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Charles Avison: discovering an Eighteenth-Century Musician.

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. Aged only 27, Avison became the chief musician of the area.

But status does not pay bills. Throughout his career Avison gave benefit concerts. The first recorded was in Hackford's Rooms in London (20 March, 1734). In Newcastle they became a regular feature. Teaching, too, provided additional income. He took pupils at his home on Mondays and Fridays, teaching the harpsichord between nine and one and the violin and German flute between two and six; fees were half a guinea (52 1/2p) per month--or eight lessons--and one guinea entrance. Status undoubtedly enabled him to number among his pupils some of the local aristocracy who introduced him to even more exalted circles: in 1761 for instance, Lady Milbanke, a talented harpsicordist, invited him to play for and with the brother of King George III, the Duke of York--a cellist--at her home at Halnaby (Yorks.).

Most pupils were of humbler origin. One of whom he would have been immensely proud was William Shield (1748-1829), son of a Swallwell (Gateshead) music teacher. At the age of nine, after the death of his father, William was apprenticed to a South Shields boatbuilder though his master allowed him to continue his studies with Avison. In 1772, he abandoned boatbuilding and left for London where, recommended by his teacher's friend Giardini, he joined the orchestra of the King's Theatre (Covent Garden). A year later he was principal viola player and, between 1784 and 1797, house composer. In 1817 Shield became Master of the King's Music and is buried in Westminster Abbey, a stark contrast to the simple tombstone in St. Andrew's churchyard marking the grave of his teacher.

The Avison Ensemble continues this teaching role with Music in Your Life projects, taking classical music out of the formal concert hall and into family or school-based events. At annual Music Celebration Days hundreds of children can try instruments for the first time. Master classes are held and art and literacy work derived from historical research and performances have all been enthusiastically received. A feature of these activities from 1997 is a partnership with the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, some of whose staff make regular trips across the Atlantic in a way that Avison could never have imagined.

Nor could Avison have envisaged the technology that now makes his music available to a worldwide audience via recordings. In 2003 a CD, Concertos from the North, containing works by Avison, John Garth and William Herschel, was released and, in 2004, a Naxos recording of Avison's twelve Opus 6 concertos--the first ever--is due.

Avison did inaugurate a novelty for the period: a series of subscription concerts. Society hostesses held private functions at which musicians were invited to perform, but the eighteenth century also saw an emerging middle class who, though they could not afford this on an individual basis, generated a collective audience for public concerts with paid admission. The Newcastle concerts, beginning in 1735, were held fortnightly between October and March for an annual subscription of half a guinea, which admitted one gentleman or two ladies. The venue was either the Assembly Rooms or Mr Parker's Long Room (i.e. above the Turks Head--now the Blackie Boy--in the Bigg Market). They were so successful that a similar series was launched in Durham in collaboration with John Garth (c. 1722-c. 1810), composer and organist at Sedgefield.

They were not without problems, however. A letter to the editor of the Newcastle Journal (17 March, 1759) under the pseudonym Marcellinus refers to criticism of Avison for having assumed 'sole direction of both the performance and the subscriptions', pointing out that he had offered to hand over the management to 'any gentleman that would undertake it ... and to submit his best service to their commands rather choosing to assist than preside where it was so precarious to please'. The writer then berates the townsfolk for not appreciating Avison's qualities, listing all the better offers he had refused in order to stay in Newcastle. No other gentlemen came forward and, in 1765, Avison was in trouble again. The announcement for the season increased the number of concerts from 12 to 14, at a cost of a guinea ([pounds sterling]1-05) or 3s (15p) for a single concert--as 'has been desired by several lovers of music' (Newcastle Journal, 7 September). A fortnight later, though, '... the plan he has proposed for his future concerts is objected to by some who have hitherto honoured him with their favours'. So he offered a compromise: 12 concerts for 15s (75p) or 14 for a guinea, with a promise that, if the latter 'fall short of defraying the expense ... the surplus will be returned to the subscriber'. One cannot please everyone all the time--a predicament familiar to many a contemporary arts administrator.

Nevertheless Avison remained in charge of the concerts until his death, after which his sons and others took over. The last series was given in 1813--until the Avison Ensemble revived the idea in 1994.

Nowadays there are fewer concerts and tickets are all bought singly. The Ensemble play on baroque instruments so the sound today is the same as the sound Avison's audiences heard. This brought Arts Council funding and, in 2001 and 2002, BBC Radio 3 broadcast the whole series, the former under the title of 'Live From the Eighteenth Century'. Making it more realistic, the musicians and the presenter Stephanie Hughes dressed in full costume and the latter read excerpts from local newspapers of the time between musical items. The Avison Ensemble are all professional musicians of international reputation.

