Early life and musical activities
Herschel was born in the Electorate of Hanover in Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, one of ten children of Isaac Herschel by his marriage to Anna Ilse Moritzen, of German ancestry. 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. 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. Although his older brother Jakob had received his dismissal from the Hanoverian Guards, Wilhelm was accused of desertion (for which he was pardoned by George III in 1782). Wilhelm, nineteen years old at this time, was a quick student of the English language. In England he went by the English rendition of his name, Frederick William Herschel.
In addition to the oboe, he played the violin and harpsichord and later the organ. He composed numerous musical works, including 24 symphonies and many concertos, as well as some church music. Six of his symphonies were recorded in April 2002 by the London Mozart Players, conducted by Matthias Bamert (Chandos 10048).
Herschel moved to Sunderland in 1761 when Charles Avison immediately engaged him as first violin and soloist for his Newcastle orchestra, where he played for one season. In ‘Sunderland in the County of Durh: apprill [sic] 20th 1761’ he wrote his Symphony No. 8 in C Minor. He was head of the Durham Militia band 1760–61 and visited the home of Sir Ralph Milbanke at Halnaby Hall near Darlington in 1760, where he wrote two symphonies, as well as giving performances himself.
After Newcastle, he moved to Leeds and Halifax where he was the first organist at St John the Baptist church (now Halifax Minster). He became organist of the Octagon Chapel on Milsom Street in Bath and the City’s Director of Public Concerts. He was appointed as the organist in 1766 and gave his introductory concert on 1 January 1767. As the organ was still incomplete, he showed off his versatility by performing his own compositions including a violin concerto, an oboe concerto and a harpsichord sonata. The organ was completed in October 1767. His sister Caroline came to England in 1772 and lived with him here in New King Street, Bath. In 1780, Herschel was appointed director of the Bath orchestra, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist.
Herschel’s complete musical works were as follows:
- 18 symphonies for small orchestra (1760–1762)
- 6 symphonies for large orchestra (1762–1764)
- 12 concertos for oboe, violin and viola (1759–1764)
- 2 concertos for organ
- 6 sonatas for violin, cello and harpsichord (published 1769)
- 12 solos for violin and basso continuo (1763)
- 24 capriccios and 1 sonata for solo violin
- 1 andante for two basset horns, two oboes, two horns and two bassoons.
Various vocal works including a “Te Deum”, psalms, motets and sacred chants along with some catches.
Keyboard works for organ and harpsichord:
- 6 fugues for organ
- 24 sonatas for organ (10 now lost)
- 33 voluntaries and pieces for organ (incomplete)
- 24 pieces for organ (incomplete)
- 12 voluntaries (11 now lost)
- 12 sonatas for harpsichord (9 extant)
- 25 variations on an ascending scale
- 2 minuets for harpsichord
Take a look at the BBC Music website to listen to and download several recordings of William Herschel’s music.