How Edinburgh’s first festival in 1815 was a soaraway success

Edinburgh, 3 November, 1815. The University Courtyard is buzzing.

James Sadler and Captain Paget R. N. ascending in a balloon  Picture: Design Pics Inc/Shutterstock
James Sadler and Captain Paget R. N. ascending in a balloon Picture: Design Pics Inc/Shutterstock

Edinburgh, 3 November, 1815. The University Courtyard is buzzing.

A band is playing. Surrounding streets are filled with the excited hubbub of thousands of spectators, many waiting since 10am.

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From the Castle esplanade, Calton Hill, Holyrood Park and Salisbury Crags, people from all walks of life strain to get a glimpse. Then suddenly, at 3pm, from the University Courtyard a large balloon emerges, climbing into the November sky.

The first concert took place at Parliament-house the morning of 31 October 1815

Pioneer English aeronaut James Sadler and his ascent – the first in Edinburgh since 1785 – caused a sensation. The balloon rose majestically as the westerly wind took it towards the sea. Sadler continued waving his flags as long as he could be seen, and the crowds applauded.

The balloon soared high, but visibility worsened. Alas, Sadler had forgotten his map and he cut short his planned flight to Aberlady, landing after 15 to 20 minutes by the Forth at Portobello.

A large crowd followed him down and Sadler was carried into Portobello on witnesses’ shoulders to general acclaim.

But Edinburgh had already been in a state of fevered excitement for weeks in anticipation of what was the very first Edinburgh Musical Festival – in 1815. The concert that morning had to be brought forward by an hour to enable the crowds to witness Sadler’s ascent.

Three days before, the opening concert of the inaugural Edinburgh Musical Festival took place to great acclaim in the old Parliament House, kicking off the biggest musical extravaganza that Scotland had ever seen.

Tickets for the six concerts sold out quickly – 9,011 tickets overall, including 2,141 for the Messiah alone.

The Edinburgh International Festival as we know it today was conceived during the final year of the Second World War to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” and help recovery from the war. Similarly, the first Edinburgh Musical Festival was conceived in 1814, the final year of the Napoleonic Wars and opened just four months after the Battle of Waterloo.

The overriding priority of the 1815 festival was to raise as much money as possible for charitable purposes – over the five days, an impressive total of £1,500. Top of the list of 17 beneficiaries were Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, and the new Lunatic Asylum, each receiving £400 – about £140,000 today.

The Festival directors – the social elite of Edinburgh – organised a full, varied programme focussing on oratorios by Handel and Haydn, with symphonies by Mozart and even Beethoven alternating with individual vocal and instrumental items.

The star singers and virtuosi of the day, primarily from London, combined with a specially created choir and orchestra.

Morning concerts were held in the old Parliament House, where a temporary balcony and the Covent Garden organ, shipped up via Leith, were installed for the duration. Evening concerts were held in Corri’s Rooms, a large hall, since disappeared, at the top of Leith Walk.

There were teething problems. Some concerts were massively oversubscribed – more than 600 were turned away from the Messiah alone. Newspapers reported that women fainted with “fright and pressure”.

One witness wrote: “So great was the competition for admission, that the different parties found it necessary to come out of their vehicles; and ladies in full dress were forced to stand waiting in the dirty streets until the doors were opened, after which the crush was excessive.”

Directors faced allegations of reserving seats for their families and friends.

However, all in all, as was reported, by the “liberality and good taste of the good people of Scotland, this scheme for the display of music on a greater scale than was ever before attempted in this country, has met with unparalleled success”. And, in Sadler’s balloon flight, Edinburgh effectively hosted the very first Fringe event.

The 1815 Festival firmly, if belatedly, placed music at the heart of Edinburgh’s Golden Age. Two further festivals took place in 1819 and 1824, and less successfully in 1840 and 1843. It would take another century to embed the festivals phenomenon.


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