Tag Archives: St Mary's Music School

Go-ahead for music school

Councillors on the Finance and Resources Committee of the City of Edinburgh Council have given the go-ahead for the development of the Old Royal High School on Regent Road as a new home for St Mary’s Music School and a public performance venue.

With the decision to grant the Royal School Preservation Trust a long lease on the historic building, the city council has signalled its approval of the plans to develop it as a national centre for music education.
The bid is backed by an expanded gift from philanthropist Carol Colburn Grigor and Dunard Fund totalling £55 million to cover the capital costs and support the future maintenance of the Thomas Hamilton building.

Announcing the decision, committee convener Councillor Rob Munn said: “It’s great news that this iconic building, set in the heart of our World Heritage Site, will now be restored and put to good use again, making it accessible for many generations to come.”

William Gray Muir, Chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, said: “We are thrilled that our shared vision for a new world-class centre for music education and public performance can move forward at last.  

“The project has brought together an unprecedented range of partners, all of whom recognise collaboration as the key to realising Scotland’s potential as a world leader in music education, and creating an entirely new way for the nation to engage with and enjoy classical music.”

Dr Kenneth Taylor, Headteacher at St Mary’s Music School, added: “This is a truly exciting day for St Mary’s Music School. Not only does it bring us a huge step closer to having a new home for the school; it also places us at the centre of a project that will deliver and enhance world-class music education for people from all backgrounds across Scotland in a setting that will be second to none.

“We are also enormously grateful for the ongoing support of our stakeholders in the world of arts and education, as well as the people of Edinburgh who have backed us warmly over the past five years.”

Supporters of the plan include Impact Scotland, which is developing the new Dunard Centre in the city, which will be a home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Nicola Benedetti’s Benedetti Foundation which has done so much to boost music education in recent years.

The violinist said: “The National Centre for Music presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to enrich the cultural life of Scotland and to serve as a beacon of true 21st century music education for the world to see.”

Picture: Students of St Mary’s Music School in front of the Old Royal High School, credit Mike Wilkinson

SEVEN HILLS: St Mary’s / Capperauld

Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh

More than most schools in Scotland, the pressure last term was on St Mary’s Music School to get its music performance function back on track at the earliest opportunity. That’s primarily what the specialist Edinburgh music establishment exists for, so Covid restrictions were an especial concern. 

Resilience, determination, ingenuity and ambition paid off, and this end of session concert, now online, is a glorious musical achievement in the harshest of times. Central to it is the premiere of Ayrshire composer Jay Capperauld’s Theory of the Earth, the first of seven unfolding commissions by the school designed to celebrate its upcoming 50th anniversary in 2023.

The number seven is key. In hatching the project the school’s director of music Paul Stubbings sought to connect the school to the community by taking Edinburgh’s seven hills and poems by Alexander McCall Smith as the inspiration for the new chamber works, and for related activity that would align with St Mary’s expanding outreach initiatives. Besides the seven commissions, Sir James MacMillan will write a major celebratory work for orchestra and choir.

Meanwhile, Capperauld’s latest premiere marks the start of the process from a public perspective, and a highly impressive achievement it is. Written for string quartet, piano and percussion, Theory of the Earth is performed by mostly students under the direction of head of strings, Valerie Pearson. The inspiration is McCall Smith’s poem Arthur’s Seat and Geology, who reads it prior to the performance.

As for the resulting music, Capperauld has latched on to the poet’s reference to James Hutton, the 18th century founder of modern geology, who confirmed, especially through his analysis of Arthur’s Seat, that the earth’s geological evolution was a constant process of renewal and decay over millions of years – “no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end”. In doing so he debunked traditional religious notions. 

Capperauld responds with a piece that seems as timeless as it is contained. From a single, insistent note on piano vying motifs emerge, some nostalgically modal, others more abstract and ethereal. The combined result is almost statuesque, an invigorating minimalist mix of movement and stasis. 

It’s a language these young players easily understand and are technically on top of. They negotiate its variable aleatoric elements with unflinching confidence, and are persuasive in shaping the big picture, with its gradual build to biting climax and ultimate evaporation. If this is the bench mark for the ensuing commissions, it will be quite a collection.
Ken Walton

Available to view at https://vimeo.com/577725596/4d207a3f83

A Classical Solution…?


