Felix Yaniewicz and the metamorphoses of song by Josie Dixon

Portrait of Felix Yaniewicz, aged 37.
Pastel and gouache by L. de Longastre (c.1747–99), signed and dated 1799, Private collection

An exhibition at Edinburgh’s Georgian House opening in June will tell the remarkable story of a forgotten figure on the city’s musical scene, who left an enduring legacy for Scottish cultural heritage.  Felix Yaniewicz (1762-1848) was a Polish-Lithuanian violinist and composer, who settled in Britain after his continental career was cut short by the outbreak of the French Revolution.  He eventually made his home in Scotland, where he co-founded the first Edinburgh music festival in 1815.

Cornerstone recording Yaniewicz’s residence at 84 Great King Street, Edinburgh.
Photo, Alan Wilson.

Yaniewicz’s claim to fame as a composer rests on the five violin concertos with which he made his name as a performer.* An enthusiastic reviewer hailed his first concert appearance in Edinburgh at the Theatre Royal in 1804 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’ (quoted in Hollick, 2019).  In addition to orchestral and chamber works, he later wrote and arranged a variety of music for piano, as part of a portfolio musical career which by then included the sale of musical instruments: a few examples bearing his name have survived, including the beautifully restored Yaniewicz & Green square piano c.1810 which will be on display in the exhibition.

Yaniewicz & Green square piano c.1810, restored by Douglas Hollick. Author’s own photo.

Yaniewicz had a keen instinct for the tastes of his fashionable clientele.  He knew the power of a familiar tune to rouse an audience and became adept at weaving song melodies into his instrumental writing.  In his early orchestral works, these were the folk melodies of his homeland, which became a signature motif in the last movement of the violin concertos.  Tenor, Michael Kelly (1762-1826) noted in his Reminiscences ‘His concertos always finished with some pretty Polonaise air; his variations were truly beautiful’ (1826: 227) They can be heard in the recordings of the third and fifth concertos, where a recognisably Mozartian idiom morphs unexpectedly into a Polish folk tune.

When Yaniewicz arrived in London, Handel’s oratorios were concert-hall staples, and around 1800 he wrote Sonata in A major for the Pianoforte, with Accompaniment for the Violin (1800) in which is introduced Handel’s ‘Lord, remember David’.  This had already undergone some transformations, adapted for Handel’s oratorio ‘Redemption’ from an aria from his opera Sosarme, and later published as a free-standing song for voice and piano.

Once Yaniewicz’s musical instruments business was established, he began publishing a wider range of piano music, much of it in the form of rondos and variations on popular songs, such as ‘Hope Told a Flatt’ring Tale’, an English rearrangement of the aria ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’ by Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816).  An extract can be heard in the introduction to a short film on the Yaniewicz & Green square piano made to mark the occasion of its arrival in Scotland in 2021.

Among Yaniewicz’s piano compositions in the National Library of Scotland are rondos on ‘Peggy’s Love, a favourite Scotch air’ and ‘in the Scottish style with the introduction of a favourite air ‘Oh Nanny wilt thou gang with me’.  ‘Peggy’s Love’ has survived as a Scottish country dance, typically accompanied on the fiddle or accordion.  ‘Oh Nanny wilt thou gang with me’ originated in Thomas Carter’s first collection of Vauxhall songs in 1773; the lyrics were by Thomas Percy (of ‘English Reliques’ fame).  The musical setting ‘in the Scottish style’ (as it is described in the title) gave it popularity north of the border, where the lyrics were turned into Scots dialect (much to Robert Burns’ disapproval). There are no audio recordings listed in the Traditional Tune Archive, but the music has survived in many editions, both as a song and in arrangements for flute.

O Nanny wilt thou gang with me, from Hand-book of the songs of Scotland Edited by William Mitchison (1850). Available from https://digital.nls.uk/90410599. National Library of Scotland.

Ornamenting popular songs with elaborate variations – one element in the practice of ‘smartening up ballads for the concert hall’ as Nigel Leask (2021) has put it – was not without its perils.  As a celebrated performer, Yaniewicz himself had a reputation for great musical refinement: an entry in  the Complete Encyclopædia of Music published shortly after his death declared his style ‘free from those unmeaning harlequinades and flattering flippery embellishments which disfigure the violin playing of so many performers’ (Moore, 1854: 998). The same could not be said of the famous soprano Angelica Catalani with whom he had a long collaboration, appearing together in concerts from as early as 1807 until 1824 (a performance two years earlier in 1822 was listed as her farewell concert, but it seems that she had an extended lap of honour, as befitted a grand diva).  Yaniewicz was renowned for virtuosity, but La Catalani gave the term a whole new meaning, with a level of lavish ornamentation and display that put her performances on a knife-edge between astonishing bravura and triumphantly bad taste.  A wonderfully equivocal account of her vocal prowess by Lord Mount Edgcumbe suggests the collateral damage suffered by song melodies overwrought with operatic exhibitionism:

the great, the far-famed Catalani … for many years reigned alone. . . her voice is of a most uncommon quality, and capable of exertions almost supernatural… It were to be wished. . . that she was less lavish in the display of these wonderful powers…but her taste is vicious, her excessive love of ornament spoiling every simple air… with a luxuriance and redundancy …which she carries to a fantastical excess (quoted in Colles (ed.), 1935: 582).

