Forgotten composer who played for Polish king and co-founded Edinburgh Festival rediscovered after distant relative finds online ad for his rare piano
The remarkable story of an eminent Polish violinist and composer who played for King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, introduced Beethoven's 'Christ on the Mount of Olives’ to Britain and co-founded the Edinburgh Festival has been brought to light after an advert for a piano with his signature was found by his great-great-great-great granddaughter.
Josie Dixon, a publishing and research consultant from Winchester, had known little about her mysterious 19th century ancestor Felix Yaniewicz when she was growing up, other than that he was a respected violinist who played a Stradivarius, and had co-founded the first Edinburgh Music Festival.
But a chance conversation at work led to the accidental discovery of a piano hand-signed by the musician and the uncovering of his vibrant life-story and the major contribution he made to the cultural and musical life of Britain.
Dixon told TFN: “I had had a coffee break conversation about Stradivarius violins with a student at a workshop I’d been running. I hadn’t thought about Yaniewicz for decades, but she reminded me of the Stradivarius violin which we knew Yaniewicz owned, so I decided to look it up online to see what I could find.
“Though I found nothing about the violin, one of the first search results was an advert for the sale of a square piano with the label ‘Yaniewicz and Green’. I contacted the seller, Douglas Hollick and that’s when I found out how amazing Yaniewicz’s story really was through the research Hollick had done.
Yaniewicz, whose surname was initially spelled with a ‘J’ before he anglicised it to ‘Y’ after his move to Britain, made many notable contributions to the country, one of the most significant being his involvement in co-founding the first Edinburgh Music Festival in 1815, a spectacular event which was a precursor for all subsequent festivals hosted in the city, and for which he is credited on an engraved cornerstone on the house where he lived in Edinburgh’s Great King Street.
A child prodigy, Yaniewicz was spotted by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, who arranged for him to travel to Vienna, where he had occasion to play for Mozart and had encounters with Haydn.
Such was the young Yaniewicz’s talent that a German biography of Mozart speculates that he even had a piece of music composed for him by Mozart himself (the lost Andante in A Major K470). Yaniewicz later studied with the greatest violin maestros of his day in Italy, before moving to France, where he received the patronage of the Duke of Orleans.
With the outbreak of the French Revolution and the partitions of Poland meaning he couldn’t return to a free homeland, Yaniewicz fled to Britain.
Arriving as a refugee, he quickly positioned himself at the heart of the musical culture of his day and alongside his concert activities, went into business dealing in musical instruments, one of his partnerships trading as ‘Yaniewicz and Green’.
He had two warehouses, one in Liverpool and the other in London’s Leicester Square where he hosted top piano players for concerts to demonstrate the instruments on sale.
The recently discovered square piano came from Yaniewicz’s Liverpool warehouse and dates from around 1810. It features a cartouche of painted flowers and instruments above the keyboard with the label ‘Yaniewicz and Green’ and the addresses of the company’s two warehouses.
Under the piano’s lid, Yaniewicz's signature can be found in Indian ink, and has been matched by the restorer Douglas Hollick to signatures on Yaniewicz’s marriage certificate and a surviving letter.
The piano was originally discovered 20 years ago in dilapidated condition in a house in Wales by organist and keyboard expert Douglas Hollick.
Deciding to restore it back to its former glory, Hollick also began researching Yaniewicz’s background which resulted in the publication of the most complete study of Yaniewicz’s life to date in a specialist music journal.
Seeing it advertised for sale, Dixon decided to “rescue” the piano and bring Yaniewicz’s story to the wider world.
In partnership with the SPCA and The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz, she is crowdfunding to buy the instrument and take it to Edinburgh where it will be the centrepiece of an exhibition about his life and an example of the contribution of migrants to the cultural life of Britain.
Dixon said: “It was a real surprise and thrilling to find out about the range of his activities, as soloist, orchestra leader, an energetic impresario organising concerts up and down the length of Britain, and a musical entrepreneur with several business partnerships.
“I also hadn’t known he was a composer and had never heard his works, which seem only to have survived in Poland.
“I knew immediately that I had to rescue that piano and share his story.”
More details can be found on the crowdfunding page of The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/yaniewicz-piano