The 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, represented a period of
exceptional creativity in Europe in the fields of literature, art and science.
This cultural movement touched on all areas of kowledge and tried to solve
all the great fundamental questions which followed from Leibnitz's postulation:
is there something rather than nothing?" Astronomers thus searched
to understand why the universe was organised, not chaotic, and musicians
tried to explain why there was music, not noise.
The temptation to merge these two questions into one was too great and that is why such great names as Galileo, Kepler, Mersenne and finally Herschel at the end of the 18th century, continued the research of their distant precursors, Pythagoras, Plato, Boetius, Thales and Cassiodorus who, since earliest times, had already tried to unite their celestal and musical preoccupations.
William Herschel left his mark on his lifetime both as musician as well as astronomer and if history has only retained the latter aspect, this is due to the impact of his scientific work.
William Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany, on 17th November 1738. His father, Isaac, was an oboist in the infantery regiment. The young William received his basic musical education at the garrison school learning the oboe and violin, while his elder brother Jacob (1734-1792) turned to the organ.
At the end of the Seven Years war, William Herschel came to live in England and found work firstly in London as a copyist and then in Durham as a teacher. At the same time, he continued his linguistic, mathematical and astronomical studies and also polished the first bronze mirrors that he was to use in his first telescopes. As a valued musician, he benefitted from the protection of the Duke of York, became organist and choirmaster in Halifax, then at Bath, which was then one of the cultural centres of England, where he developped the musical life and also at Bristol where he presented concerts at the Theatre Royal.
The year 1781 represented a turning-point in the
life of Herschel; his astronomical observations were crowned with glory
by the discovery of Uranus, the first planet invisible to the naked eye!
Such a discovery was of exceptional importance and marked a new era of
progress in astronomy two centuries after Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.
Raised to the position of Astronomer Royal by King George III, Herschel
progressively gave up his musical activities in order to devote himself
entirely to astronomy. Installing himself at Slough, near Windsor, he undertook
the building of numerous telescopes and tirelessly observed the heavens
helped by his sister Caroline (1750-1848). By his marriage to Mary Pitt
in 1788, he had a son John William Frederik (1792-1871) who became an astronomer
of renown in his own right as well.
Herschel's fame led him to meet many of the well-known personalities of his age. He established friendships with Joseph Haydn in Glasgow, Johann Christian Bach in London, and other scientists, among them Laplace whom he met on a trip to Paris.
In prusuing his astronomical observations and work, he was the first to imagine that the universe originated from an explosion and was also the first to produce evidence of the existence of galaxies. He was also at the origin of the discovery of infrared rays. One year before his death, he became the first president of the Royal Astronomical Society.
In the musical world, Herschel gained distinction
both as a composer and as an instrumentalist be it on the violin, oboe
or organ. His compositions show the change in style between the baroque
and classical and show strong contrasts both in the use of thematic materials
and in orchestral texture. His last works, the concertos and sonatas show
the influence of the gallant italinate style of J. C. Bach with its emphasis
on lyricism whereas his earlier symphonies follow the orchestral practices
typical of the Berlin and Dresden schools. His works for organ retain the
freshness of the voluntaries of John Stanley or William Boyce along with
some less conventional compositions in which le used the exprissive capabilities
of the swell organ to produce contrasts is sound.
William Herschel is buried inWestminster Abbey.
The organ works
Herschel's complete musical output is as follows:
Keyboard works groupes in several compilations for
organ and harpsichord:
- 6 fugues for organ
- 24 sonatas for organ (of which 10 are lost)
- 33 voluntaries and pieces for organ (incomplete)
- 24 pieces for organ (incomplete)
- 12 voluntaries (of which 11 are lost)
- 3 sonatas for harpsichord
- 25 variations on an ascending scale
- 2 minuets for harpsichord
In order to present as great panorama as possible, we have made a selection of the musically most complete works which show the characteristics of 18th century English musical style. The programme includes all 6 fugues in alternance with some of the 33 voluntaries as well as 2 of the 24 sonatas (Allegros 1 and 9). None of these pieces seems to have been published or recorded and the long job of bringing them to life has been done using microfilm of the manuscripts.
The present recording
These organ works by William Herschel have been recorded on the Cavaille-Coll organ of the Church of Notre Dame de l'Assomption at Meudon. Although small in size, this instrument is in many ways ideal for this type of music. Herschel's organ at Halifax and Bath were the work of the Swiss organ builder Snetzler. In 1866, Cavaille-Coll got to know Urbain Leverrier, the Director of the Paris Observatory, who had discovered the planet Neptune in 1846, and he built a windchest which supplied a system of rotating mirrors in order to measure precisely the speed of light between Paris Observatory and the hill of Montmartre!
The organ has 10 stops spread over 2 manuals of 54 notes each and a pedal board of 30 notes. It was built in 1887 and has been subject to occasional rebuildings with varying degrees of success without changing its actual characteristics. At the beginning os 1992, the organ builder Nicolas Toussaint carried out a major restauration.
The choice of Meudon is symbolic firstly because of the great organists who lived there such as Alexandre Guilmant and Marcel Dupre, secondly because of the musicians who stayed there such as Richard Wagner and Georges Enesco, an finally by the presence of its observatory, one of the most important and renowed centres of astronomical research in the world.
I would like to thank most warmly numerous
organists, astronomers and friends for their interest and encouragement
in getting this disc off the ground, especially Storm Dunlop and Gus Orchard
I have dedicates it to the memory of my teacher Pierre Moreau (1907-1991) who was cotitular organist at Notre Dame de Paris.
Dominique Proust, translated by Gus Orchard.
The works presented on this recording are the work of one astronomer-musician
recorded three centuries lates by another.
Dominique Proust has both
scientific and musical background. He is research enginner at the CNRS
and works at the Observatory at Meudon where his work is orientated towards
cosmology after his doctoral thesis. He has visited most of the international
observatories and made observations using the world's largest telescopes.
He studied organ with the organists of Notre Dame de Paris and Saint Sulpice. He is organist at Meudon and has given concerts in Europe, Canada, the USA, Brazil and Chile. He is a member of the Regional Commissions for organs and has co-produced and participated in scientific and music programmes on French Radio and television.
Astrophysicien á l'Observatoire de Meudon, sur l'orgue Cavaillé-Coll
de l'Eglise Notre-Dame de l'Assomption á Meudon.
1 - Fugue n°1 en ré majeur.
2 - Prélude n°1 en do majeur.
3 - Fugue n°2 en do majeur.
4 - Allegro n°9 en do majeur.
5 - Fugue n°3 en do majeur.
6 - Prélude n°24 en do majeur.
7 - Fugue n°4 en sol majeur.
8 - Allegro n°1 en sol majeur.
9 - Fugue n°5 en ré mineur.
10 - Prélude n°7 en do majeur.
11 - Fugue n°6 en mi bémol majeur.