Uncovering 18th century musical archives in Edinburgh

Historians have taken the lead in highlighting the geographical spread of cultural developments in 18th century Britain, which often originated in London, while music specialists have examined in further detail some of the regional centres of concert life. The agency for these developments were the gentry, and increasing members of professional classes (such as lawyers), whose enthusiasm and support of musical pursuits led to the founding of provincial musical societies. The musical societies were markers of cultural refinement and often prided themselves on their ability to attract high calibre musicians from Italy. Edinburgh’s musical society, founded in 1728, was more active than most in its endeavours. In the 1730s and 40s, for example, the flautist and composer Francesco Barsanti (1690–1772), who had initially come to London in 1714, became the leading musician in Edinburgh with a salary of £50 from the musical society.

The archival materials complement this picture, offering a perspective lacking from more public forms of record (such as concert notices in newspapers), in particular for uncovering the role and participation of gentry. The widespread view that musical pursuits were inappropriate for male elites, or those aspiring to such status was often contradicted in practice, especially by those who pursued their musical interests as part of foreign adventures. They were often responsible for initiating connections with musicians in Italy and elsewhere, and would return with musical souvenirs of their visit. This probably explains the existence of a collection of manuscripts for four flute concertos preserved among the family papers of the Marquesses of Lothian (NRS, GD40), which may have belonged to the flute-playing Lord Robert Kerr (1746), second son of the third marquess. The copy in this collection of a concerto by Antonio Vivaldi, Il Gran Mogol, is the only one known to be in existence.

Jaiperdu jpg

National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, (Seafield Muniments) GD248/587/40, f. [3v]. Opening of the aria J’ai perdu mon Euridice from Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice (1774), arranged anonymously for voice and harp. Reproduced with kind permission of Lord Seafield.

At present I am investigating a much larger collection of music that is likely to have been the property of James Ogilvy (1747–1811), 7th Earl of Findlater, a member of the Edinburgh musical society in the 1760s. Probably in order to escape his financial debts, the Earl was resident in Brussels in the late 1770s, and later brought back a large collection of instrumental and operatic music today numbering over fifty items, mostly manuscripts. The collection reveals a connection with the impresario Ignaz Vitzthumb (1724–1816), who was introducing Parisian operas by Gluck and others to Brussels at this time. Vitzthumb himself, or a colleague, may have been responsible for many of the arrangements of arias for voice and harp in the collection, among which is an arrangement of J’ai perdu mon Euridice from the French-language version of Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice.

Dr Andrew Woolley
Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh

Andrew was awarded an Early Career Fellowship grant in 2011.