Correspondence | Published:

Sky was not the limit for music-loving Herschel

Nature volume 407, page 286 (21 September 2000) | Download Citation


Sir — In a review of Ludmilla Jordanova's Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraits 1660–2000, Lisa Jardine describes a portrait of the astronomer William Herschel that includes the night sky1. Commenting on portraits, she writes: “As in Herschel's case, what distinguishes the scientist from other celebrities … is that, where the politician might hold a pen and the musician his instrument, the scientist's portrait is likely to allude to the scientific breakthrough itself”.

From this comment, one might not guess that, before he became a famous astronomer, Herschel was a professional musician of some distinction. He was active as an oboist, a violinist, an organist, an orchestra director and — most interestingly — a composer2. Herschel wrote symphonies, concertos, chamber music and vocal works2,3.

In June 1792, Joseph Haydn visited Herschel's observatory near Slough4. By that time, Herschel was a full-time astronomer, and it appears that Haydn's visit was motivated primarily by an interest in Herschel's astronomical activities.


  1. 1.

    Nature 405, 397–398 ( 2000).

  2. 2.

    & “Herschel, Sir William” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (ed Sadie, S.) vol. 8, 520–522 (Macmillan, London, 1980).

  3. 3.

    The Oboe Concertos of Sir William Herschel (ed Jerome, W. D.): Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 225 (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1998).

  4. 4.

    Haydn in England 1791–1795 (Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 3) 176–177 (Thames and Hudson, London, 1976).

Download references

Author information


  1. VA Medical Center and University of Pennsylvania, University & Woodland Avenues, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA

    • Martin F. Heyworth


  1. Search for Martin F. Heyworth in:

About this article

Publication history




By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Newsletter Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing