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20 May 2022

Felix Yaniewicz: music and migration in Georgian Edinburgh

Written by Josie Dixon, Curator of ​Music and Migration in Georgian Edinburgh: The Story of Felix Yaniewicz
Felix Yaniewicz | Image courtesy of The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz
Visitors exploring Edinburgh’s New Town may find themselves walking past 84 Great King St, where an inscription on a cornerstone by the door records, ‘Felix Yaniewicz, Polish composer and musician, co-founder of First Edinburgh Music Festival, lived and died here 1823–1848’.

The story behind this inscription has remained untold until now, but between 25 June–22 October 2022 you can see an exhibition at the Georgian House on Yaniewicz’s remarkable life, with a programme of talks and events celebrating his musical legacy in Scotland. It will showcase a unique collection of musical instruments, portraits, silver and gold heirlooms, letters and manuscripts, offering a fascinating insight into the career of this charismatic performer, composer and impresario who left a lasting mark on Scottish musical culture. The associated talks and events will highlight the cosmopolitan roots of Scottish heritage, and the vital role of migration in shaping the cultural life of Georgian Edinburgh.

A plaque on Great King Street, Edinburgh | Image courtesy of The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz © Alan Wilson

The project came about with the chance discovery of a beautiful square piano, dated around 1810. It was found in dilapidated condition in a private house in Snowdonia by Douglas Hollick, an expert on early keyboard instruments, who recognised its historical significance and potential for restoration. Above the keyboard, a gilded cartouche with painted flowers and musical instruments bears the label ‘Yaniewicz & Green’, with addresses in fashionable areas of London and Liverpool.

Watch now: the Yaniewicz & Green square piano

Inside the piano, the signature in Indian ink has been matched with the marriage certificate of Felix Yaniewicz, a Polish-Lithuanian violin virtuoso and composer, who fled the continent during the French Revolution and settled in Britain.

Inscription inside the piano written by Yaniewicz | Image courtesy of Douglas Hollick

Some years later, newly restored as a working instrument, the piano was put up for sale, and by chance the advertisement was spotted by one of Yaniewicz’s surviving descendants. ‘It was a thrilling moment,’ recalls Josie Dixon. ‘Yaniewicz was my great-great-great-great-grandfather. When I was growing up, his portrait hung in my grandmother’s cottage: a handsome, enigmatic presence with more than a touch of Mr Darcy.’

“At the time, I knew little of his life, but discovering this instrument with a very direct connection to my ancestor inspired me to find out more about his story.”
Josie Dixon
Exhibition curator and descendant of Felix Yaniewicz

Josie hatched a plan for a crowdfunding campaign, to save the piano from falling into private hands and to bring it to Edinburgh to mark Yaniewicz’s musical legacy in Scotland. The project became a collaboration with the Scottish Polish Cultural Association, and funds were raised from all over Britain, Poland, Germany, Norway, France, Italy, Switzerland and the USA. Donors included the composer Roxana Panufnik, marking over 200 years of Polish musical heritage in Britain.

The final donation was made by an Edinburgh doctor in memory of her father, Stanislaw Zawerbny, a Polish veteran, with funds collected at his 100th birthday, and afterwards at his funeral – a poignant indication of how this project had been taken to heart in the Scottish Polish community. The Polish Ex-Combatants’ Association offered to house the piano at their former club house on Drummond Place, just around the corner from Yaniewicz’s residence on Great King Street.

On 10 November 2021, the piano began its journey north from the restorer’s workshop in Lincolnshire to its new home in Edinburgh. Its arrival was celebrated with two inaugural recitals by Steven Devine and Pawel Siwczak, setting Yaniewicz’s music in the context of contemporary composers from across Europe, and from his native Poland.

A view of a grand drawing room, dressed in the Georgian style. The carpet is a blue pattern. A long sofa stands against the wall, as do individual chairs. A fireplace is at the far end, with a large framed portrait of a woman above. A chandelier hangs in the centre of the room.
Yaniewicz’s piano will be seen and heard in the drawing room of the Georgian House

This summer of 2022, the piano will make a shorter journey for the exhibition at the Georgian House, where it will be on display alongside family heirlooms which were passed down the generations among Yaniewicz’s descendants and have never been seen in public before. These musical instruments, portraits, personal possessions and letters have a remarkable story to tell, about the life of a celebrated musician who changed the course of Scottish musical history.

He was born Feliks Janiewicz in 1762 in Vilnius (then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), and rose to prominence as a performer in the Polish Royal chapel. King Stanislaus August Poniatowski, a great patron of the arts, paid for him to travel to Vienna, where he encountered Haydn and Mozart.

