Charles Avison: Discovering an Eighteenth-Century Musician

Article excerpt

A BRIEF paragraph in the Newcastle Journal of 12 May, 1770 marked the passing of 'the most important English concerto composer of the eighteenth century and an original and influential writer on music':

   Thursday night died here Mr Charles Avison, Musician and Organist of
   this Town. His great merit in his profession will long be
   distinguished by his works, and his memory respected by all who knew
   him, being a religious, moral and ingenious man. (New Grove
   Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2001)

Prophetic words, yet few people today have heard of Avison. His music dropped out of fashion during the nineteenth century and, apart from occasional performances, might have remained in obscurity had it not been for a chance discovery.

When Gordon Dixon was appointed cello teacher at Newcastle Royal Grammar School in 1984 he and a colleague delved into the depths of the music cupboard seeking suitable music for a school orchestra. They unearthed Avison's E-minor concerto and the idea of forming a group to bring his music to the attention of a wider public was born.

The Avison Ensemble's first concert was given in St. John's Church, Newcastle, in December 1984. The following May they introduced Avison's music to an appreciative audience at the Brighton International Festival celebrating the tercentenary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. Avison was back where he belonged: in the company of the great composers of the period.

In 1991 an Avison Society was launched with the aim of helping the Ensemble increase its audience. This now has around 300 members whose contribution goes beyond merely providing a concert audience.

But who was Charles Avison and why was he so influential? He was born in Newcastle in 1709, exact date unknown, though he was baptised in St. John's Church on 16 February. Charles was the fifth of nine children. His father, Richard, was a member of the Incorporated Society of Town Waits and his mother, Ann, may have been an organist. The Waits were originally night watchmen but their duties had expanded to become the town band, members of which were licensed to teach music. They could thus supplement their small basic salary and also received gratuities for performing at festivities of local and national significance--of which there were many--and a lifelong pension on retirement. The family would not have lived in poverty and we may assume that Charles and his siblings received a sound musical education at home. Little is known about the rest of his schooling but, from adult writings, it is clear he was well-read and able to express his ideas fluently on paper.

At some point he went to London to further his studies. There he came under the influence of Francisco Geminiani (1687-1762), one of the great violinists of the period, a composer and musical theorist. This, and exposure to the Italian music in vogue, were to have a significant effect on his work.

In October 1735 Avison returned to Newcastle where he remained for the rest of his life. We can only speculate on the reasons for this, but it was certainly not for want of more prestigious and lucrative offers from elsewhere. He could have remained in London, and he refused organist posts at York Minster (1734), Dublin (two between 1733 and 1740), and Charterhouse (1752), besides a teaching and performing opportunity in Edinburgh at an annual salary of [pounds sterling]200.

Two years after his return he married Catherine Reynolds; of their nine children only three survived to adulthood: Jane (1744-73), Edward (1747-76) and Charles (1751-95). Avison had been appointed organist at St. John's Church. However, when the organist's post at nearby St. Nicholas (now the cathedral)--with a better instrument and a higher salary ([pounds sterling]20 per annum)--became vacant a few months later Avison put in a successful application, though he retained the post at St. John's, working with a deputy. …