Opera Scotland

Robert Burns

Burns Night in 1859

Posted 18 Jan 2014

On 25 January 1859, all over Scotland and beyond, the centenary of  the birth of Robert Burns was celebrated in fine style. In Dundee's new Corn Exchange Hall (shortly to be renamed the Kinnaird Hall) a special evening was mounted. "Upwards of two thousand were present; and such was the demand for tickets that a hall twice the size would have been easily filled" according to the Dundee Courier the following day. Six columns were devoted to the event, with speeches seemingly being reported in full. It does indeed sound a remarkable evening, not in the form we know today on Burns night, although outbreaks of cheering and laughter were reported.

Present at the top table were local dignitaries, including the MP, sheriffs and speakers (including the Rev. George Gilfillan, a famous figure of the day). The events of the night were chaired by Sheriff Logan.

"The proceedings were commenced with a Scottish overture by the orchestra, introducing 'Auld Langsyne'. 'Scots wha hae' &c, composed expressly for the occasion by Herr Herrman."  Logan gave the first address, a lengthy one, on The Life and Writings of Burns following which Miss Robertson sang There was a lassie born in Kyle, and Ye Banks and Braes was given by the Peoples' Chorus. The next speaker, Mr Maxwell, responded to the main address, quoting as he did so the main part of the Cottar's Saturday night.

Mr Milne, the Scottish vocalist, sang Green Grow the Rashes O and My Nannie, O, and Miss Fleming, pupil of Julius Benedict, sang Wanderin' Willie.  A solo on the violin, introducing the famous airs of some of Burns's songs, was given by Master Carl Rosi (as Carl Rosa was then known).  Next, the Reverend George Gilfillan rose to speak,"received with repeated and long continued outbursts of cheering."  In the course of his address, he expressed his enthusiasm for Burns.

There then followed more music. "Miss Robertson then sang My Heart is Sair; Mr Milne gave Highland Mary and For a' that and a' that; Miss Fleming My Tocher's the Jewel, Scots wha hae and along with Miss Robertson, the duet of O wert thou in the cauld blastWhere are the joys I have met was given by the Peoples' Chorus and Master Carl Rosi performed another grand fantasie, introducing Gala Water, Duncan Gray, &c, &c."

Mr Tom Powrie, the well-known actor, had been billed to give Tam O'Shanter, but apologies were given as he was 'severely indisposed'. The vote of thanks was given by William Thoms, and with the singing of Auld Langsyne, the evening finished.

From OperaScotland's perspective over a hundred and fifty years later, Carl Rosa's presence is fascinating.  He was not quite seventeen years old.  Rosa, billed as a child prodigy on the violin, had given recitals in Dundee a number of times previously.  When he appeared in Liverpool six weeks later as a solo violinist, he was dubbed 'the juvenile Paganini' or at other appearances around the same time 'the boy violinist.'  Rosa seems to have been a short man in adult life, perhaps only five feet tall or thereby.

When Rosa brought Carl Rosa Opera to Dundee twenty years later, (see our entry for Mignon 1879), he surely spared a thought for his previous visits, and Robert Burns too.

Read more about Carl Rosa and his opera company - download our book from Kindle here.

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