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Donaldson, John, 1789-1865 (Professor of Music, University of Edinburgh)



  • Existence: 1789-1865

John Donaldson was born in 1789. As a young man he was an accomplished pianist and composer, but he also took a keen interest in `the elucidation of the phenomena of sound, and the general theory of acoustics'. He was much influenced by the innovative teaching methods of Johann Bernhard Logier, and built up a successful practice as a `professor of music' in Glasgow. In the 1820s he turned to law, and in 1826 was called to the Scottish bar as an advocate, but he did not give up his interest in the science of music. On being appointed Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh in 1845 he set about equipping his classroom with experimental apparatus - much of it imported from the firm of Deleuil in Paris - to illustrate his lectures. He attached great importance to the teaching of acoustics, a branch of study which he considered `not only leads to greater excellence in the art itself, but enlarges the understanding, and strengthens the intellectual powers'. He wanted to see the subject being taught in an attractive and practical way, with General Reid's endowment being used to provide `such philosophical apparatus as would make the results perceptible to the ear and eye as well as to the understanding'.
Within a few months of his appointment, however, arguments began within the University over Professor Donaldson's demands upon the Reid Fund. These led to a legal battle between the Town Council (who as Patrons of the University supported Donaldson) and the Principal and Professors (who as Trustees of the Reid Fund opposed him). The question of expenditure on `musical apparatus' featured prominently in the case, which was eventually settled in 1855 in the Donaldson's favour.
The most obvious consequence of the settlement was the erection in 1858-9 of this building - the first substantial expansion of the University outwith the bounds of Old College - as a `School of the Theory of Music'. What is now the concert hall was the `Music Class Room', which from 1861 housed a 4-manual organ constructed by William Hill & Sons to Donaldson's specifications (including a unique 14-rank mixture, justly tuned), while this gallery was a `Museum of Instruments' where apparatus and musical instruments were kept and displayed. During the 1850s the professor continued to add to the array of acoustical equipment, much of which was specially manufactured to his own requirements. Though much of his collection of apparatus has been lost, some items are still in the University and a few others were transferred in 1972 to the Royal Scottish Museum (now the National Museums of Scotland). This Exhibition brings together the most important of them for the first time for nearly 70 years.
Donaldson's lifetime coincided with the birth of modern acoustical science, and he took a close interest in the work of Chladni, Biot, Cagniard de la Tour, Savart, Wheatstone and others. Though he published little himself, at least one Fellow of the Royal Society, Alexander John Ellis, was influenced by his teaching. It is gratifying to learn that Sir John Herschel urged the University of Cambridge to appoint to its vacant Chair of Music in 1856 a professor able to give `lectures in which the principles of the physical science of sound shall be made (as at a scientific university they ought to be) an integral feature - to do, in short, for Cambridge what Donaldson is doing for Edinburgh'.
In an age of conspicuous advances in the design and manufacture of many musical instruments, part of the purpose of Donaldson's teaching was `to discover the true principles on which musical instruments ought to be constructed, and which may lead, and have led, to the invention of new ones'.
Source: extract of the exhibition catalogue for the 1997 Festival Exhibition entitled "the Donaldson's Apparatus, Exhibition of mid-19th century acoustical equipment", Faculty of Music of the University of Edinburgh, accessed on [] on 22/02/2018.

Found in 4 Collections and/or Records:

Copy of the work entitled 'Judgement of the Court of Session of Scotland...' edited with an introduction by John Donaldson, translated in German, 1853 (date of the original)

 Item — Box: CLX-A-355
Identifier: Coll-1848/18-0029
Scope and Contents Photocopy of a compiled work entitled Gutachten des hochsten Gericht[s]hofes Schottlands nebst anderen Documenten, welche sich auf die Errichtung der Professur der Musik bei der Universitat von Edinburgh beziehen (Edinburgh, 1853), edited and with an introduction by John Donaldson, Reid Professor of the Theory of Music at the University of Edinburgh. The English title is 'Judgement of the court session of Scotland with other documents relating to the...
Dates: 1853 (date of the original)

Letters of John Donaldson, Professor of Music

Identifier: Coll-1237
Scope and Contents This undated letter from John Donaldson to H. H. Dibdin, and written from Marchfield, discusses the adjustment and tuning of an organ, and denies that Sir George Clerk had advocated 'the absurd perfect third system' stating, 'Until the valves were equally opened it was quite impossible to know, precisely, what kind of temperament Mr. Hill had adopted for the Music Hall organ. When I tried it with Sir G. Clerk we found one stop in tolerable tune - I say tolerable, but even in that stop many of...
Dates: 1850-1865

Papers relating to Reid Professors Thomson to Oakeley

 File — translation missing: en.enumerations.container_type.container: EUA Acc.2005/015 Box 2
Identifier: EUA IN1/ADS/LIB/RML

Scrapbook of John Donaldson, Reid Professor of the Theory of Music, 1850s

Identifier: Mus.f.379
Scope and Contents Scrapbook containing Donaldson's collection of cuttings (including one from The Scotsman 24 April 1858 re his purchases of many items for the Reid library from Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn in Berlin), pamphlets (including several collected at the Great Exhibition of 1851), handbills and advertisements describing and advertising various types of musical instrument.Donaldson made considerable acquisitions of both musical instruments and scores for the Reid and was the driving force behind the...
Dates: 1850s