Sunday, 19 August 2012

St Cecilia’s Hall: Russell Collection of Keyboard Instruments and concert, Edinburgh

St Cecilia’s Hall is located in the Old Town and can be difficult to find.  It is near the junction of Cowgate and Niddry Street and tucked “up a side close”.  There are many cobblestones on the way and as Cowgate runs below all the bridges –George IV Bridge and South Bridge - the approach from north or south means a descent on lots of stairs or a trundle down the setts (cobblestones).

St Cecilia’s Hall is Edinburgh’s first purpose-built concert hall and the Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall are active in promoting the hall, collections of musical instruments and the recordings made on the instruments.  They also organise attractive and varied concerts. 

The University of Edinburgh houses many collections of musical instruments and on show is the Russell Collection of harpsichords and other keyboard instruments.  I was able to be taken round the collection, said to be one of the largest in the world.

The harpsichords are beautifully displayed with examples of a Vermeer or a Rubens which had inspired the lid of the instrument.  This is similar to the paintings on cassone in Florence.  Many of the harpsichords were made in Antwerp and the craftsmen were able to commission top artists to paint the lids with oil paints and the soundboards in watercolour.  Flemish and Dutch paintings were used as inspiration for many of the landscapes and scenes.  Vermeer’s pictures such as The Lady at a Virginal or Lady with Guitar hint at something other than courtly love, and the lids of these instruments suggest things may have gone even further - a common theme in Flemish and Dutch art.

The keyboards are also interesting and the captions when read out are very informative about how a clavichord, spinet, virginal and harpsichord work in theory. 

On show are many stringed instruments such as a massive theorbo, harps, guitars, banjos as well as more conventional ones.

Postcards are available and include pictures of:

a virginal from 1668 by S. Keene
a French spinet from 1680
detail of a painted soundboard with the aperture quite noticeable from a single-manual harpsichord by I Ruckers, 1637
Bent-side decoration of a double-manual harpsichord by L Baillon from 1755
Double-manual harpsichord by P Taskin from 1769
Two cards illustrating features on my peripheral vision with the curve and lines of the harpsichords: a soundboard of two-manual harpsichord by Ioannes Ruckers, Antwerp, from 1638; and a single-manual harpsichord with Venetian Swell by John Broadwood, London, from 1793
Soundboard Rose in Parchment from Ottavino or Octave Spinet by Petrus Michael Orlandus, Italy, from 1710
Square piano by Andrew Rochead, Edinburgh from 1805
Painting on Flap Lid of two-manual harpsichord by Andreas Ruckers the Elder, Antwerp, from 1608

I also purchased a cd of recordings of music played on some of the instruments from the Russell Collection.  Many technical notes on the mechanism and even the tuning frequency are provided.  The harpsichords are tuned at A=415 rather than the modern A=440.

What better way to enjoy the collection than to attend a concert showing off the work of the Friends. 

Concert Saturday 18th August, 2012

The Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall has recitals on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons during the Festivals.  I went to one entitled European Odyssey given by the Eden Ensemble.  This featured works by various composers focussing on the guitar.  There were several duets with viola and with piano-forte and to conclude all three played a work by Rudolf Straube (1717-1785).  Apart from Telemann and Giuliani, the others were unfamiliar and included Marin Marais, Benedetto Marcello and Ferdinando Carulli. 

The guitarist, Stephen Morrison, played a guitar from the 19th century.  It was reconstructed from its original parts, having fallen apart.  It is believed to have been made in London by “a French luthier”. 

The pianist was Susan Macleod, who introduced the piano-forte.  This has a wooden frame and not a steel frame and was built around 1805-1810 by Thomas Loud.  (At this point, a memory of Gerald Moore, the famous accompanist, who would always ask of those he was accompanying: Am I too loud?)  This piano-forte was certainly well-tempered as it had to be re-tuned and it was fascinating listening to the re-tuning of this instrument during the interval in the recital.  I was reminded of the scene in Watt by Samuel Beckett of the blind piano tuner.   Susan MacLeod had mentioned that it needed constant re-tuning, as did the guitar. 

The viola player, April Randall, not only accompanied the guitarist, but had to play almost all the bass line in the final trio as the piano-forte tinkled rather than providing a continuum bass line. 

This was a very enjoyable concert and a chance to mix with some of the Friends of St Cecila’s Hall.  We also ran into people who had been sitting in front of us at Greyfriars Kirk during the Iestyn Davies and Arcangelo recital from two days earlier. ( )

The Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall and Russell Collection:

Friends of St Cecilia’s Hall and Museum:

The University of Edinburgh – St Cecilia’s Hall Museum of Instruments:

Information on Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Instruments:

For details of 17th Century Dutch paintings in the Torrie Collection at the Talbot Rice Gallery visit my post on: