How do you distil more than 100 years of music, passion, performance, deterioration and regeneration into a single page? All we can do is take you through the origins of this wonderful building, and show you its gradual evolution into Scotland’s premier music venue.
It begins at the end of the 19th century, with wealthy brewer Andrew Usher (sometimes known as ‘the father of Scottish whisky’ after perfecting the blending technique) chatting with his jeweller on Rose Street. He had a dream of creating a venue that ‘should become and remain a centre and attraction to musical artistes and performers and to the citizens of Edinburgh and others...’
On 23 June 1896 it was formally announced that Usher had gifted £100,000 to The City of Edinburgh, for the purpose of creating his perfect venue — something that the Edinburgh of the time was very much lacking. Sadly Usher — who was 70 at the time of his bequest — never saw the hall that took his name. He died in 1898, 16 years before his dream was realised.
After a 12-year delay, largely due to the difficulties of finding a suitable site, a competition to create the design for the hall was announced in 1910. The winning bid, chosen from 130 entries, came from Stockdale Harrison & Howard H Thomson of Leicester, whose classical style with Beaux-Arts influences fulfilled the ‘simple but dignified’ brief.
The following year, during a state visit, King George V and Queen Mary laid two memorial stones alongside a foundation stone containing a lead casket holding (among other items) all the coins of the realm, a copy of The Scotsman and a copy of Andrew Usher’s deed of gift.
One of the Hall’s chief glories, the organ was always designed to be the interior focal point, visually and musically. By 1912, the city was searching for the best candidate to build it, finally settling on Norman Beard of London. His design, installed late in 1913, was built on the grandest scale, complete with a Spanish mahogany case by Adam Currie of Edinburgh.
Over the years, the organ gradually fell into disrepair. A lack of moisture and temperature control led to significant unreliability, and by the start of this century it hadn’t been played for some years. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the Usher Hall Organ Trust, Harrison and Harrison of Durham were appointed to restore it, and since 2002 the organ has once again taken centre stage at many of the Hall’s events.
The grand opening
The Usher Hall was officially opened by Andrew Usher’s widow on 6 March 1914. Three celebratory concerts featured music from Handel, Bach, and Beethoven and others — a bill that would have tested the building’s superb acoustics to the maximum. The following day The Scotsman reported that: 'It is not too much to say that those present who saw the hall for the first time were greatly struck with its dignified proportions, its open and airy aspect, and the character of its decorative detail'. The Hall was a hit.
Rennovation and restoration
In April 1996, a Tony Bennett concert literally brought the house down. Just hours after it finished, a large section of plaster fell from the auditorium ceiling into the empty seats below. Damage was minimal, but it highlighted the deteriorating state of the Hall. Three months later, The City of Edinburgh Council unveiled plans for a revamp.
The initial refurbishment was completed in August 2000, and in May 2002, plans for Phase 2 were announced. The glass extension, a contemporary interpretation of the original Beaux Arts influence, was finally unveiled early in 2010, followed in October the same year by the official opening of the new-look venue and arts quarter.
Today's Usher Hall
The Usher Hall’s acoustics are undeniably among the best in Europe, and beloved by performers and audiences alike. It’s what makes us Edinburgh’s key venue for national and international orchestras and, since 1947, the main venue for the Edinburgh International Festival.
A centre of excellence for performance of all kinds, every year the Hall welcomes a huge range of talent as well as conferences, sponsorship events, ceremonies, lectures and recording sessions. It remains a key landmark in the centre of Edinburgh, and is likely to be so for many years yet to come.