Music at the University of Edinburgh: a short history


General John Reid (1721–1807)
Oil on canvas, 70 x 58.9 cm
The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection.

The Professorship in Music was set up in 1839 as a result of a bequest from General John Reid (1721-1807), a renowned flute player and composer of marches for the British Army. Having enjoyed music-making as a law student in Edinburgh he left his considerable wealth to the university on condition that a Chair in the Theory of Music be set up. He also asked that an annual concert be organised at which one or more of his compositions be played; this obligation is maintained by the university up to the present with a Reid Memorial Concert every February in which music by the General is performed.  Since 1841, these annual concerts known variously as the College Concert, Commemoration Concert, Reid Concert or Reid Memorial Concert have been organised by the Professor of Music,  and they are outlined in this database.

The Reid Chair
The first Professor of Music was John Thomson, a young Scottish composer and friend of Mendelssohn, who died within eighteen months of taking up the post in 1839. He conducted the first Reid concert in 1841, supplying written programme notes, initiating a practice which a later incumbent, Donald Francis Tovey, was to make his own.

1845 - 1900
The fourth appointee to the Chair of Music was John Donaldson in 1845, who started a series of lectures (including lectures for women) and built up a considerable amount of technical equipment to demonstrate musical acoustics, a practice continuing to this day. He also persuaded the university to release money from the Reid bequest to build a music school in 1859 (now known as the Reid Concert Hall). Under Friedrich Niecks, professor from 1891, regular courses in music were started, with the establishment of the new Faculty of Music in 1893-94 when he was appointed the first Dean of the Faculty of Music and given the title 'Reid Professor of Music'.  His programme for the Mus.Bac. was the first of its kind in the UK, forming the model for all subsequent degree programmes in music.

1900 onwards
Donald Francis Tovey held the Reid chair from 1914 to 1940, years which saw a peak in the influence of the university’s music faculty. Tovey's newly founded Reid Orchestra gave its first concert  in May 1917 and it remained Edinburgh’s only professional orchestra until the 1970s, giving regular concerts.  His analytical programme notes formed the basis of his famous 'Essays in Musical Analysis' and in 1939 he was instrumental in securing an appointment at the university for the refugee Austrian composer Hans Gál.

Tovey was succeeded by Sidney Newman who oversaw significant expansion of the faculty, the foundation of the Edinburgh Quartet, the acquisition of the Russell Collection and the restoration of St. Cecilia’s Hall, with Peter Williams serving as the Collection’s first director. On Newman’s retirement in 1970 the composer Kenneth Leighton was appointed to the Reid Chair while a new Tovey Chair in Musicology was first held by the Purcell scholar Michael Tilmouth. Graduates from the 1970s and 80s include the conductor Donald Runnicles and the composer James MacMillan.

Musical societies at the University of Edinburgh
The University’s musical societies have also had a long and distinguished history. The Musical Society, which acts as an umbrella organisation for the large orchestra and choir, was founded in 1867 by Professor Herbert Oakeley. The University Singers were set up in 1945, the Chamber Choir, Renaissance Singers and Opera Club (now Studio Opera) in the 1960s, and the Chamber and String Orchestras in the 1980s.  Since the 1980s numerous additional ensembles have been established including the University Wind Ensemble.