Mozart’s 19th-century biographer Otto Jahn speculates that his lost Andante in A major K470 written at this time may have been composed for Yaniewicz. Michael Kelly, a famous tenor, wrote that while in Vienna he was privileged to hear one of the foremost violinists in the world: ‘...a very young man, in the service of the King of Poland, he touched the instrument with thrilling effect, and was an excellent leader of an orchestra. His concertos always finished with some pretty Polonaise air; his variations were truly beautiful.’

Yaniewicz travelled to Italy and then to Paris, where he made his concert debut in 1787, and found a patron in the Duke of Orléans. But these were turbulent times, and a few years later, with France in revolution and his native land in political meltdown, he fled to Britain as a refugee and joined a community of musical emigrés in London.

There he played in Salomon’s orchestra, conducted by Haydn, performing solo concertos at the Hanover Square Rooms in 1792. In Bath later that year, he was hailed as ‘the celebrated Mr Yaniewicz’ – now spelling his name with the anglicised Y which he adopted for the rest of his life, perhaps signalling his desire to assimilate and a decision to settle in Britain.

He toured the country as a charismatic performer and energetic impresario, playing concerts in fashionable cities, including Dublin where his concert series in 1799 was billed as ‘Mr Yaniewicz’s Nights’. In London he was a founder member of the Philharmonic Society (marking a pivotal moment in the transition from the patronage system to musical meritocracy) and mounted the first British performance of Beethoven’s oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives.

In 1799 Yaniewicz moved to Liverpool and married an Englishwoman, Eliza Breeze. Cutting a dash on the social scene, he caught the attention of The Monthly Mirror: ‘...he combines the utile with the dolce. He is married at Liverpool; leads the concerts; and is (à la Liverpool) a man of business.’

By the end of 1800 he was also a family man, with a daughter Felicia (the first of three children to survive beyond infancy), so a steady income was called for. A business dealing in musical instruments marked a new strand to his portfolio. In 1801 he opened a warehouse in Lord Street, one of two premises for this enterprise, in partnerships with John Green and a London pianoforte maker, Thomas Loud.

A black label is found on the wood above some piano keys. The label reads: New Patent, Yaniewicz Green, 40 Leicester St, London | 26 Lord St, Liverpool.
The address label on the 1810 square piano for ‘Yaniewicz & Green’ | Image courtesy of The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz

The Yaniewicz & Green square piano bears the hallmarks of the London workshop of Clementi, the foremost piano manufacturer of the day. A fellow émigré and composer, Clementi had met Yaniewicz in the 1790s in London. They appear together around the same dining table in the diary of the political philosopher William Godwin, who records that quartets were played after dinner.

By the early 1800s they were in business together. Clementi’s firm made the instruments, while Yaniewicz and partners would have ordered customised designs for their fashionable clients in London and Liverpool, using his celebrity status to enhance the brand of their retail operation. Another survival of their collaboration is the beautiful Apollo lyre guitar, now in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.

Yaniewicz, however, was moving north. He had first given touring concerts in Edinburgh in 1804, and was immediately a sensation. Three subscription concerts at Corri’s Rooms were followed by a benefit concert, at which his performance was hailed as ‘...a perfect masterpiece of the art. In fire, spirit, elegance and finish, Mr Yaniewicz’s violin concerto cannot be excelled by any performance in Europe.’

So perhaps it was not surprising that it was in Edinburgh that he undertook his boldest initiative, as co-founder of the first music festival in October 1815. An article by Karen Macaulay has shown that the idea originated with Angelica Catalani – the operatic superstar of the day, with whom Yaniewicz had a long collaboration on the concert platform, from as early as 1807 until her retirement in 1824.

Read more: A lady’s diary of the first Edinburgh Musical Festival

In 1814 Mme Catalani set out in an advertisement in the Caledonian Mercury bold plans for an event on which she failed to deliver, but Yaniewicz and his colleagues brought off the 1815 festival in style. Before the year was out, he and Eliza moved to Scotland and made Edinburgh their home for good.

Title page from George Farquhar Graham’s An Account of the First Edinburgh Music Festival (Edinburgh, 1816) | Image courtesy of The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz

Among the memorabilia on display will be a first edition of An Account of the First Edinburgh Music Festival by one of its secretaries, George Farquhar Graham. The volume is inscribed on the flyleaf ‘To Mrs Yaniewicz, as a small mark of the author’s esteem and friendship.’ It contains a long list of the festival’s aristocratic patrons, the programmes for every concert, and Farquhar Graham’s lengthy reviews of the performances, together with ‘an essay containing some general observations on music’.

Farquhar Graham’s account gives an evocative insight into the atmosphere and excitement surrounding the festival, captured in this description of the build-up to the first concert in Parliament Hall:

‘...the large and beautiful orchestra filled with eminent performers; the multitude of well-dressed persons occupying the gallery… the novelty of the occasion; the spaciousness of the place whose high walls, and massive sober ornaments were illuminated by the bright beams of the morning sun; together with the expectations of the serious and magnificent entertainment which was about to commence powerfully contributed to produce in every one a state of mental elevation and delight, rarely to be experienced.’

