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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 the octaves were out of tune rendering it impossible to do more than conjecture as to the temperament intended'.

Donaldson goes on to suggest that Hill would be the right person to carry out any alterations to the instrument, and comments on attitudes to equal temperament.


  • Creation: 1850-1865


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance of any visit.

Biographical / Historical

John Donaldson was born in 1789. He studied Law and was called to the Scottish Bar in 1826, though he was also a well-known teacher of music in Edinburgh. Though unsuccessful in his earlier candidacy in 1841, he was elected to the Reid Professorship of Music at Edinburgh University in 1845 on the death of Professor John Thomson. It was Donaldson who established a museum and purchased old and unusual musical instruments which today forms the John Donaldson Collection. As well as founding this collection which illustrates the history of music and acoustics, he built a fine hall as his music classroom with adjoining museum gallery, now known as the Reid Concert Hall. An organ built by Messrs. Hill and Sons (London) was constructed in the music classroom.

It is said that Donaldson's lectures were not especially successful because he was not a practical musician, devoting himself rather more to the theory of harmony and investigating obscure questions of acoustics. Nevertheless, he held the Professorship until his death at Marchfield, his home near Edinburgh, on 12 August 1865.


1 folder

Physical Location


Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession no: E2009.30

Related Materials

The Special Collections also hold the personal scrapbook of John Donaldson (Mus.f.379).

Related Materials

Also within Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library, at shelfmark Dc.2.58, there are letters (2) of John Donaldson to D. R. Hay, Secretary of the Aesthetic Club in Edinburgh, 1863 and undated.

Processing Information

Compiled by Graeme D. Eddie, Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library.

Material relating to Professor John Donaldson (1789-1865), holder of Reid Professorship, Edinburgh University, 1845-1865
Language of description
Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
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