Issue 204
July/August 2018


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Jul 16, 2018
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    St Cecilia's honour restored once more

    TUCKED AWAY down an Edinburgh side street, just off the Royal Mile, lies the city's oldest concert hall. Commissioned by the Edinburgh Musical Society and built in 1763, St Cecilia's Hall, once a key venue for socialising, learning and hearing performances by the best musicians in the city has struggled in the last few years to attract interest or visitors.

    It was the first purpose-built concert hall in Scotland, not far behind the first in Europe, the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, built in 1748.

    In 1785 the City of Edinburgh commenced a major civil engineering project – the construction of South Bridge, a road bridge above the Cowgate to link the Old Town to the University in the south of the city completed in 1787.

    The new bridge resulted in the loss of several ancient closes and St Cecilia's Hall lost its original entrance courtyard. With South Bridge and its high tenement buildings looming over St Cecilia's, the Cowgate became a dark and undesirable location for Edinburgh's concert-goers, who abandoned St Cecilia's in favour of the newl built Assembly Rooms in the more fashionable New Town on the other side of the city.

    Audiences at St Cecilia's Hall dwindled and by 1801, the EMS had disbanded and sold the hall to a Baptist congregation. It was later used as a Freemasons' lodge, a warehouse, and a school, before being bought by the University of Edinburgh in 1959.

    It became home to only a handful of shows every year – despite once playing host to Hollywood superstar Grace Kelly, who famously came out of retirement during the Edinburgh Festival in 1976.

    A year on, this almost forgotten music museum and venue has a new lease of life, thanks to a £ 6.5m restoration and renovation project, partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, as part of its work to support historical buildings of cultural importance.

    The overhaul has seen storage spaces and offices turned into galleries to help bring the collection – said to be one of the most important in the world – under the one roof for the first time.

    New raised seating has been installed in the new-look oval-shaped auditorium, which has a capacity of up to 200, to make the venue more comfortable and offer better sight-lines for concerts.

    Ruthanne Baxter, Museum Services Manager, praises the recent refurbishment: "Prior to redevelopment, we had only about 5,000 annual visitors. Since re-opening in May 2017 we have welcomed over 21,000 visitors from across the world. In addition to the world class collection of music instruments we have the Dunard Conservation Studio, where visitors can see our Conservator, Jonathan, working on preparation and repair of instruments, and we now have a lively and eclectic programme of events.

    "St Cecilia's Hall is now living up to the original ambitions and more! We are also extremely pleased and proud that, to date, the building has won no fewer than three architectural awards so, you could say, it is working very well inside and out.

    The Princess Royal, Chancellor of the University, came to see the results of the redevelopment and we believe we met with Royal approval".

    The Hall is also home to the University of Edinburgh's Museum of Musical Instruments which also has an active programme of conservation and restoration. The collection comprises of over 5,500 instruments, of which over 500 are on display. From a 1560 virginal by Lodewyk Theewes to a 1990s Fender Stratocaster guitar, the collection includes harpsichords, virginals, spinets, organs, forte-pianos, harps, lutes, citterns, and guitars.

    "Our oldest instruments include a harpsichord from 1574 made in Venice, a Lute by Buchenberg, C1620, a trombone by Schnitzer from 1594, and the recorder by the Bassano family from C1600," says Jenny Nex, one of the museums curators.

    "The harpsichord by Shudi may have been played by the young Mozart – it belonged to Lady Catherine Hamilton, who was based in Naples when the Mozart family visited.

    "The collection was started in the mid-19th century when the Reid Professor of Music, John Donaldson, began to establish the teaching of music at the University. In his concept for musical education he included the ability to play an instrument, knowledge of the history and theory of music and an understanding of acoustics.

    "Donaldson was a great believer in what we would now call object-based learning so collected a wide range of objects from musical instruments familiar in orchestras of the time to those from around the world and acoustical apparatus.

    "Since the 1950s, the collection has grown rapidly with the Raymond Russell Collection of early keyboard instruments giving a huge boost in the early 1960s when St Cecilia's Hall was acquired to house it.

    "Many individual instruments and small collection have been given, as well as larger personal collections such as the Shackleton Collection of clarinets (around 1,000 instruments) and the Mirrey Collection of keyboard instruments.

    "The university had been thinking about how to redevelop St Cecilia's for some time. I was a student in the 1990s", says Nex, "and even then I can remember conversations going on about it".

    "The refurbishment has given a new lease of life to the Hall and Collections which are displayed here. It's fantastic to see a wide range of events and people coming in and realising what musical instruments have to offer from a wide range of perspectives and disciplines."

    Thanks to a modern makeover, this near forgotten treasure is finally back on the map.

    FRANCES ANDERSON

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