Frederick Niecks (1845-1924)

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Reid Professor of Music, 1891-1914

Early Life

Niecks was born in Dusseldorf, Germany on 3rd Feb. 1845 the son of a violinist, teacher and conductor. Educated privately he began playing the violin at the age of six, under the guidance of his father, and at the age of thirteen made his first public appearance in a performance of the Second Concerto by De Beriot at the Musikverein in Dusseldorf. Niecks undertook further study with W. Langhans, a distinguished violinist, teacher, conductor and writer, Leopold Auer, violinist and teacher of among others, Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz, studied pianoforte, and composition with Julius Trasch, Robert Schumann’s successor as Music Director at Dusseldorf and organ with Julius Grunewald, Professor at Cologne Conservatoire.

Early Career

He began his career as a successful solo performer, orchestral musician and teacher but his health was not good and he had to give up thoughts of a career as a virtuoso violinist, devoting himself to teaching and theoretical studies Alexander C. Mackenzie (later Sir), Edinburgh composer and conductor, sent by his family at an early age to study in Germany, was a fellow student and friend of the young Niecks. In Dusseldorf in 1866, he was recommended by Mackenzie as a suitable candidate to fill the post of church organist organist of St. Mary's Presbyterian Church, Dumfries. The recommendation was accepted and Niecks settled in Dumfries, became a teacher of music and subsequently the viola player in Mackenzie’s string quartet.

In 1877 he travelled to Germany to continue his education, studying philosophy, psychology and aesthetics at the University of Leipzig, returning to Scotland in 1880 where he made the decision to become a British subject. In 1875 Niecks embarked on a writing career, and became a regular contributor to music journals and periodicals relating to the Art and Science of Music. A varied selection of articles, some critical or biographical studies, others historical music research with analysis, and a selection dealing with educational, and psychological issues pertaining to the teaching of music. The work with which he is most associated Frederick Chopin as a man and Musicians developed from a series of articles and was first published in 1889. This volume established his reputation as an author in the world of music and letters, pre-eminent not only for its literary style but also for its detailed research and accuracy.

He also began a project researching the life of the great musician Robert Schumann with the approbation and assistance of his widow and celebrated pianist, Clara Schumann. In 1890 he presented a lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on the Early Development of Instrumental Forms. He was also considered to be a man of extensive general culture and an accomplished linguist and published a Concise Dictionary of Music Terms, to which is prefixed an Introduction to the Elements of Music, A History of Programme Music from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Time, and The Nature and Capacity of Modern Music, a philosophical treatise.


His varied body of work was appreciated by the authorities at the University of Edinburgh when they were seeking a successor to Sir Herbert Stanley Oakeley (1830-1903) and, in December 1891, he was appointed to the Chair of the Theory of Music. This was a time of great change in the status of Music as an academic subject in Edinburgh and in January 1894 it was approved by Her Majesty in Council was passed creating a Faculty of Music: Frederick Niecks became the first Dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Edinburgh and in tribute to the work of Professor Oakeley he proceeded to look at ways of continuing to raise the standard of musical culture and to establish the Faculty of Music in the most thorough manner. He designed the new course and curriculum for the new degree in Music and insisted on its being a residential qualification.

One innovation was to gain the permission of the University Court for the admission of women students to the Music Classes. He carried out all the teaching himself until 1902 and developed a series of lecture recitals and concerts to complement the which soon developed a reputation for excellence. In 1901 he established a musical Education Society and in 1909 began a series of Concerts for Young People. He became much involved in the musical life of the city through various orchestras and choral organisations.

Personal Life and Legacy

All or some of the text on this page originally appeared in the Gallery of Benefactors

In 1907 he married one of his students, Christina Struthers, the daughter of Professor Sir John Struthers (1823-1899). Frederick Niecks retired in 1914 and continued to work on his Schumann project. Awards included Mus.D. Dublin 1898; and LL.D. Edin. 1915. He died in Edinburgh on 24th June 1924 and his work on Schumann was completed by his wife and published posthumously. His friend Professor Otto Schlapp (1859-1939) designed and crafted a memorial plaque of a portrait of Frederick Niecks which is now in the Music Class room and in the Faculty of Music, a Frederick Niecks Memorial Prize has been endowed for an annual prize in Music History.

Christina died in 1944, bequeathing books from her and her late husband's library, together with autograph letters from Chopin, Liszt and Clara Schumann and pencil portraits of Chopin.