Charles Avison

Biography

Born: February 16, 1709; Newcastle-on-Tyne, England   Died: May 9, 1770; Newcastle-on-Tyne, England  
Charles Avison was an important English composer and musician of the last half of the eighteenth century. His father, Richard Avison, was a town musician in Newcastle who probably taught him at home. With the help of Ralph Jenison, a wealthy arts patron who was also a member of Parliament, and other wealthy men, Avison was able to continue his musical studies. There are contemporary accounts saying that he studied with Geminiani when that Read more composer was in England. However, there is no solid basis for claims that he studied on the Continent.

The first documentation of his musical career was a benefit concert he gave in London at Hickford's Room on March 20, 1734. On June 1, 1736, he took up a position as organist of St. John's Church in Newcastle, which had just had an organ installed. Legend has it that he turned down job offers from London, Dublin, York, and Edinburgh in its favor. In October he accepted another position, at St. Nicholas Church (now Cathedral) and retained that position until his death.

He remained active in secular music. Taking a lead from the success of a subscription concert series in London, he started a similar enterprise in Newcastle in 1735. It was successful, and he received a formal appointment as its musical director in 1738. In 1737, he married Catherine Reynolds. Only three of their nine children survived to adulthood. Both surviving sons were also professional musicians, one of them succeeding him as organist at St. Nicholas.

He spread his musical activities more widely, initiating another successful set of subscription concerts, this time in Durham. In addition to his church activities and concert series, he also gave theatrical performances in both Durham and Newcastle. In addition, he took on students, teaching harpsichord, violin, and flute.

Avison is also known as an essayist on music. His set of Concertos, Op. 3 contained a lengthy preface on performing practice. He expanded on this in a book, An Essay on Musical Expression, which is also the first book of music criticism published in English. Of its three main parts, the first discuss the effect of music on emotion and character. The second is a systematic discussion and critique of certain composers and their styles. Part three is a systematic discussion of instrumental performing practice. The second edition of the book also contained a section on "music of the ancients" and a lengthy response to a book-length criticism of the original version. The book, which was so well-regarded that it was translated into German, was actually a joint work by a "junto," the other members of which declined to be identified. It remains a highly valued look into musical life and opinion and proper performance of music of the time.

Avison wrote 60 string concerto grossi, plus 12 more that are arrangements of harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. He also wrote concertos for organ or harpsichord, but many of these are arrangements of the string concertos or music of other composers, and they follow the example of Geminiani. His melodies are particularly pleasing and easy to remember and follow, but they are not particularly deep in content. He also wrote an amount of chamber music, including sonatas, which he seems initially to have modeled on Rameau's music. Especially good examples are his keyboard sonatas with accompaniment from other instruments, primarily two violins and cellos, which primarily add only supporting harmonies. 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. Read less

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