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 Lutheran ancestry. It has been proposed by Hershel's biographer Holden that his father's family traced its roots back to Jews from Moravia who converted to Christianity in the seventeenth century, and they themselves were Lutheran Christians.
Herschel's 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).
Original manuscript of Symphony No. 15 in E flat major (1762).
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 from 1760 to 1761. He visited the home of Sir Ralph Milbanke at Halnaby Hall near Darlington in 1760,:14 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).:411
In 1766, Herschel became organist of the Octagon Chapel, Bath, a fashionable chapel in a well-known spa, in which city he was also 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. On 4 October 1767, he performed on the organ for the official opening of the Octagon Chapel.
His sister Caroline arrived in England on 24 August 1772 to live with William in New King Street, Bath.:1–25 The house they shared is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Herschel's brothers Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob (1734–1792) also appeared as musicians of Bath. In 1780, Herschel was appointed director of the Bath orchestra, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist.