William Herschel: Symphony no. 8 in Cm for strings

performed by the London Mozart Players under Matthias Bamert

Yes, that William Herschel. The one who discovered Uranus. Feel free to giggle.

Frederick William Herschel (but actually Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel) was born on 15 November, 1738, in Hanover, “in Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, one of ten children of Isaac Herschel by his marriage to Anna Ilse Moritzen.” So yeah… wait a minute. Isn’t this the English Symphony Series?

Well, yeah. Herschel was born in Hanover to German parents with a very German-sounding name, but he did rather quickly find himself in England. Wikipedia says:

His father was an oboist in the Hanover Military Band. In 1755 the Hanoverian Guards regiment, in whose band Wilhelm and his brother Jakob were engaged as oboists, was ordered to England.

The most salient point, though, is what follows. No history lesson here, but:

At the time the crowns of Great Britain and Hanover were united under King George II. As the threat of war with France loomed, the Hanoverian Guards were recalled from England to defend Hanover. After they were defeated at the Battle of Hastenbeck, Herschel’s father Isaak sent his two sons to seek refuge in England in late 1757.

So basically he was a transplant, and in fact, the above-linked Wikipedia article actually refers to him as “a British astronomer and composer of German origin,” and that, along with the fact that he’s more famous as an astronomer, and the beautiful featured image of today’s article, means that he gets included, and at the very least is a good first step, from German tradition into England. Deal with it.

Herschel was 19 when he landed in England, but I’ve found very little of his  actual musical studies. I assume it was under his father, and in association with the Hanover Military Band, but Herschel could play the harpsichord, oboe, violin, and later the organ. He was also no slouch at composing, having written a total of 24 symphonies and an apparently large number of concertos.

This eighth symphony dates from the middle of the 18th century, within a decade of Herschel’s arrival in England. We shan’t talk (much) about his astronomical achievements, but he was the first person in modern history to have discovered a planet, announcing his discovery of Uranus on March 13, 1781. King George III, who you’ll remember was also ruling over Hanover, wanted to recognize Herschel for his achievement, but also wanted to play with his toys, so Herschel was given an annual £200 stipend with the condition that he move to Windsor and let the Royal Family look through his telescopes. What an overachiever. Thankfully, though, his gesture to name the new planet ‘George’, after his new financial friend, was shot down and it was given a name that has made schoolchildren giggle for at least the past half century, likely longer.

This eighth symphony is about twelve minutes long, and is in three movements:

I. Allegro assai
II. [Andante]
III. Presto assai

The work begins with a breathtaking gesture, a spinning, breathtaking, even stellar-sounding string part, as if we are racing through the cosmos, but things lighten up quickly, with more transparent textures, but the ear, the entire soul, is drawn along on this line that Herschel has written for us. It’s almost cinematic in its emotional power and straightforwardness, and we hear a clear exposition repeat when that initial line returns, with the basses crunching out the full-boned heartbeat of this electrifying first movement.

Ugh, maybe that sounds so corny, but this symphony really is nothing short of gripping to my ear, and let it be known that I’m not one to be particularly taken with mid-18th-century music.

Listen to the remainder of the movement, how the recognizable material from the opening is still very much there, but presented in a new way, even featuring a small violin solo, and the feeling is that the complete thought has been presented, that we have a satisfying close.

The second movement is equally stunning in its emotional power. It’s understated, reserved, but sounds like a funeral march on the order of what Beethoven would later do in his third symphony, but actually seems in some ways materially similar to allegretto of Beethoven’s seventh, half a century later. It’s simple, pure, clean, deep water, stirs the soul, it’s beautiful, but somber, melancholy, utterly perfect.

And what have we to round out this truly splendid work? The opening of the presto assai seems to suggest the first movement not only in spirit, but perhaps even in content. We reach another driving, commanding, spirited movement, but there’s a more stately approach, one off triumph, with touches of delicacy, really a beautiful work. These two ideas, the driving Cm first one, and the lighter, more cheerful one, are presented again, and I really love how one morphs into the other so naturally.

I wish I knew more about this piece, because it is so outrageously compelling to me that I feel it must have some kind of extramusical idea, some inspiration, perhaps to commemorate an occasion, or as a dedication to someone. We may never know, but this twelve-minute symphony is packed with such powerful content in such a small package, so full of energy, of emotion, and written so exquisitely, that I have to indulge myself every now and then and give it a few back-to-back listens.

You might say that it sounds cliché, overdone, but people from before the 90s wouldn’t say that. Remember the De Beers commercial that featured this gripping little tune? That’s (parts of) Palladio, from Karl Jenkins, who is Welsh, composed in 1995. The diamond cartel ran ads with that piece that made it seem trite and canned; we owned some album or other with that movement on it, and it was like the most intense film music I’d ever heard. Well, it’s a legitimate piece of classical music, even if not the greatest ever written, but we won’t talk about that now.

What I mean to say is that Herschel’s piece here is the real deal, more than two centuries before any company selling shiny chunks of carbon decided to turn some catch string orchestra work into their memorable, dramatic commercial. So yeah, Herschel’s symphony is amazing, and wraps up the three stunning movements in a relatively unassuming but still satisfying way.

This is the genius who discovered a planet, the first person to do so definitively, as all the others had been observed for millennia prior. I suppose we can be glad for all that political/historical stuff that eventually got Herschel in England, at the very least for his musical career, but it’s likely that he, genius that he was, would have continued to do great things in Hanover as well.

Bamert and the London Symphony Players have recorded a total of six of Herschel’s 24 symphonies, and you can find the album here, as well as elsewhere, I’m sure. I’m certainly eager to get around to hearing more.

But that’s going to be all from Herschel for now. I debated on what order to put these first two works, because tomorrow’s is from a legitimately English composer born nearly three decades before Herschel was, but the symphony of his we happen to be discussing was (likely, possibly, apparently) written a few years later, and it’s kind of good to put the transplanted composer first, as an introduction to all the other born-and-reared English composers. There’s so much good stuff to hear in this series, about which I am very excited and to which I have been looking very forward. Do stay tuned, and let me know if you find anything particularly enjoyable. Cheers.


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