Classical Music in Edinburgh during the Enlightenment

The explosion of musical compositions in Europe in the eighteenth century also impacted Edinburgh. Hired rooms and private homes of the wealthy became the meeting places for fellow musicians who wanted to perform classical works. In 1728 the Edinburgh Musical Society was founded and in 1763 one of Europe’s oldest musical halls (St Cecilia’s) was built in Niddry St, just off the Royal Mile.

In 1753 the Edinburgh Musical Society communicated with the famous Christian composer, Handel, requesting that they might perform some of his oratorios and choral works here. Later George Thomson from the same society had a stroke of genius and asked the Roman Catholic composers Haydn and Beethoven to compose music for some of the Scottish folk poetry he had collected. Although there was a short blossoming of local compositions in this period from the Earl of Kellie, Schetky, Oswald, McGibbon and others, most works were inspired by romance or from pagan themes, except for several biblical pieces by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik.

In 1829 the Jewish Christian, Felix Mendelssohn, visited the ruins of Holyrood Abbey on the Royal Mile before his trip to the Hebrides. He sent these words in a letter to his family in Germany:

I believe I found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scotch symphony.

The Presbyterian Church in Scotland however, had banned music with the Reformation, and for a long while only twelve tunes could be sung to Psalms. Even the biblical encouragement to ‘sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ was rejected. Musical instruments were only reintroduced to the Church of Scotland in 1875. The result was that, unlike the German Protestant leaders who supported music and saw an extraordinary movement that impacted the world, the Scottish leaders rejected it and the Freemasons developed it instead. The extraordinary point about this is that Columba, the Apostle to Scotland, had backed music in the early days of missionary work here.