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St Cecilia’s Hall at the University of Edinburgh: A Symphony of Music, Art, and History

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent. ~Victor Hugo

This week we are going to explore a wonderful world inhabited by beautiful works of art- in the form of musical instruments! To do that, we are going to step off the Royal Mile, and head down Niddry Street for a visit to St Cecilia’s Hall which boasts a Concert Room and Music Museum. So, be sure to grab a good seat and join us because this is a ‘performance’ that you are not going to want to miss.

I know ‘hidden gem’ is a phrase that is used a lot in travel writing (especially when writing about Edinburgh), but, in this case, it is a spot-on description. Located in Edinburgh’s Old Town, St Cecilia’s Hall is part of the University of Edinburgh. However, its story starts long before the University came into the picture. Sit tight because we'll come back to that history in just a bit.

I would like to preface this article with the understanding that, unfortunately, I do not play a musical instrument. Therefore, I am not an expert who can name and describe each instrument. I am simply a fan of music and preserving important musical artefacts for future generations to learn about and admire.

Fortunately, St Cecilia’s has staff on hand who are willing and able to explain the various pieces on display. Therefore, if you visit the Music Museum, please take advantage of the fact that they have experts in the various galleries who can explain what you are looking at and even demonstrate how some of the instruments sound.

The Museum’s collection is incredible with a wide-ranging variety of instruments from around the world, and we highly recommend that you visit in person when you come to Edinburgh. That way you can better appreciate and admire all that is on display. Therefore, for the purposes of this post, I will highlight some of our favourites.

Music can change the world. ~Beethoven

Our journey starts in two galleries filled with keyboard instruments. The collection on display is quite impressive and some of the pieces date back to the 1600s. What caught my eye is just how many of the instruments were literally works of art. The friendly Museum staff person explained that this is what contribute to their survival and why we can appreciate them today. Slide through the pictures below to see some examples of the exquisite instruments:

Nestled within the building, you find the striking, elliptical Sypert Concert Room. “St Cecilia's Hall is Scotland's oldest purpose-built concert hall and originally built by the Edinburgh Musical Society in 1762”. It had its first performance in 1763 and was quite the fashionable venue; famous Scottish luminaries such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns enjoyed performances there.

As you enter the room, your eyes are immediately drawn up to the domed ceiling and the central elliptical cupola which dominate the space.

According to St Cecilia’s, a couple of factors played a role in the eventual closure of its first incarnation. First, the building of South Bridge blocked the façade of St Cecilia’s. Second, the opening of the Assembly Rooms on George Street in the New Town was a gamechanger. During the end of the 1700s, the Cowgate area in Old Town where St Cecilia’s is located was viewed as “undesirable”. Therefore, the more well-to-do residents preferred to go to the Assembly Rooms for their musical performances.

Unfortunately, this eventually led to St Cecilia’s Hall being closed down as a music venue in 1801. However, the space did not go unused. Over the years, it was used as a Baptist Church, a Freemasons’ lodge, a school, and a ballroom. According to St Cecilia’s, “the Hall was sold to the University of Edinburgh in 1959 and following extensive renovation opened as a museum and performance venue in 1968”. The 'rebirth' of St Cecilia's Hall had begun.

Music is life itself. ~Louis Armstrong

With that bit of fascinating historical knowledge tucked away, let’s continue our exploration of the Music Museum. We head downstairs and enter the Wolfson Gallery. On display are a variety of strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments.

There are fun little surprises that can be found throughout the Music Museum. So, when you visit, be sure to take your time and enjoy the incredible collection on display.

Where words fail, music speaks. ~Hans Christian Andersen

In the Laigh Room, you get to see musical instruments from around the world. Perhaps we are a bit biased (after all, we do provide private walking tours of Edinburgh in Finnish), but we were quite pleased to see that they had an instrument from Finland on display. It’s called a ‘tuohitorvi’. The Museum points out how “in the 1200s and 1300s, trumpets like this were originally played during Icelandic storytelling performances, where their sound represented battles or war. They later became popular with Finnish shepherds, who used them to scare away animals”.

Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand. ~Stevie Wonder

We are so fortunate that the University of Edinburgh has provided a new life for St Cecilia’s Hall. Furthermore, the Music Museum is a wonderful aspect of the building as it serves to educate and inspire. I think we can all benefit from some inspiration right now. Therefore, we highly recommend a visit when you come to Edinburgh. Please visit their website for the most up-to-date information on how to plan your visit.

After your visit to St Cecilia’s, be sure to book one of our Edinburgh walking tours. Sami, our human tour guide and, Sawyer, our Golden Retriever tour guide would love to show you around the Old Town and so much more.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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