80 Years of Music at National Galleries of Scotland

Dr Gráinne Rice, Adult Programme Coordinator, looks at over 80 years of concert programmes in our galleries.

There are many artworks in the national collection that represent music and musicians, but did you know that we also host a free regular programme of music concerts? Over the past 80 years, our varied concert programme has featured some of Scotland’s finest emerging and established musicians who, inspired by the art collection and exhibitions, have performed for audiences in our galleries.

Music concerts originally began here in 1941 during the Second World War. The first series of recitals were organised as part of a programme of activities to accompany the Art of our Allies exhibition, organised by the British Council at the Scottish National Gallery. Our war-time music programme was modelled on the series initiated by musician Myra Hess at the National Gallery in London in 1939.1

Weekly lunchtime concerts continued at the Scottish National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy after the war organised by Edinburgh musician Tertia Liebenthal MBE (1889-1970). Liebenthal wrote to The Scotsman after the 1941 concerts:

'I am sure that the whole audience… would be very grateful if these concerts could be continued… At a time like this… every undertaking which brings with it a sense of beauty and peace… should be encouraged.'2

As a result, Liebenthal became the honorary organiser of music. She was by all accounts a formidable character who built up the Gallery’s reputation for hosting first-rate concerts, well-respected in the British post-war music scene. At a time when no other series in Scotland devoted as much time to modern music, she insisted that every performer include at least one piece of contemporary work in their programme.

Tertia Liebenthal (1889-1970), violinist, concert promoter, champion of modern music, organiser of 699 lunch-time concerts at the National Gallery of Scotland 1941-70, Scottish National Portrait Gallery Archive
After Diona Murray, Tertia Liebenthal. 1889 - 1970. Concert organiser and musician, 1962, Cast from a plaster bust in possession of Miss I. Dunlop 1970

In 1969, celebrated composer Benjamin Britten wrote a song cycle for tenor and piano in her honour, Who Are These Children? Britten set twelve poems by the Scottish poet William Soutar to music. The piece was performed to mark the 700th concert at National Galleries of Scotland. Tragically, Liebenthal collapsed at the 699th concert in 1970, and sadly died before she saw Britten’s piece performed3. Her concerts were later immortalised in Douglas Fraser’s 1973 poem in Scots: Music Amang The Raeburns:

(In memory o’ Tertia Liebenthal, wha organised the lunch-hour concerts for mony years in the Raeburn Room o’ the Scottish National Gallery)

The playin’s fine, the music braw,
The cultured audience, raw on raw,
Are eydent for the feast;
And ilka Raeburn in its frame, Ilk famous man, ilk sonsie dame,
Is listenin wi’ the neist.

Ye think it’s a’ my fancy? Hoot!
Juist tak a keek – ye’ll hae nae doot.
There’s Raeburn’s sel for ane
Wi’ piercing e’e and haun to chin,
A cheil no’ easily ta’en in;
He’s listening, plain as plain.

And bonny Mistress Scott-Moncreiff
Wha’s face could mirror joy or grief
Is aff on fancy’s flicht.
Lord Newton, last to be impressed,
Is listening keenly wi’ the rest;
His judgement maun be richt.

Yon Egoist in tartan trews
Sir John Sinclair, touched by the Muse,
Saftens his stany glare.
Auld Adam Rolland, wise and kind,
Listens wi’ a’ his hairt and mind,
Relaxing in his chair.

And sae it is wi’ a’ the lave;
The young, the auld, the gay, the grave
A’ join us for an hour,
And as we livin gang oor ways,
Touch hauns athort the centuries
Aneath the music’s pooer.4

By the 1980s the Scottish National Portrait Gallery had also become a regular venue with Curator of British Art, Helen Smailes coordinating concerts there. In 1987 the Gallery collaborated with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on a series of music, dance and drama performances to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Mary Queen of Scots. The Scottish Early Music Consort presented a recital of song and dance from the time of Mary, later released on CD as Mary’s Music. Actor Maureen Beattie performed the role of the doomed queen awaiting her fate in Fotheringhay Castle in W. Gordon Smith’s one woman play, Marie of Scotland

Edinburgh University Singers and John Philip Kitchen MBE, Director of the Edinburgh University Singers, 2017 (photograph by Helen Monaghan)

Beginning in 1989, the Edinburgh University Singers Christmas concerts became an annual fixture in the Edinburgh musical calendar. Initially under the musical directorship of John Kitchen, and more recently Calum Robertson, the choir performed to audiences packed in around the Christmas tree in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Great Hall. In the 1990s Senior Curator of Portraiture, Susanna Kerr was organising the concerts, inviting many artists of international repute to perform one-off and regular recitals including Mr McFall’s Chamber, the Scottish Harp Orchestra and the Transylvanian String Quartet. 

