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Charles Avison and his Concerti Grossi after Scarlatti

Avison
Charles Avison (February 16, 1709 –May 9 or 10, 1770) was an English organist and composer who is best remembered for his 12 Concerti Grossi after Scarlatti. Little is known of Avison’s early life. The son, was the fifth of nine children, of Richard and Anne Avison, both musicians who lived in the house beside St. Bartholomew’s Nunnery in Nolt Market, Newcastle, he was born in 1709 and baptized on February 16, at St. John’s Church in Newcastle. According to the New Grove dictionary, he was also born in this city. His parents were presumably his first music teachers. Richard was a member of the ancient Incorporated Company of Town Waits, i.e., a member of the official town band, who was licensed to teach music in his spare time. Ann was an organist. Charles’s only formal education can have been at one of the two charity schools serving St John’s parish. It is likely that he had early contact with Ralph Jenison, a patron of the arts, and later a member of Parliament.

Avison was also assisted in his studies by Colonel John Blaithwaite who was a retired director of the Royal Academy of Music. During the period with Jenison, Avison, as a young man, must have moved to London, as according to the music historian Charles Burney, he studied music there with the Italian composer Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762). The first recorded mention of Avison’s musical life was reference to a concert for his benefit at Hickford’s Room, London on March 20, 1734. However, his ties to his hometown remained strong, and on October 13, 1735, he accepted the position of music director at St. John’s Church in Newcastle, later moving to nearby St. Nicholas’s in October of 1736. In the same month Avison conducted a series of subscription concerts in Newcastle – similar to those running in London – in the name of the Newcastle Musical Society. They took the format of a series of 14 concerts – held fortnightly – each winter.

Despite numerous offers of more prestigious positions later in life, he never again left Newcastle. On January 15, 1737, Avison married Catherine Reynolds. They had nine children, but only three survived: Jane (1744–1773), Edward (1747–1776), and Charles (1751–1795). Edward and Charles both later served as organists, and Charles published a book of hymns. In July 1738, Avison was formally appointed music director of the Newcastle Musical Society. In addition to his teaching, each week he travelled the twenty miles to Durham to participate in John Garth’s subscription concerts , and was active in local theatres, probably supplying music for the play intervals as was customary at that time. Avison and Garth also collaborated to form a Marcello society in Newcastle devoted to performing the choral music of Benedetto Marcello. And he organized benefit concerts and musical events at the Newcastle Pleasure Gardens.

Avison’s first published composition, Six Sonatas for Two Violins and Continuo, was dedicated to Ralph Jenison. Avison continued the Italian style tradition, which Geminiani had made so popular in London. In his Concerti Grossi, in particular, he carried on Geminiani’s technique of modeling orchestral concertos after sonatas by older composers. His set of Concertos, Op. 3, contained a lengthy preface on performing practice. The foundation of Avison’s contemporary fame was his Essay on Musical Expression, published in 1752, which criticized Handel, who was much admired in England at the time. It was the first work of musical criticism published in English. Geminiani visited Avison in his home town during 1760 breaking a journey between Edinburgh and London. Avison died on May 9 or 10, 1770, after being caught out in an unusual blizzard that hit from May 2–4. He is buried at St. Andrew’s in Newcastle.

Charles Burney described Avison was “an ingenious and polished man, esteemed and respected by all that knew him; and an elegant writer upon his art.” Avison was obviously much attached to his home town of Newcastle, refusing many prestigious positions offered to him in other parts of the country, including York Minster, recommendations from Geminiani for two posts in Dublin, a teaching position in Edinburgh, and as successor to Pepusch as organist at the Charterhouse in London. Avison wrote 60 string concerto grossi, plus twelve more that are arrangements of harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. He also wrote concertos for organ or harpsichord, many of which are arrangements of the string concertos or music of other composers. And he wrote a good amount of chamber music, including sonatas, which he seems initially to have modeled on Rameau’s music, including his keyboard sonatas with accompaniment from other instruments, primarily two violins and cellos. He wrote little sacred music and only three such works survive, in addition to a portion of an oratorio that he wrote with several other composers.

I have the following works by Avison in my collection:

Concerto Grosso No. 1 in AM after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 2 in GM after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 3 in dm after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 4 in am after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 5 in AM after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 6 in DM after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 7 in gm after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 8 in em after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 9 in CM after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 10 in DM after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 11 in GM after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)
Concerto Grosso No. 12 in DM after Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1744)

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