Is the future of Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School reaching a musical conclusion? A series of “cultural conversations” aims to state the case. KEITH BRUCE explains.

He may have been born in Glasgow, and designed buildings and monuments all over Scotland, but neo-classical architect Thomas Hamilton is most especially associated with Edinburgh, and there with two public buildings whose recent fortunes have been very different.

The Dean Orphanage, which sits above the Water of Leith in the West End of the capital, is now styled SNGMA2, an extension, across Belford Road, of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, previously simply the Dean Gallery and before that for many years a teacher training facility.

Beyond the East End of Princes Street, on Regent Road opposite the monolithic Scottish Office building, St Andrew’s House, is “The Old Royal High School”, as it has been identified ever since the school moved to Barnton, far out the Queensferry Road, in 1968.

Some recent media coverage of plans for its future has insisted that the building has been “unoccupied” in the half century and more that has passed, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the years after the school pupils for whom it was designed and built moved out, it has seen a great variety of tenants, and often occupied a very prominent place in the discourse about the future of Scotland.

What is beyond debate is the quality of the building itself. Built in the 1820s, it was greatly admired in its own century by Alexander “Greek” Thomson, and more recent architectural historians have called it “the architect’s supreme masterpiece and the finest monument of the Greek revival in Scotland”. With a commanding position on the side of Calton Hill in “the Athens of the North”, it is unsurprising that it was considered in the 1970s to be the natural home for a Scottish Parliament in the run-up to the 1979 referendum, which failed to clear the hurdle to establish such a body.

Nonetheless the debating chamber that had been created inside was pressed into service as the meeting place for the “Scottish Grand Committee” – as distinct from the Scottish Select Committee – a gathering of all of Scotland’s Westminster MPs. By the time Scotland did vote to have its own parliament, the old school building was judged to be inadequate to the purpose, and had, perhaps, become too closely associated with the campaign for more than devolution.

Pending the construction of a new parliament building at Holyrood on the site of a demolished brewery, the devolved administration set up temporary camp at the other end of the Royal Mile and Thomas Hamilton’s neo-classical masterpiece began a longer and more uncertain phase of its existence, but one which may at last be approaching a conclusion.

What is notable during that time, when responsibility for the building returned to Edinburgh City Council, is that the arts have often enlivened it, and been at the heart of plans for its future.

In 1998, Fringe impresario Richard Demarco moved in with a programme of performances and masterclasses during the Edinburgh Festival in a partnership with the European Youth Parliament.

In 2004 the Edinburgh-resident former press secretary to Her Majesty the Queen, Michael Shea, was the main spokesman for a multi-million pound proposal to convert it into a national museum of photography, an artform in which Scotland had produced a good number of pioneers, but which still lacks a major gallery. The plans failed to find the necessary Heritage Lottery backing.

Ten years later the Old Royal High School was pressed into service as a venue for the Edinburgh Art Festival, then in its own tenth year, with film installations in the main chamber and neon artwork on the façade.

Since 2014 speculation about the future of the building has centred around controversial hotel plans, while a proposal by St Mary’s Music School, currently housed in buildings not far from Hamilton’s Dean building, to return it to the realm of education, for which it was designed, has steadily gained ground.

With planning consent for the hotel proposal now lapsed, and the council open to offers for the site, the Royal High School Preservation Trust and St Mary’s have joined forces on the Perfect Harmony Development Board to drive forward the plan for a national music centre and national music school, with substantial backing promised from Carol Grigor’s Dunard Fund.

Part of that public awareness campaign will be a series of monthly Cultural Conversations online, informing people about the plans for the redevelopment of the building and the work of the school.

Vox Carnyx is delighted to be involved in these, with Keith Bruce and Ken Walton putting questions to key people involved in the project before open question and answer sessions. Architects and engineers, teachers and alumni will be taking part in the webinars running from March to August.

The first of these is on Friday March 5 from noon, when Keith Bruce will be speaking with William Gray Muir of the Royal High School Preservation Trust and Carol Nimmo of the Perfect Harmony Development Board.

Readers who wish to watch should visit https://stmarysmusic.ptly.uk/event/culturalconversations01 to receive an access code.

Image: Students of St Mary’s Music School in front of the Old Royal High School (credit Mike Wilkinson)