Music at the University of Edinburgh has a long and distinguished history, combining tradition with innovation, and theory with practice.
The Reid Professorship in Music was set up in 1839 as a result of a bequest from General John Reid (1721-1807), a renowned flute player and composer of marches for the British Army. Having enjoyed music-making as a law student in Edinburgh he left his considerable wealth to the university on condition that a chair in the theory and practice of music be set up. He also asked that an annual concert be organised at which the music of his time be played; this obligation is maintained by the university up to the present with a Reid Memorial Concert every February in which music by the General, or from the late 18th century, is played.
The first Reid Professor was John Thomson, a student and friend of Mendelssohn, who died within eighteen months of taking up the post in 1839. He conducted the first Reid concert in 1841, supplying programme notes, initiating a practice which a later incumbent, Donald Francis Tovey, was to make his own.
The first significant appointee to the Reid chair was John Donaldson in 1845, who started a series of lectures (including lectures for women) and built up a considerable amount of technical equipment to demonstrate musical acoustics, a practice continuing to this day. He also persuaded the university to release money from the Reid bequest to build the Reid concert hall and music school in 1859. Under Friedrich Niecks, professor from 1891, regular courses in music were established, as well as the Faculty of Music in 1893-4. Niecks’ programme for the BMus was the first of its kind in the UK, forming the model for all subsequent degree programmes in music.
Donald Francis Tovey held the Reid chair from 1914 to 1940, years which saw a peak in the influence of the university’s music faculty. Tovey founded the Reid Orchestra in 1917 and it remained Edinburgh’s only professional orchestra until the 1970s, giving regular concerts accompanied by analytical programme notes. Tovey’s notes formed the basis of his famous analyses while his contacts saw many international stars coming to the city. In 1939 he was instrumental in securing an appointment for the refugee Austrian composer Hans Gál. Tovey was succeeded by Sidney Newman who oversaw significant expansion of the faculty, the foundation of the Edinburgh Quartet, the acquisition of the Russell Collection and the restoration of St. Cecilia’s Hall as its base, with Peter Williams serving as the Collection’s first director. On Newman’s retirement in 1970 the composer Kenneth Leighton took up the Reid chair while a new Tovey chair in musicology was first held by the Purcell scholar Michael Tilmouth. Graduates from this period include the conductor Donald Runnicles and the composer James MacMillan.
The University’s musical societies have also had a long and distinguished history. The Musical Society, which acts as an umbrella organisation for the large orchestras and choir, was founded in 1867 by Sir Herbert Oakeley. The University Singers were set up in 1945, the Chamber Choir, Renaissance Singers and Opera Club (now Studio Opera) in the 1960s, and the Chamber and String Orchestras in the 1980s.
This article was published on Oct 8, 2012