Josie DIXON: Rediscovering Yaniewicz – a journey back in time

Rediscovering Yaniewicz – a journey back in time

Photo of Josie DIXON


She worked in international academic publishing for 15 years. She sings Renaissance polyphony and works on musical projects relating to the work of her ancestor Felix Janiewicz and her mother, the composer Ailsa Dixon.

Ryc. Fabien Clairefond

other articles by this author

.Felix Yaniewicz (1762-1848) was a Polish-Lithuanian violinist and composer who settled in Britain after a cosmopolitan career which took him to Vienna, Italy and Paris.  Last year he was the subject of an exhibition celebrating his role in founding the first Edinburgh music festival in 1815.  To mark the Chopin Institute’s release of the first in a series of new recordings of Yaniewicz’s violin concertos, Yaniewicz’s descendant Josie Dixon tells the story of how the project to celebrate his musical legacy in Britain came about.

Four years ago, a chance encounter with a music journalist working for The Strad magazine revived a forgotten childhood memory.  When I was growing up, there were frequent family visits to my grandmother’s cottage in a small village in the south of England.  Hanging next to the piano was a painting of my great-great-great-great-grandfather, the Polish-Lithuanian violin virtuoso, Felix Yaniewicz.  I was intrigued by this striking portrait, looking (I fancied) like a cross between the young Beethoven and Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy.  Among his surviving possessions, passed down the generations, my grandmother’s cutlery drawer contained a set of silver forks bearing his crest – a mailed arm brandishing a curved sword with the motto ‘Pro Lithuania’.  My great-aunt had inherited his inlaid double violin case (now in the museum of historical instruments at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh) which once contained a Stradivarius and an Amati.  

This was an intriguing piece of family mythology, but the details of Yaniewicz’s life had been lost in the mists of time.  It wasn’t until my conversation with the journalist in 2019 recalled the story of the vanished Stradivarius, that I realised belatedly that the age of the internet afforded an opportunity to find out more about my ancestor.  I went home that evening in a state of excitement and rushed to my laptop, hoping to discover what had happened to Yaniewicz’s violins.  The Strad and the Amati have so far proved elusive, so that quest is still ongoing, but what I found instead proved to be the beginning of a new project. 

Among the results of my internet search was an advertisement for a beautifully restored square piano, dated circa 1810, bearing the label ‘Yaniewicz & Green’, with his signature in Indian ink inside.  The advertisement had been placed by the piano’s restorer, Douglas Hollick, so I contacted him to ask whether the instrument was still for sale.  My first instinct was to have it in the family, but I awoke the following morning with a new plan, to run a crowdfunding campaign to buy the piano and take it to Edinburgh as the centrepiece of an exhibition telling his story.  This would be an opportunity to share with the public our family heirlooms relating to Yaniewicz, which were scattered among his descendants and had never been seen in public. 

In January 2020 I went to see the piano, taking with me Steven Devine, principal early keyboard player with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who had worked at the Finchcocks collection of historic keyboard instruments.  After sitting down to play it, Steven at once pronounced the piano ‘a beauty’, and the plan began to take shape.  In February I made a visit to Edinburgh to search for a venue for the exhibition, and also made contact with the Scottish Polish Cultural Association.  They were to become important allies, since Yaniewicz’s contribution to Scottish musical heritage was part of their story too.  When the world stopped turning in March 2020, the Yaniewicz project became my lockdown sanity-saver, and took over a large part of my life. 

The inspiration for the exhibition came from an article written by Douglas Hollick while he was restoring the piano, giving an account of Yaniewicz’s career.  Much of this was a revelation – I had no idea that my ancestor was a composer with five violin concertos to his name!  Now I learned that he was born in Vilnius, played in the court orchestra of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, and travelled to Vienna.  There he encountered Haydn and Mozart, and was described as one of the foremost violinists in the world.   Mozart’s 19th-century biographer Otto Jahn thought that his lost Andante in A major K470, composed at this time, may have been written for Yaniewicz.  After a few years in Italy, where he travelled with Princess Izabela Lubomirska, a cousin of the Polish King, Yaniewicz made his debut in Paris in 1787 at the Concert Spirituel, the famous royal concert series in the Tuileries Palace.  He found a patron in the Duke of Orléans, but the outbreak of Revolution cut short his French career.  With the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth on a path to dissolution, he found refuge in Britain, where he would spend the rest of his life. 

On arrival in London, he quickly made a name for himself as a charismatic soloist and concertmaster, and by 1792 was hailed as ‘the celebrated Mr Yaniewicz’ (from this point on, he adopted the anglicised spelling of his name, signing himself Felix with an x and Yaniewicz with a Y).  He played under Haydn’s baton during the composer’s visit to London, and was soon performing in touring concerts all over the country.  In 1799 he moved to Liverpool and married an Englishwoman, Eliza Breeze.  His entrepreneurial flair began to show itself in a series of business partnerships dealing in musical instruments made by his friend and associate Muzio Clementi, the foremost piano manufacturer of the day.  Yaniewicz and partners customised these instruments for their fashionable clientele.  This was the origin of our square piano, the best preserved of a handful of surviving instruments bearing his name. 

Yaniewicz was a founder member of the Philharmonic Society, established in 1813 as a cooperative of thirty musicians (many of them émigrés) collaborating to put on public concerts in London.  This marked a significant moment in the history of the profession, moving away from patronage and towards musical meritocracy.  One of his most notable London concerts featured the first British performance of Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives in 1814.  He also had a long and colourful musical partnership with the greatest operatic soprano of the day, Angelica Catalani, acting as her impresario and sharing the stage in performance.

