Born: December 22, 1723; Cöthen, Germany
Died: June 20, 1787; London, England
Carl Friedrich Abel was the last of the great viola da gamba players before the instrument went into a period of a century and a half of dust and silence. Abel was born into a dynasty of German musical royalty; his grandfather, Clamor Heinrich Abel, was a Hanover court musician and composer. His father, Christian Ferdinand Abel, was a close friend of Johann Sebastian Bach's in Cöthen; it is possible that the viola da gamba part in theRead more Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 was written for him. Carl Friedrich Abel was born the year the Bach family left for Leipzig, and when his own father died in 1737, the 13-year-old Abel went to Leipzig to stay with the Bachs. Although his main instrument was already the viola da gamba, by this time Abel could already play the harpsichord and cello well; as time progressed, Abel would add many other instruments to his retinue. The year 1745 found Abel in Dresden, as a member of the court orchestra under Johann Adolf Hasse; a dispute with Hasse is believed to have earned Abel his ouster from this body in about 1755-1756. In the winter of 1758-1759, Abel arrived in London where he spent the rest of his days, with the exception of a period in the 1780s when Abel visited his native land a final time. Newly arrived in London shortly thereafter was Johann Sebastian Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian Bach. By 1764, both men were working as chamber musicians in the court of Queen Charlotte, and in 1765, they presented their first joint concert at the Carlisle House in London, thereby establishing the Bach/Abel concert series, the forerunner to modern public concerts sold by subscription. Bach and Abel would alternate leading the orchestra and likewise shared keyboard duties; at other times, Abel would play cello in the orchestra and, in the early seasons, played solo pieces on the gamba as well. They were immensely popular and never more so than in 1775 when the concert series moved to the newly installed rooms in Hanover Square. However, competition from similar series began a downward trend for the Bach/Abel concerts and in 1778, they moved back to the Carlisle House.
From about 1780, Abel was continuing the series without Bach, who was attempting to combat his declining health and fortune through throwing all his efforts into opera productions and publishing; he died in 1782 at age 46. Later that year, Abel decided to take a vacation and revisit old family and friends in Germany; he did not resume the concert series until his return to London in 1785. As fate would have it, Abel did not long outlast his business partner; his tendency toward alcoholism probably contributed to Abel's relatively early demise at age 64 in 1787. Carl Friedrich Abel was held in high esteem throughout British society; he was friends with Queen Charlotte; Sir Edward Walpole; Thomas Erskine, Earl of Kelly; author Laurence Sterne; and Elizabeth, Countess of Pembroke. Some of them had been Abel's students; Thomas Gainsborough painted two portraits of him.
Abel left behind nearly 30 symphonies and solo concertos for flute, cello, and violin and a great deal of chamber music, military marches, and a substantial output of chamber music for the bass viol. Much of this music was written to meet professional obligations -- concerts, publishing contracts and the like, many of his publications were designed for use by amateurs. Abel's solo viola da gamba music, preserved in two manuscripts once belonging to the Countess of Pembroke, present a very different view of the composer, revealing Abel to have been a highly personal, emotionally effective and disciplined musical voice; a true "son" of Johann Sebastian Bach, despite not being related to him by blood. Read less
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