Information about Avison's orchestra is sparse. Who, for instance, responded to this advertisement:
 Any person that can play well upon the violin and hautboy and tune a
 harpsichord will meet with very good encouragement upon applying to
 Mr Charles Avison in Newcastle upon Tyne. (Newcastle Journal, 10
 July, 1742)

His musicians included local and visiting friends and talented pupils--his sons too when they were old enough. One friend, Ralph Bielby (1743-1817), the noted glass engraver, played double bass and one of Bielby's former apprentices, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), the famous wood engraver, printed the concert tickets. A visiting musician was Felice Giardini (1716-96), leader of the King's Theatre (London) orchestra. Geminiani also visited Avison, though we do not know whether he played at the concerts. Other performers were William Shield, Lady Milbanke, Mrs Orde (vocalist and wife of the High Sheriff of Northumberland) and William Herschel (1738-1822).

Herschel settled in the area after emigrating from Germany. In 1761 he led an orchestra of 30 under the baton of Avison in a concert to celebrate the coronation of George III. Six years later however he moved to Bath as organist at the Octagon Chapel but became increasingly absorbed in his other passion: astronomy. His 1781 discovery of the planet Uranus has overshadowed his musical compositions (18 symphonies, two viola and one oboe concerto, nine sonatas and various keyboard and vocal music). He was appointed private astronomer to George III and, in 1816, knighted.

Herschel's compositions probably received their first performance at Avison's concerts and Avison himself--notwithstanding all other claims on his time--was a prolific composer. His published work comprises 52 concertos, 24 sonatas and some church music; the latter includes part of the oratorio Ruth in collaboration with Giardini and a setting of Benedetto Marcello's First Fifty Psalms in collaboration with Garth. The Avison Ensemble is restoring this church music link in 2004 in concerts with the Choir of the Chapel Royal. The sonatas, apart from Opus 1, were innovatory being modelled on those of Rameau (1683-1784)--thus departing from the favoured Handelian style--and later copied by other northern composers.

Tantalisingly little is known about the music played at the concerts as newspapers did not publish programmes or carry reviews. But Avison's excitement leaps off the page of the Newcastle Courant (21 September, 1751) in the announcement of the forthcoming season: he had received a present of Rameau's collected works and looked forward to the pleasure of 'introducing to a northern audience the compositions of this celebrated master which are, as yet, but little known in England'. We may assume that Geminiani figured, along with Corelli (1653-1713), Purcell (1659-95) and others. The 1744 season included some concertos 'done from Scarlatti's Lessons about to be published' and, in 1749, Handel's oratorio Saul (written the previous year) was performed. Clearly new music--including first performances of his own--was a feature of Avison's concerts.

Considerable though his output was, there was undoubtedly much that was never published. In 2001 a hitherto unknown Workbook came to auction at Sotheby's. With the aid of Heritage Lottery and other funding the Avison Society bought this for [pounds sterling]52,000. Eighteen months later a further Workbook surfaced, which was acquired in another successful rescue operation ([pounds sterling]18,000). Restoration work on the first is now complete and the volume handed over to Newcastle City Council forming part of a dedicated Avison Collection (to be formally opened this month) in the Central Library. During restoration, pages were photographed and a facsimile produced. Both Workbooks contain unpublished work including revisions of Avison's own concertos and transcriptions of Scarlatti sonatas. Society members have already been regaled with performances of some of these--the first time they had been heard for over 250 years.

Avison's sonatas were not his only innovatory work. He also wrote what is acknowledged to be the first book of musical criticism in English: An Essay on Musical Expression (1752). This went into two editions (1753 and 1775) and was also published, in translation, in Germany (1775). Much of it is still relevant to contemporary students.

The first of its three parts includes a perceptive analysis of the effects of music on the emotions and how different types of music affect the mood of the listener. Avison also draws analogies between music and painting: both require a mixture of light and shade, foreground, middle ground and distance (i.e. bass, tenor and treble). The second part discusses composition: the relationship between air (or tune) and harmony and the use of expression. This part proved controversial as he provides a rank order, making clear his own preferences for Italian and French composers: the chaste and faultless Corelli, the bold and inventive Scarlatti, the graceful and spirited Rameau. Geminiani is singled out for a veritable pean of praise--though this seems reciprocal as he said Avison could write a better piece of music than Handel. A footnote implying that English composers were inferior was taken by some as casting aspersions on Handel. Avison stoutly refuted this, asserting that Handel was not English and had been educated in the Italian school. Nevertheless, he then added that 'Mr Handel is ... nervous, exalted and harmonious; but voluminous and consequently not always correct'. Part three is directed at the performer, though emphasising that composers should take the character and limitations of the instrument into consideration. Here, Giardini is extolled for the perfection of his violin playing.