Portrait of Angelica Catalani (1780-1849)
Stipple engraving by Friedrich Wilhelm Bollinger (1777–1825), Zwickau, 1818
Author’s own copy

One wonders how this sat with Yaniewicz, but their musical partnership survived these differences, and she was godmother to his second daughter Pauline.  Among the exhibits on display at the Georgian House this summer will be letters and manuscripts shedding light on their professional and personal relationship, and a note in Mme Catalani’s handwriting containing the words of a famous aria from an Italian opera.  ‘Ombra Adorata Aspetta’ – the subject of a rhapsodic essay by E. T. A. Hoffmann – was written by the celebrated castrato Girolamo Crescentini, as an addition to Zingarelli’s opera Giulietta e Romeo.  At the opera’s tragic climax, Romeo, believing Juliet dead, swallows poison and in his dying aria calls on her spirit, asking his beloved to wait for him.  It is not hard to imagine that Mme Catalani would have given her full powers of expression to this moment of high musical drama – a more natural territory for her histrionic talents than the ‘simple airs’ desecrated by her showy coloratura.

The contrast between the simplicity of national folk song and a more sophisticated tradition we would now identify as classical was to become a central theme in An Account of the first Edinburgh Music Festival, published the following year in 1816 by George Farquhar Graham.

Account of the First Edinburgh Music Festival by George Farquhar Graham, Edinburgh 1816.
1st edition inscribed to Mrs Yaniewicz, family collection.
Author’s own photo

His introduction presents the festival as a turning point in Scottish musical taste, moving away from national folk music and towards the continental tradition that Yaniewicz (who led the orchestra throughout) represented, trailing clouds of musical glory from his encounters with Haydn and Mozart in Vienna.  This narrative was further developed after the 1815 festival gave rise to the Edinburgh Institution for the Encouragement of Sacred Music, established on 28th December 1816.  The report on their first annual general meeting, chaired by the Lord Provost, echoes Farquhar Graham, deploring Scotland’s ‘national deficiency’ in the realm of sacred music, which is presented 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 (1817: np).

Karen McAulay (2016: 40) has pointed out a nice irony in the fact that Farquhar Graham ‘who was so disparaging about his countrymen’s obsession with Scottish tunes, was in his middle age to be the editor and arranger of the nineteenth century’s best-selling and longest-lasting song collections, the Songs of Scotland, in three fat volumes, complete with substantial and erudite annotations.’

This shifting and contested relationship between musical cultures – high and low, continental and national – persisted well into the nineteenth century and is nowhere more strikingly in evidence than in the ubiquitous metamorphoses of song.

Josie Dixon is director of the Yaniewicz project www.yaniewicz.org

The exhibition Music and Migration in Georgian Edinburgh: The Story of Felix Yaniewicz opens at the Georgian House on 25th June 2022.  More details at www.yaniewicz.org/exhibition and for updates on the events programme follow us on Twitter @yaniewicz


* These include I Concerto in F major (c.1788), Concerto in D major (c.1788), Concerto in A major (c.1790), Concerto in A major (1797) and Concerto in e minor (1800?). Mieczysław Szlezer provides a detailed bibliography of Yaniewicz’s compositional output in his monograph, Feliks Janiewicz: polski skrzypek – zapomniany przez swoich, doceniony przez obcych  (2017).


  1. (1817) First Annual Report of the Edinburgh Institution for the Encouragement of Sacred Music, etc. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.

Colles, H. C. (ed.) (1935) Grove’s Dictionary Of Music And Musicians, Volume 1, 3rd Edition, New York: The Macmillan Company.

Hollick, Douglas (2019) ‘The restoration of a Yaniewicz and Green square piano, c. 1810’, The Consort, vol.75.

Kelly, Michael (1826) Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, of the King’s Theatre, and Theatre, Volume 1 (London: H. Colburn).

Leask, Nigel (2021) ‘The Scottish Musical Tour’, [Zoom webinar], 16 March.

McAulay, Karen (2016) ‘The First Edinburgh Musical Festival: ‘Serious and Magnificent Entertainment’, or “A Combination of Harmonious and Discordant Notes?”’ Brio 53(1): 35-46.

Moore, John Weeks (1854) Complete Encyclopædia of Music: Elementary, Technical, Historical, Biographical, Vocal, and Instrumental, Boston: J.P. Jewett and Co.

Szlezer, Mieczysław (2017) Feliks Janiewicz: polski skrzypek – zapomniany przez swoich, doceniony przez obcych, Kraków : Akademia Muzyczna w Krakowie

Yaniewicz, Felix (c.1810) Rondo in the Scotish Style with the introduction of a favorite air Oh Nanny with thou gang with me for the piano forte, etc. Lond., For the Author by Chappell & Co.

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