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Charles Avison - the forgotten master of the North

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When considering musical life in mid-eighteenth century Britain, it is natural enough to focus attention on London. Handel had first arrived in 1711, at once storming the London stage with "Rinaldo", and was based in London from the following year, producing dozens of operas and oratorios in a career lasting nearly fifty years. There was the so-called "war" between Handel's supporters and those of Bononcini, no doubt helping to increase interest in the music of both composers. Any number of other continental composers thrived in London at this time: Loeillet, de Fesch, Pepusch to name but a representative handful. Nor was London without its home-grown musicians. Handel's one-time friend, Maurice Greene, a Londoner born and bred, was organist at various City churches (St Dunstan's-in-the-West and St Andrew's, Holborn) before moving to St Paul's in 1718. William Boyce, his apprentice, another Londoner, worked in a number of different London churches, as well as composing for the theatre, particularly Drury Lane. Boyce's close contemporary, Thomas Arne, brought up in Covent Garden, was excluded from church appointments because of his Catholicism, but was connected with a number of theatres (Drury Lane, the Haymarket, Covent Garden) producing more than fifty operas in addition to supplying incidental music for plays. Then there were the musical entertainments at the popular pleasure gardens of Marylebone, Ranelagh and Vauxhall, attracting contributions from Arne, Boyce and, a little later, J C Bach and Abel.

But musical life also flourished outside London. The Three Choirs Festival, the oldest music festival now extant in Britain, originated in about 1725; Handel's "Messiah" was first performed across the Irish Sea in Dublin, where Francesco Geminiani was extremely active for some thirty years. The subject of this article, Charles Avison, is a composer now largely forgotten at least in part because his entire career was spent away from the spotlight of the capital, in his native Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was, nevertheless, a significant figure in Britain's musical life.

Early Years

Avison was baptised on 16th February 1709, making him about a year older than Arne and two years older than Boyce. He came from a large family, being the middle of nine children born to Richard and Ann Avison. Many composers of this period had famous struggles with fathers who disapproved of their sons' musical aspirations, but Avison had the good fortune to be the son of a professional musician and no doubt received his first training at home. Avison senior, a Newcastle town wait, presumably used his local connections to advance his son's career, because Charles had further opportunity for study while in the service of Ralph Jenison, a local patron of the arts and MP for Northumberland between 1724 and 1741. There is contemporary evidence to suggest that he was taught in London by Geminiani, whose musical influence is manifest in his concerti. It has been claimed that he also studied in Italy but there is no firm evidence to support this.

Avison was certainly in London in the spring of 1734 and must already have attracted favourable attention because it is known that he turned down posts in London, Dublin and Edinburgh, the three capital cities of the British Isles, as well as the post of organist at York Minster (the post eventually going to James Nares), before taking up an appointment as organist at St John's Church in his native Newcastle in June 1736 (the appointment had been made the previous October but did not take effect for such a long time because of the installation of a new organ). A few months later, in October 1736, Avison added the organist's post at St Nicholas's Church as well. Now Newcastle Cathedral, at the time St Nicholas's was the third largest parish church in the country, boasting an organ larger than that of Durham Cathedral. Avison remained at St Nicholas's for the rest of his life.

Return to Newcastle

In October 1735, the month of Avison's appointment to St John's, a series of subscription concerts was organised in Newcastle under the auspices of the newly formed Newcastle Music Society, following the pattern of similar concert series in London and elsewhere. It is unclear to what extent involvement with these concerts was already a formal part of Avison's duties. Perhaps it was initially a matter of experimentation, testing public reaction, building a satisfactory orchestra, but in 1738 Avison duly became the head of the society and consequently director of the concert series, a post that he held in tandem with that at St. Nicholas's until his death.

In the meantime Avison had married (1737) Catherine Reynolds by whom he had a family of nine, following his parents' example, though most of the children died in childhood. In addition to his duties at St. Nicholas's and his duties as concert director, he taught the harpsichord at home and, no doubt, the organ. He also found time to write. Over the years, local magazines and newspapers published numerous book reviews and articles on musical topics signed with the initials "CA". While it is not proven that "CA" was Avison, it is generally accepted that he was, indeed, the author. In 1752 he published "An Essay on Musical Expression", an expansion of the lengthy preface on performance of concerti he had published the previous year with his Op 3 set. Dr Burney thought this the first work of its kind on musical criticism in England. Its content was controversial, suggesting as it did that Geminiani and Marcello were superior composers to Handel, and caused a response from William Hayes, Professor of Music at Oxford.

The music

The bulk of Avison's compositional output consists of some fifty concerti grossi published in six sets between 1747 and 1769, the year before his death. His overall style is very faithful to that of his teacher, Geminiani, though he is less Corellian. He almost always uses the four-movement format favoured by Telemann (slow-fast-slow-fast), the second movements usually being fugal. There are often less formal movements based on a broad melodic line that could almost be derived from local songs. The concertos were enormously popular with music societies throughout the country, the published editions finding large numbers of buyers away from Avison's immediate area.

He also played an important part in popularising the music of Domenico Scarlatti in this country by arranging nearly fifty movements by Scarlatti into a set of twelve concerti grossi. These were published in 1744. Many of the movements, though by no means all, came from Scarlatti's "Essercizi" (binary one-movement sonatas) which had been published in London by the Irish composer Thomas Roseingrave in 1739 (the "Essercizi" make up the first thirty sonatas in Ralph Kirkpatrick's definitive catalogue of all Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas.

A representative spread of Avison's original concerti have found their way into the recording studio at times since the 1960s and the Scarlatti arrangements have twice been issued as a complete set. Avison's chamber music has been less fortunate. Four sets of sonatas were issued, the first possibly as early as 1737, the last in 1764. Here he basses his style firmly on Rameau; the sonatas take the form of keyboard sonatas with accompaniments for other instruments. Somewhat surprisingly for a composer so involved with the church, there exists almost no choral music.

It is clear that Charles Avison was a very busy man. He appears also to have been a man of great charm, able to attract those around him, inspire loyalty and achieve results of high calibre. Music societies of the day tended to be social organisations of family and friends more than anything else, playing concertos on whatever instruments happened to be available at the time, a matter of who could play what; a combination of wind and string instruments was accepted. However, contemporary accounts suggest that the standards at Newcastle were exceptional. It is known that the choir from Durham, under John Garth with whom Avison collaborated, visited Newcastle on occasion and that Avison took players from Newcastle to Durham. Norris L Stephens, writing in "The New Grove", claims Avison as the most important English concerto writer of the eighteenth century. He certainly has a strong original voice if inclined to be at times more academic than some of his contemporaries. Of his personality, Charles Burney stated that Avison was "an ingenious and polished man, esteemed and respected by all that knew him; and an elegant writer upon his art".

Chris Shoebridge, Regional Representative (South America), ASC