Blessed St Cecilia: Fashionable Places of Amusement – Public Entertainment in Edinburgh in the late 18th Century

On the 22nd November, St Cecilia’s Day, I was fortunate enough to visit St Cecilia’s Hall and the Assembly Rooms with an appreciative group of Edinburgh New Town walkers.

We were given a fascinating insight into public entertainment in Edinburgh towards the end of the 18th century.

In what follows, I have adopted a chronological approach to the buildings.  St Cecilia’s Hall was the earlier of the two buildings by twenty years.

Historical background

By the last quarter of the 18th century, entertainment in Edinburgh was shifting inexorably from the private to the public sphere.  A Musical Society had been founded as early as 1728.  By the middle of the century subscribers had raised “a considerable subscription for the foundation of a new concert hall.  “Here is a well conducted concert, in which several gentlemen perform on different instruments – The Scots are all musicians – Every man you meet plays on the flute, the violin, or violoncello…” (Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker 1771)  The new concert hall or “concert” ,at the foot of Niddry’s Wynd in the Cowgate, was St Cecilia’s Hall.  It was completed in 1762.

Looking back to the end of the 18th century and with the perspective of age, Henry Lord Cockburn later considered St Cecilia’s” the most selectly (sic) fashionable place of amusement I have ever yet seen”.  His colourful description wafts down the centuries:  “there have I seen most of our literary and fashionable gentleman, predominately with their side curls, and frills and ruffles, and silver buckles; and our stately matrons stiffened in hoops, and gorgeous satin”.  Sadly, no concert programmes survive but we can imagine “polite” society listening to music, probably including the works of George Frederich Handel,   which embodied the spirit of the age. Keyboard works would have been played on the harpsichord or early piano, possibly one built by the Edinburgh keyboard maker Richard Horseburgh, an example of which is preserved in the Russell collection of early keyboard instruments.

St Cecilia’s heyday, as an 18th Century concert hall, was short lived.  With the construction of the South Bridge in the 1780s, the character of the Cowgate changed dramatically.  Within a generation, the locality had become a place of “destitution and disease”. Cockburn’s “Cecilian temple” was abandoned and converted into a Masonic Lodge. Fashionable society increasingly sought public entertainment within the confines of James Craig’s New Town.

In July 1782, only twenty years after St Cecilia’s was completed, a committee under the chairmanship of Lord Murray chose the architect, John Henderson to design the New Assembly Rooms in George Street.  There had previously been Assembly Rooms – essentially for dancing – at the top of the West Bow towards the top of the High Street.  In 1723 a new Assembly had been built in Old Assembly Close (close to the Mackenzie Building now owned by the Faculty of Advocates). In 1746 this then moved to new premises at 142 High Street.   The New Town Assembly Rooms in George Street were built by subscription on land which had been given by the City.

Visiting St Cecilia’s Hall and the Assembly Rooms

For those interested in the history of Edinburgh and certainly for anyone who  has a penchant for 18th century cultural history, both buildings are worth a visit. Things somehow make sense if one gets “out there”.

St Cecilia’s Hall:

St Cecilia’s is now owned by the University of Edinburgh and houses three important collections of musical instruments: the Russell Collection of early keyboard instruments, the Rodger Mirrey Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments and the Anne Macaulay Collection of Plucked String Instruments.

There are some fine early English Broadwood pianos, highly decorative French harpsichords as well as spinets and clavichords.  It’s even  possible to hear what keyboard music would have sounded like to an 18th century audience.  A foot powered 18th century chamber organ was of particular interest.

There are also a number of fine 18th century portraits drawn from the University’s collection.

In addition to regular lunch time concerts, St Cecilia’s Hall is open twice weekly to members of the public on Wednesday (2 – 5 pm) and Saturday (2-5 pm) or by prior appointment for group visits.  Admission is free.

Further information on the history contents of St Cecilia’s Hall can be found at http://www.music.ed.ac.uk/russell/history/stcecilia.html .

On this occasion, we were fortunate to be guided by the excellent and informative Sarah Richardson,  who ably illustrated her talk with keyboard music and song.

The Assembly Rooms:

Anyone who has lived in Edinburgh for some time is likely to have memories of the Assembly Rooms, whether as the place of a momentous or pleasurable event or perhaps a combination of the two. In my case, it was a music competition in the mid 70s, the only music competition in which I have ever been placed. “You’re shirt’s hanging out”, my flute teacher hissed. But whether you’re a native or newcomer , you should certainly pay a visit – asap as a friend of mind will insist. Quam primum, I prefer!

From 2010 to 2012 the Assembly Rooms were subject to a massive £ 9.3 Million restoration project , much of it undertaken by local contractors. The statistics make impressive reading: 250,000 man hours, 2000 books of gold leaf, 1000 gallons of paint, 500,000 crystals in the building’s 25 chandeliers and half a metric tonne of Zoffany damask curtain fabric, which, I understand, equates to the weight of an average polar bear. The result is absolutely stunning.  The ball room is characterized by mirrors, sumptuous chandeliers and Corinthian pilasters.  The Music Hall is equally impressive.  The old stage has been removed, the floor soundproofed with ten layers of sound proofing (Jamie’s Restaurant is beneath) and the windows double glazed.   A subtle addition is a new sound booth at the rear of the first floor gallery, its decoration in keeping with the rest of the room.  I have included various photographs which I took during the course of our visit as well as two taken during the restoration process: One shows the vast Music Hall chandelier stripped bare, the other a late 18th century statue in the crush bar, painstakingly being cleaned.  Jackie Skinner has kindly forwarded both photographs.

The Assembly Rooms are open to visitors on a “doors open” basis or by private appointment.  Further information including contact details can be found at

http://www.assemblyroomsedinburgh.co.uk/assembly-rooms/contact-assembly-rooms.html

My own visit – on 22nd November – with an appreciative New Town walking group was made possible by the kindness and enthusiasm of the Assembly Rooms Assistant Manager Jackie Skinner.

Sources

Youngson A J:  Making of Classical Edinburgh 1750-1840, Edinburgh University Press, 1966

Cockburn, Henry:  Memorials of His Time (1856), James Thin 1988, 29 – 47 on music and assembly halls,  18th century manners and mores.

Smollett, Tobias:  Humphry Clinker (1771), Penguin Classics 2008

Gifford, J and others:  Edinburgh, Buildings of Scotland, Penguin Books 1984

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