However, Herschel was unwilling to consider a move to busy but musically competitive London. So, after a brief stint as organist at Halifax Parish Church in West Yorkshire – according to Miller he informed the panel during his audition that he had already taken up a better offer elsewhere – he moved to Bath in 1776, where he found a city of up-and-coming class sophistication, with a burgeoning intellectual scene and the newly built Octagon Chapel, from which Herschel built a small musical empire built around oratorio performances and subscription concerts.
Several years earlier, William’s sister Caroline had followed her brothers to England. Reports of her story also obscure her early musical interest. As the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first published woman to publish scientific research and the first female scientist to receive a salary, Caroline moved to England after an intervention from her brother – to free her from a life from household grind after their father’s death – and began taking singing lessons, eventually becoming the house soprano in William’s oratorio performances, at a time when performing families were fashionable.
Herschel believed that music belonged to one of the four liberal arts of the quadrivium, alongside arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. Using two 18th-century books by Cambridge scholar Robert Smith – “Harmonics” and “A Compleat System of Opticks” – he began to tackle astronomy with the same self-taught zeal he used in teaching English through the dense texts. by John Locke. And one of his first homemade Newtonian reflector telescopes brought about a change that would turn Herschel into a nocturnal celebrity: the discovery, in March 1781, of Uranus, which he initially thought was another comet. Herschel submissively named that planet Georgium Sidus to the delight of King George III, who later offered him a salary with the title of “the king’s astronomer.”
The position meant he got a big pay cut from his profitable music company, but Herschel nevertheless left music to set his sights on the heavens. When the Herschels moved to Slough to be closer to the king, the telescopes got bigger, the surveys more ambitious, and the celebrity more intense.
Although Herschel’s musical compositions had stalled with the move, there is a mystery surrounding his relationship with Haydn, who visited the observatory in June 1792. In ‘Essays in Musical Analysis’, classic parts of the 1930s, Sir Donald Tovey concluded that Herschel’s famous 40-foot telescope was the cosmic inspiration for the famous opening of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation”. The problem: The records show that Herschel was out of town at the time. But perhaps Caroline, his trusted assistant at the time, could have led Haydn to his moment of clarity?