and by July 3, they were in Glasgow, where Herschel went to a dinner at the University. He recorded:
After dinner the Principal addressing himself to me desired to drink my health as Doctor of Laws of the University of Glasgow and read a diploma to that purpose, which he afterwards presented to me.
They were back in Slough on July 19, 1792, having entirely missing Haydn’s visit on June 15.
Herschel’s trip to Scotland is also described in John Louis Emil Dreyer’s biographical introduction to the first of the two volumes of The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel (Cambridge University Press, 1912, 2013), beginning on page lix:
The tour in 1792 was made in company with General Komarzewski, a Pole, whose acquaintance Herschel had made a couple of years earlier, and who seems to have been a man of considerable culture, specially interested in chemistry and mineralogy. It was probably on his account that this trip took the special form of a tour of inspection of the principal factories of the middle and north of England, at every one of which Herschel made detailed notes of the machinery he saw, illustrating them by numerous sketches of everything that interested him. He had a 7-foot telescope with him, and often treated his hosts to a view of Jupiter, etc., in the evening. Starting from Slough on the 29th May …
The only real discrepancy between the two accounts involves the date that they reached Glasgow. The biographical sketch in the Scientific Papers says that in the Birmingham area they
devoted nearly a fortnight to examining various iron-works in the vicinity. Next to Bangor and Carnarvon, then to Manchester, where there were cotton mills in plenty and also glassworks to be seen; then via Liverpool, Preston, and Carlisle to Glasgow, arriving there on the 29th June.
The biographical sketch agrees with the Herschel Chronicle that on the return trip, “Slough was reached on the 19th July.”
It is now obvious why Haydn didn’t write about an actual meeting with Herschel. William was somewhere in the vicinity of Birmingham on that day. Nor does Haydn say that he met Caroline. Somebody obviously gave Haydn the grand tour. Caroline’s memoirs indicate that a man had been hired “for showing the telescopes to the curious strangers” (page 75). Haydn was shown the telescope, and as its size and cost were reeled off, he dutifully recorded the numbers in his daybook. But there was no conversation about “cosmic loneliness” or the Nebular Hypothesis or anything else.
To be sure, not everyone fell into the trap of imagining a face-to-face meeting. In its article on William Herschel, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980) reports “Among those who visited Herschel’s establishment at Slough were Haydn (who arrived while Herschel was in Glasgow receiving one of the honorary degrees awarded him).” (Volume 8, page 522)
Deirdre Loughridge’s history Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism (University of Chicago Press, 2016) covers some of the same period as Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder (and also references that book) but notes (Page 36):
While Haydn’s own astronomical activities are less well documented [than those of the Esterházy family], his interest is attested to by his 1792 visit to William Herschel’s massive forty-foot telescope in Slough, England. (Herschel, is it worth noting, was a Hanover-born musician turned internationally renowned astronomer and instrument maker, who believed there was life on the moon; Herschel was away at the time of Haydn’s visit, however, suggesting that it was specifically the telescope that he went to see.)
The author’s source is the four-page article “Haydn and Salomon, and Their Visit to Herschel’s Telescope at Slough, June 1792” by Laurence Joyce (Haydn Studien Volume 8, 2000–2004, pages 289–292). Based on the visitors’ book maintained at the time at the Slough observatory, the article establishes that Haydn was accompanied not by Charles Burney but by Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario who originally invited Haydn to England and who organized the concerts of his new symphonies. But it is very clear that Herschel was not present:
The myth that Haydn, when he visited Observatory House at Slough in 1792, met and talked with the astronomer Sir William Herschel has been perpetuated by various authors, including Sir Donald Tovey and, in a particularly mischievous account, Heinrich Eduard Jacob. Tovey asserts that the composer “doubtless had much conversation with Herschel in German on both music and astronomy,” while Jacob, in a passage of pure fiction, describes a scene in which a reluctant Haydn, persuaded by the astronomer to look at the night sky through his giant telescope, is so affected by what he sees that he is rendered speechless for twenty minutes, eventually regaining his voice with the dramatic words: “’So high . . . so far . . . ‘”. Jacob concludes his fantasy by ascribing to Tovey the belief that this was the night when “the germ of The Creation sprang to life within Haydn.”
I’m not sure “mischievous” is the word I’d use for describing Jacob’s chapter, but I wonder at his motivation for such an elaborate fabrication.
What is certain is that Joseph Haydn and William Herschel did not meet in Slough — except in the imagination of those writers who wished it had been so. Nor does it seem probable that the composer gazed upon the night sky through one of Herschel’s telescopes.
A footnote indicates that even if Herschel had been there, midsummer in Britain is not a good time for astronomical observations because “the sky remains partially illuminated for much of the night.”
We must ascribe the extraordinary music contained in the “Representation of Chaos” at the beginning of The Creation solely to Haydn’s genius.
There better be a lesson to be drawn from all this, if only that it’s yet another example how stretching the truth tends to reverberate through successive accounts and generations, even affecting as great a book as Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder.
As I contemplate the failure of Haydn and Herschel to meet, and I visualize the misinformation and wishful thinking swirling in space and coalescing into imagined conversations and misguided musical influences, I recall what Herschel did not say to Haydn when Haydn did not claim that he could conduct a whole orchestra inside the telescope tube:
“But Maestro, think of the echoes!”