The Learning Team took over programming music at the Galleries in 2005 and established a long-lasting partnership with Live Music Now Scotland. The charity is part of an international network founded by world famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin to support early career musicians to share their music with diverse audiences. Through this partnership we have brought numerous BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year nominees and winners to gallery audiences. 

Siannie Moodie, clarsach player, Live Music Now Scotland.
Brina, Neu! Reekie! Scotland + Jamaica, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 2016 (photograph by Kat Gollock)

Our regular programmes have also featured exceptional independent musicians from classical, traditional, folk and jazz worlds including harpist Alina Bzhezhinska, chanteuse Taylor Wilson and lutenist Gordon Ferries among many others. In 2013 Scottish songwriters Withered Hand and Wounded Knee played as part of one-off night of performances for the From Death to Death and Other Small Tales exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Later that year, we hosted a one-off Hallowe’en performance by Eccentronic Research Council, featuring actor Maxine Peake in response to our Witches & Wicked Bodies exhibition.

We have been working in partnership with multi-artform collective Neu! Reekie! since 2014 showcasing music from very different musical genres. Artists we have hosted at these events have included The Honey Farm, Stevie Jackson (Belle & Sebastian), and Stanley Odd amongst many others. As part of our Neu! Reekie! Scotland + Jamaica night at the Portrait Gallery in February 2016 Jamaican artist Brina sang a beautiful version of Robert Burn’s 1792 poem The Slaves Lament. We have also hosted community ensembles, including performances by Loud & Proud, Scotland’s first LGBT choir, the Newhaven Community Choir and the grass-roots community youth orchestra, Tinderbox Collective.

Music can offer different ways into and new understandings of artworks in the national collection and our exhibitions. Many renaissance and baroque paintings were originally intended to be shown in opulent private and religious interiors where music was a regular part of life. To complement our Beyond Caravaggio exhibition in 2017, we invited world-renowned ensemble Dunedin Consort to perform a special concert as part of the commemorations of the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth. In their lifetimes both artist and musician enjoyed the patronage of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga of Mantua, our concert brought their work together again.

Dunedin Consort, Caravaggio and Monteverde recital 2017 (photograph by Andy Catlin)

Over the years we’ve also commissioned new music. The Wildings’ 2013 Bellany Suite was written in response to the John Bellany: A Passion for Life exhibition. In 2016 experimental composer Michael Begg wrote a new piece of music A Moon That Lights Itself inspired by Charles-François Daubigny’s twilight moon paintings as part of the programme for our Inspiring Impressionism | Daubigny | Monet | Van Gogh exhibition. Begg later released it in album version. In January 2020 Begg restaged the piece for Modern One audiences in response to Katie Paterson’s moon works installed in our NOW exhibition. 

Michael Begg and Clea Friend in rehearsal (left); performance of A Moon That Lights Itself, RSA 2016 (right), (photographs by Gráinne Rice)

Although the Galleries were closed and all activities on hold during the COVID lockdowns our commitment to supporting music continued. In the lockdowns National Galleries of Scotland and Live Music Now Scotland worked together on a series of specially commissioned short concerts recorded at home inviting performers to respond to artworks in the collection.  

We very much look forward to being able to welcome back new and regular audiences to share these special experiences in-gallery and online for many years to come. 


Campbell, Donald, Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History, 2003 (Signal Books: Oxford)

Fraser, Douglas, Rhymes o’ Auld Reekie, 1973 (MacDonald Publishers: Loanhead)

Leibenthal, Tertia Letter to The Scotsman 2 August 1941

McArthur, Euan, Scotland, CEMA and the Arts Council 1919-1967: Background, Politics and Visual Arts Policy, 2013 (Ashgate: Farnham)

Scottish Museums Council, Museums are for People, 1985 (Unipub)

A full history of Tertia Liebenthal was brilliantly narrated by her friend, musician and artist Moray Welsh


1 p. 246, Campbell, Donald Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History, 2003

2 Leibenthal, Tertia, Letter to The Scotsman 2 August 1941

3 p. 247, Campbell, Donald, Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History, 2003

4 p. 28, Fraser, Douglas, Rhymes o’ Auld Reekie, 1973

By Dr Gráinne Rice, 20 October 2021