SCHENECTADY – Astronomy and music may not be the usual connection people might make for a concert, but the Musicians of Ma’alwyck think it’s fitting. On Saturday, they’ll give a concert called “Celestial Melodies” at miSci’s planetarium, complete with a sky show.
“There’s so much interest in astronomy and our origins and with the new James Webb telescope … and last summer we heard a radio program in which images that NASA receives from Hubble have through data sonification been transformed into sound,” said Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, the violinist and founder of MOM. “It sounded so eerie and cool.”
That got her thinking: how to create a program that combined music with the heavens. She did some research and discovered William Herschel. Not only was he a renowned German/British astronomer who had discovered Uranus in 1781, he was also a skilled musician and composer. After Barker Schwartz found some of his music and realized he was a “well-crafted composer,” she decided to find other British composers of the period whose work might not be well known.
“It’s fun to give a program and have that authentic hearing,” she said.
Among the composers whose work will be featured are: James Oswald (1710-1769), Thomas Smart (1776-1867), William Shield (1748-1829) and Thomas Thackray (1740-1793). Music by Jacob Herschel, who was William’s youngest brother, and a new work from contemporary composer Max Caplan will also be performed. All will be for flute, violin and guitar in solo or combination.
But it’s the connection to William Herschel that inspires the concert.
Born in 1738 in Germany into a family of musicians, Herschel played oboe, violin, harpsichord and organ. In his 20s he moved to England where he continued working as a musician and composer of symphonies and directing orchestras. A chance meeting with a fellow violinist, John Michell Thornhill, a leading English geologist who was also an avid astronomer and builder of telescopes, sparked Herschel’s interest in the heavens. By the 1770s he started to build his own telescopes to look at the planets and stars and to keep a journal of what he saw. He also often worked with his sister Caroline, who was also an astronomer and discoverer of several comets, who Barker Schwartz learned was the world’s first paid astronomer and a singer of note.
After his discovery of Uranus, King George III appointed him Court Astronomer and he gained instant fame. Over the next several decades until his death in 1822, he made many more discoveries including the two moons of Uranus, infrared radiation, that Mars’ polar caps vary seasonally and the use of prisms and spectrometers that can determine the chemical composition of a planet or star.
To bring Herschel’s music work together with his astronomy, Barker Schwartz turned to Kerry Lewis, the planetarium’s astronomy educator, who designs the sky shows for miSci.
“Herschel’s name is big in astronomy and physics,” Lewis said.
Lewis herself studied radio astronomy as part of her physics degree from Union College in 2018. She also has local roots, having graduated from Scotia/Glenville High School in 2012.
But “astronomy is a big lure,” she said, which is why she loves designing the sky shows that up to now have only involved party-type celebrations. This show will be entirely different and the first of its kind at the planetarium.
“Herschel had a paper trail when he composed, so my views will be of what the sky would have looked like then,” Lewis said. “It won’t be drastically different from what one would see from the same location today, but the slight difference is still engaging.”
Thus, if the music was composed in the 1760s in London, the audience will see what people looking up then would have seen. That will be only slightly different in perspective from what we in New York in 2023 would see. The Earth “wobbles” on its axis but it would take thousands of years for us to notice that Polaris is no longer our North Star, Lewis said.
“It takes 26,000 years for a full wobble,” she said. “In 13,000 years from now, Vega [in the constellation of Lyra] would be our magnetic North Pole.”
Because the dome can present up to 8,500 stars, Lewis is including various constellations and some special LED lighting to set the mood. The musicians will be playing with special lighting for their music, so people will not be distracted by seeing them.
The show is expected to last one hour.
On Sunday at 2 p.m. and at 4 p.m., MOM will repeat the music aspect of the concert along with a slide show and brief lecture at the Schuyler Mansion at 32 Catherine Street in Albany. Reservations for all shows are suggested.
Musicians of Ma’alwyck
WHEN: Saturday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: MiSci planetarium, 15 Museum Drive, Schenectady
HOW MUCH: $35
MORE INFO: www.musiciansofmaalwyck.org; 518 512-9479