Grand concerts in Parliament Hall combined major oratorios – Haydn’s Creation and Handel’s Messiah – with operatic arias, Haydn symphonies and Yaniewicz’s violin concertos. Evening concerts were in Corri’s Rooms, a private concert venue established by the Italian Natale Corri (brother of Domenico Corri who had moved to Edinburgh in 1771 to direct the concerts of the Edinburgh Music Society in St Cecilia’s Hall). These concerts may have been smaller in scale, but were scarcely less ambitious, featuring symphonies by Mozart and Beethoven as well as another of Yaniewicz’s violin concertos. This was a formidable amount of music for the same group of performers to present in the space of a few days, and Yaniewicz led the orchestra throughout.

Farquhar Graham’s introduction presents the festival as a turning point in Scottish musical taste, moving away from national folk culture and towards the classical, continental tradition that Yaniewicz represented, trailing clouds of musical glory from his encounters with Haydn and Mozart in Vienna.

At the end of his preface, Farquhar Graham dared to speculate about the legacy of this foundational event in the nation’s musical culture, in a moment that seems to court posterity: ‘ has excited much temporary interest – and it may be followed by important consequences, at a time when the hand that now attempts to describe its immediate effects, and the hearts of all who participated in its pleasures, are mouldered into dust.’

If the founders of the Edinburgh International Festival, in the aftermath of the Second World War, can be seen as the successors of their counterparts in 1815, Farquhar Graham’s prediction has been more richly fulfilled than he could ever have imagined.

More immediately, the 1815 festival gave rise to the Edinburgh Institution for the encouragement of Sacred Music, established on 28 December 1816. The report on their annual general meeting, chaired by the Lord Provost, echoes Farquhar Graham, deploring Scotland’s ‘national deficiency’ in the realm of sacred music, seen as a touchstone of civilisation. The Scottish attachment to folk music was held responsible for ‘a certain prejudice which still exists against any departure from the naked simplicity of our earliest melodies. The native musical taste of Scotland can hardly be said to relish the charms of harmony’. The report hails the previous year’s events as pivotal in Scotland’s emergence from this backward state:

‘It was the musical festival of 1815, which gave a new turn in this quarter, to the general feeling on the subject of sacred music: and […] laid the foundation for an improved taste in this country. Those splendid performances, in which variety, richness, and elegance, were so remarkably combined, filled the audience with emotions, which probably had never before been excited in Scotland by the power of music.’

It goes on to record the Institution’s concerts in 1816–17, in which ‘the effect […] was increased by the admirable talents of Mr Yaniewicz, who on this occasion obligingly consented to lead the band, and has ever since given his powerful assistance, both at the rehearsals and public performances.’ It ends by predicting that the establishment of this new institution ‘will be justly regarded by future times as a new era in the musical history of Scotland.’

The year after the 1815 festival, Corri retired as Edinburgh’s chief concert promoter and Yaniewicz was the obvious choice to succeed him. He instituted a series of ‘morning concerts’ of chamber music (actually at 2pm), ‘attended by a numerous and fashionable audience’. Later, in the 1820s, these Monday concerts were moved to Saturdays, suggesting a shift in his clientele from the leisured upper echelons of Edinburgh society to the professional classes.

1829 saw Yaniewicz’s farewell concert in Edinburgh, after which he began to disappear from public view. But it is tempting to wonder whether he crossed paths with another Felix who visited the city that year, on his way to a tour of the Highlands and the Hebrides. Mendelssohn stayed in the city for four days in July 1829, climbing Arthur’s Seat and finding the first inspiration for his Scottish Symphony in the ruined Abbey of Holyrood Palace. He stayed in Albany Street, a 10-minute walk from Yaniewicz’s residence, and it is not difficult to imagine that Yaniewicz would have been a guest at one of the soirées organised for Mendelssohn’s visit. He lived at Great King Street for almost two more decades, though sadly not quite long enough to encounter his compatriot Chopin, who visited Scotland in the autumn of 1848, only a few months after Yaniewicz died in May of that year.

Yaniewicz is buried in Warriston Cemetery, where his gravestone commemorates ‘a most eminent and accomplished musician […] honoured, loved and regretted’. A fitting obituary can be found in Noctes Ambrosianae, published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1826:

‘Let Yaniewicz, and Finlay Dun and Murray, play solos of various kinds – divine airs of the great old masters, illustrious or obscure – airs that may lap the soul in Elysium. Let them also, at times, join their eloquent violins, and harmoniously discourse in a celestial colloquy: they are men of taste, feeling, and genius.’

The exhibition, Music and Migration in Georgian Edinburgh, can be seen at the Georgian House, 7 Charlotte Square, 25 June–22 October 2022. Entry to the exhibition will be included with admission to the Georgian House.

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