In 1815, Yaniewicz played a pivotal role in the first Edinburgh music festival.  Grand concerts in Parliament Hall featured Haydn’s Creation and Handel’s Messiah, operatic arias, Haydn symphonies and Yaniewicz’s violin concertos.  Evening concerts featured symphonies by Mozart and Beethoven as well as another of his own violin concertos.  This was a formidable amount of music to present in the space of a few consecutive days.  Yaniewicz led the orchestra throughout, and in the succeeding festivals of 1819 and 1824.

An Account of the First Edinburgh Musical Festival published the following year hailed it as a turning point in Scottish musical taste, moving away from national folk culture and towards the continental tradition that Yaniewicz represented.  It led to the establishment of a new institution for sacred music, with predicitions that this would be ‘justly regarded by future times as a new era in the musical history of Scotland.’  Scanning that horizon, the author speculates about the legacy of this foundational event in the nation’s musical history:

‘it has excited much temporary interest – and it may be followed by important consequences, at a time when the hand that now attempts to describe its immediate effects, and the hearts of all who participated in its pleasures, are mouldered into dust.’

If the founders of the Edinburgh International Festival, in the aftermath of the second world war, can be seen as the successors of their counterparts in 1815, this prophecy has been more richly fulfilled than he could ever have imagined.

Yaniewicz stayed in Edinburgh for the rest of his life.  On my visit in February 2020, while reconnoitring for an exhibition venue, I went to see his house at 84 Great King Street, where an engraved cornerstone records ‘Felix Yaniewicz, Polish Composer and Musician, Co-Founder of First Edinburgh Festival, lived and died here, 1823-1848’.  Later I made a pilgrimage to Warriston Cemetery, where his gravestone records ‘a most eminent and accomplished musician… honoured, loved and regretted’. 

Learning much of this for the first time, I was amazed and excited: this was a story that had to be told!  After that first Edinburgh visit, I began discussions with National Trust for Scotland about holding the exhibition in the Georgian House, while working on a website, establishing the Friends of Felix Yaniewicz, and preparing to launch the crowdfunding for the piano.  This became a collaboration with the Scottish Polish Cultural Association, and funds were raised from all over Britain, from Poland, Germany, Norway, France, Italy, Switzerland and the USA.  Donors included the composer Roxanna Panufnik, marking over 200 years of Polish musical heritage in Britain.  The final donation was made by an Edinburgh doctor in memory of her father, a Polish veteran, with funds collected at his 100th birthday, and afterwards at his funeral – a poignant indication of how much this project was taken to heart in the Scottish Polish community. 

The Polish Ex-Combatants Association of Great Britain agreed to give the piano its new permanent home in their former veterans’ club in Edinburgh (now a Polish cultural and community centre), just around the corner from where Yaniewicz lived in Great King Street.  Their support was an important foundation for the exhibition, which eventually involved cooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and support from Baillie Gifford in Scotland, the Polish Cultural Institute and the Lithuanian Embassy.  The Polish Ambassador gave his backing to the project and the Polish Consulate in Edinburgh hosted the first two concerts to celebrate the piano’s arrival in November 2021, with the Consul General in attendance, helping to lift the piano across the threshold.  A documentary about the piano filmed that weekend was later used to introduce the exhibition.

Meanwhile, I was collecting the exhibits.  Heirlooms lent by various members of the family included portraits of Yaniewicz and his wife Eliza, his seal and silver cutlery engraved with his crest and motto ‘Pro Lithuania’, a silver dish inset with a 1753 coin from the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, an elaborate silver bell believed to date from Revolutionary France, and his gold snuffbox.  The family’s copy of the 1816 Account of the First Edinburgh Musical Festival is inscribed by the author ‘To Mrs Yaniewicz, as a mark of the author’s esteem and friendship’, and a family autograph book contains excerpts of letters from Angelica Catalani and Niccolò Paganini.  New discoveries sourced for the exhibition included another Catalani manuscript, a letter from Yaniewicz outlining the finances for her concerts, and a watercolour painting showing a performance in the second Edinburgh festival of 1819.

Two loans were arranged from museums: Yaniewicz’s violin case from St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, and the beautiful, richly decorated Yaniewicz & Co. Apollo lyre guitar, which I had found in the collection of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.

The exhibition opened in June 2022, and during the next four months received over 10,000 visitors from 32 countries.  The launch was attended by representatives of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute from Warsaw and filmed by TVP Kultura.  The events programme included talks, recitals and a children’s performance attended by families from the Scottish-Polish community, animating Yaniewicz’s partnership with Mme Catalani.  Related initiatives included a Yaniewicz walking tour in Edinburgh, a display of his music at the National Library of Scotland, and three concerts by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra entitled ‘Felix Yaniewicz and the Scottish Enlightenment’. 

.In the wake of last year’s exhibition, 2023 has brought the chance to travel to Poland and Lithuania.   The Chopin Festival’s concert in Warsaw featuring Yaniewicz’s first violin concerto played by Chouchane Siranossian and the {Oh!} Orchestra was a highlight of the summer.  In November, two more concertos were performed by the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra in the Renaissance hall in the Palace of the Grand Dukes in Vilnius.  Above all, I am looking forward to the completion of the Chopin Institute’s project to record all five violin concertos.  While there remain some tantalising enigmas in Yaniewicz’s story, like the missing Stradivarius and Mozart’s lost Andante, it is in these concertos that we come closest to capturing the spirit of this remarkable virtuoso, whose performances were legendary in his time.

Josie Dixon

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