The First Edinburgh Festival

“For some time previous to the Festival, the concourse of strangers towards Edinburgh was unexampled.”   The year was 1815.

“From England, and the remotest parts of Scotland, individuals and whole families poured into the city.   Every house and every room that could be obtained was occupied by persons of all ranks and ages…”

A friend who dabbles in book collecting recently picked up one of about half a dozen known copies of An Account of the First Edinburgh Musical Festival, published in 1816,  by George Facquhar Graham.    It seems we should have been celebrating the bicentenary of the Edinburgh festivals last year, rather than the 70th anniversary in 2017.

Edinburgh festival

An Account of the First Edinburgh Musical Festival by George Farquhar Graham (1789–1867)


The Edinburgh International Festival of music and drama was famously founded in 1947, as an antidote to post-war gloom and a celebration of the arts of Europe,  by a visionary cast of characters including the opera director Rudolf Bing and the vital private supporter the Countess of Rosebery.   (I wrote about that here many a year ago.)   Six theatre companies rolled up to stage their own productions alongside it, and the Fringe was born.

The earlier incarnation is mostly overlooked.     But Farquhar Graham’s account – there are copies known at the National Library of Scotland and half a dozen other institutions – shows the 1815 festival in a surprisingly familiar light,  though these days an unseemly crush for seats doesn’t usually cause ladies to faint.     He takes a surprisingly modern approach to music criticism.

“About the close of the year 1814, a few gentlemen in Edinburgh, lovers of music, who had opportunities of hearing some of the festival performances in England”,  he writes, launched their plans for a Scottish music festival.  Subscriptions were offered at three guineas for six tickets and quickly taken up.

A Mr Charles Ashley,  of London, was hired as conductor, paid to engage ‘a definite number of efficient orchestra performers from England, both vocal and instrumental’, with an organ from Covent Garden.   The best performers of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Carlyle were also engaged.

It was to produce a “combination of various musical talent as had never before appeared in Scotland.”  The Assembly Rooms were chosen as the evening venue, over ‘Corri’s Rooms’, a theatre opened by Italian Natali Corri in Broughton Street.     The Outer Room of the Parliament-house was used for morning performances.

The citizens of Edinburgh seemed to have mixed feelings, then as now, as the opening day approached.   Some took a look and turned away in fright, terrified of “demolished dresses and personal injuries”, only to miss on the appearance of the “large and beautiful” orchestra.


The first morning Performance consisted entirely of about eight Handel excerpts, followed by Haydn’s Oratorio of Creation. The first evening concert included Mozart, Corelli’s Trio, and the tenor and composer John Braham’s duet, When the Bosom Heaves the Sigh.

The festival board was littered with titled families; the President was the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry with four Earls among the Vice Presidents. The Lord Provost was one of a list of 32 Extraordinary directors that ranged from a bishop to one Walter Scott.   The programme included a range of morning and evening performances over about a week; it was heavy with Handel, Haydn and Mozart, and other figures lesser known today.

Farquhar Graham was a Scottish musicologist who lived from 1789 to 1867.  He was best known for a three-volume collection of Scottish songs – though laments the fact here that Scottish audiences had too much taste for traditional Scots fare.    James MacMillan ‘s Spectator piece along those lines has caused quite a stir this year (and don’t get me or Stuart Kelly started on Anything that Gives off Light).

He gave the festival a rave, for “a project so happily conceived, and so successfully completed”, but the first evening concert got a panning.     “There was a general langour and heaviness in this concert, probably arising partly from its length, and partly from the exhaustion of the performers, occasioned by the fatigue of recent travelling, and their laborious exertions in the morning performance.”   While it included Haydn’s “beautiful and masterly” 9th Symphony, “the company that attended this concert was not very numerous.”

The reverse was true for the Messiah.

Fainting at the Messiah

Fainting at the Messiah


In his attempt to  “examine the Performances which constituted the First Edinburgh Musical Festival…a project so happily conceived, and so successfully completed”,  he looks at the “general nature of music” and musical taste in Britain,   laying out “the requisites to musical judgement and criticism.”

He sets out to write readably, for those with “a merely natural taste for music”.  “I have attempted to relieve, in some measure, the dryness of criticism, by occasional reflections suggested by the subjects under consideration; and by short biographical sketches, or anecdotes, relative to some of the most distinguished composers…”

He singled out a Mrs Salmon, as reviewers will, for the “sweetness and flexibility of her voice”.

While Farquhar Graham collected Scottish song, he called it “a matter of “considerable regret” that in Scotland, “a country distinguished by its learning” ….”music, in the liberal sense of the term, should be so little cultivated”. “Perhaps there is no country in the world, where the prejudice in favour of national music is carried to so great a height as in Scotland” .

Scots were taught to “cherish with almost idolatrous veneration” the “rude thought often expressive melodies” of their home country, he said. While Scottish songs were excellent in their kind, the best work of foreign composers had long appeared “indistinct and disfigured” to many worth North-Britons.


On the schedule

The bill of fare