Despite the presence of printing firms in Newcastle, Avison had all his work published in London. Prominent local names figured in his list of subscribers though, and he advertised for these and promoted the published works in the local press, selling copies--like the concert tickets--from his own home. Throughout his adult life Charles Avison played a pivotal role in that beehive of cultural activity that was eighteenth-century Newcastle, a city whose population reached 25,000 by 1750. At a period when licensed theatres were rare the only other legal way of performing plays was to put them on in a concert interval; in practice the 'interval' formed the major part of the evening's entertainment. Newcastle had a thriving purpose-built theatre from 1748 but Letters Patent were not obtained until 1787 so, throughout this period, Avison's orchestra provided the required music. From 1751 he promoted an annual concert for the benefit of the new Newcastle Infirmary.

He was also involved with another new and fashionable activity: the Assembly. Originating in London, the spa towns and developing seaside resorts to provide entertainment for their seasonal influx of visitors, Assemblies consisted of a concert followed by dancing, card games and a light supper. Newcastle's seasonal influx of visitors occurred during Race Week and Assize Week so, beginning in 1716, Assemblies were held during June and July. These proved so popular that purpose-built Assembly Rooms were opened in 1736 and, by the middle of the century, Assemblies were held fortnightly throughout most of the year, with three a week during Race and Assize Weeks. As the functions outgrew the 'new' building an even grander one was opened in 1776.

Assemblies, like the concerts, were open to everyone who could afford the ticket price, thus a wider social spectrum was present than at private functions. As Newcastle was a prosperous town there was no shortage of wealthy merchants, land and mine owners eager to rub shoulders with the gentry who also frequented these functions. But they were more than a cultural activity. They were social occasions, acting as a marriage market for the young, a place where older women could indulge in gossip and which provided unlimited networking opportunities for their menfolk. With his passionate belief in the enjoyment of music, its sociability and power to create an atmosphere and affect the emotions, Avison must have relished Assemblies.

Newcastle Assemblies began at 6 p.m. with a concert and the same musicians played for the dancing which followed. Strict protocol ruled the latter. Minuets and other court dances, performed by one couple at a time--the focus of all eyes--occupied the first two hours. Thereafter followed country dancing (with a supper interval) in which all could join. At the appointed finishing time (usually 1 a.m. in Newcastle) the Master of Ceremonies called a halt--even if a dance was in progress.

Assemblies also generated a whole new commercial sphere. It was important to be fashionably dressed and to avoid embarrassment on the dance floor so advertisements for goods and services abound; glovers, tailors, mercers, stay-makers vied with each other. Chancellor and Co., for instance, announced they had brought from their St. James' (London) lace warehouse 'the newest patterns with much greater choice of goods, just arrived, than was ever seen in this town' (Newcastle Courant, 22 January, 1750). Dancing masters were much in demand: Mr Jones boasted he had come from London and Mr Dempsey had studied abroad. In 1769 Albert Tassonia taught '... the ladies the Minuet, Rigadoon and Loure with country dances; the gentlemen the Minuet, the Hornpipe or comic dances ...' (Newcastle Journal, 17 June). Suppliers of tea, foodstuffs, playing cards, etc. found themselves with increased orders: the Assembly Rooms' stock records (December 1762) show 26 packs of cards with replacements at a rate of six per quarter.

Thus cultural activity acted as a springboard for social and economic development, all of which then evoked a sense of pride setting in motion an upward spiral of wealth increasing demand--a concept also grasped in contemporary Newcastle.

The 1776 Assembly Rooms have been lavishly restored in period style so the Avison Ensemble uses this venue to incorporate a social element: in 2001 and 2002 a supper concert was given and the 2002/3 and 2003/4 seasons have included Sunday afternoon tea concerts. As in Avison's day, these functions have had an appreciative and capacity audience. In 2003 a full-scale Assembly re-creation took place.

The sweet sound of the Northumbrian pipes, playing folk tunes which would have been familiar to eighteenth-century audiences, greeted us as we climbed the stairs. Then, in a near-period setting--the chandeliers are now powered by electricity--we heard music as Avison's audiences would have heard it: a fortepiano, violin and cello playing an overture by Mr Beethoven, a symphony by Mr Haydn and accompanying folk songs. Accustomed as we are to full orchestras for symphonies this music fell on our ears as if we too were hearing it for the first time--musical history brought to life. In the absence of that plethora of dancing masters the Avison Society called on members of the Bath Minuet Company to perform a short selection of court dances. Then eager participants--including the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress--crowded onto the floor to be guided through some simple country dances. Card tables were set up, a good supper was enjoyed and plenty of gossip ensued.

Was Charles Avison's ghost hovering around with a delighted smile as we departed? As the pseudonymous Marcellinus wrote, 'let him have pen and ink, his candle, his ruled paper and his harpsichord and he looks no further ... than the performance of his music'. Perhaps if he had been more concerned with self-advancement he might not have fallen into obscurity--but would he then have produced such happy music for our pleasure?

Irene Waters is a freelance researcher and writer, formerly a lecturer in the arts in society and arts and entertainment organisation and management. Further information about the Avison Ensemble and the Avison Society is obtainable from 3 Bentinck Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 6XN. (Telephone 0191 226 0799. E-mail: or visit
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Author:Waters, Irene
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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