Charles Avison - the forgotten master of the North
When considering musical life in mid-eighteenth
century Britain, it is natural enough to focus
attention on London.
Handel had first arrived in 1711, at once storming
the London stage with "Rinaldo", and was based in
London from the following year, producing dozens
of operas and oratorios in a career lasting nearly
There was the so-called "war" between Handel's
supporters and those of Bononcini, no doubt
helping to increase interest in the music of both
Any number of other continental composers thrived
in London at this time: Loeillet, de Fesch,
Pepusch to name but a representative handful.
Nor was London without its home-grown musicians.
Handel's one-time friend, Maurice Greene, a
Londoner born and bred, was organist at various
City churches (St Dunstan's-in-the-West and St
Andrew's, Holborn) before moving to St Paul's in
William Boyce, his apprentice, another Londoner,
worked in a number of different London churches,
as well as composing for the theatre, particularly
Boyce's close contemporary, Thomas Arne, brought
up in Covent Garden, was excluded from church
appointments because of his Catholicism, but was
connected with a number of theatres (Drury Lane,
the Haymarket, Covent Garden) producing more than
fifty operas in addition to supplying incidental
music for plays.
Then there were the musical entertainments at the
popular pleasure gardens of Marylebone, Ranelagh
and Vauxhall, attracting contributions from Arne,
Boyce and, a little later, J C Bach and Abel.
But musical life also flourished outside London.
The Three Choirs Festival, the oldest music
festival now extant in Britain, originated in
about 1725; Handel's "Messiah" was first performed
across the Irish Sea in Dublin, where Francesco
Geminiani was extremely active for some thirty
The subject of this article, Charles Avison, is a
composer now largely forgotten at least in part
because his entire career was spent away from the
spotlight of the capital, in his native
He was, nevertheless, a significant figure in
Britain's musical life.
Avison was baptised on 16th February 1709, making
him about a year older than Arne and two years
older than Boyce.
He came from a large family, being the middle of
nine children born to Richard and Ann Avison.
Many composers of this period had famous struggles
with fathers who disapproved of their sons' musical
aspirations, but Avison had the good fortune to be
the son of a professional musician and no doubt
received his first training at home.
Avison senior, a Newcastle town wait, presumably
used his local connections to advance his son's
career, because Charles had further opportunity
for study while in the service of Ralph Jenison, a
local patron of the arts and MP for Northumberland
between 1724 and 1741.
There is contemporary evidence to suggest that he
was taught in London by Geminiani, whose musical
influence is manifest in his concerti.
It has been claimed that he also studied in Italy
but there is no firm evidence to support this.
Avison was certainly in London in the spring of
1734 and must already have attracted favourable
attention because it is known that he turned down
posts in London, Dublin and Edinburgh, the three
capital cities of the British Isles, as well as
the post of organist at York Minster (the post
eventually going to James Nares), before taking up
an appointment as organist at St John's Church in
his native Newcastle in June 1736 (the appointment
had been made the previous October but did not
take effect for such a long time because of the
installation of a new organ).
A few months later, in October 1736, Avison added
the organist's post at St Nicholas's Church as
Now Newcastle Cathedral, at the time St Nicholas's
was the third largest parish church in the
country, boasting an organ larger than that of
Avison remained at St Nicholas's for the rest of
Return to Newcastle
In October 1735, the month of Avison's appointment
to St John's, a series of subscription concerts
was organised in Newcastle under the auspices of
the newly formed Newcastle Music Society,
following the pattern of similar concert series in
London and elsewhere.
It is unclear to what extent involvement with
these concerts was already a formal part of
Perhaps it was initially a matter of
experimentation, testing public reaction, building
a satisfactory orchestra, but in 1738 Avison duly
became the head of the society and consequently
director of the concert series, a post that he
held in tandem with that at St. Nicholas's until
In the meantime Avison had married (1737)
Catherine Reynolds by whom he had a family of
nine, following his parents' example, though most
of the children died in childhood.
In addition to his duties at St. Nicholas's and
his duties as concert director, he taught the
harpsichord at home and, no doubt, the organ.
He also found time to write.
Over the years, local magazines and newspapers
published numerous book reviews and articles on
musical topics signed with the initials "CA".
While it is not proven that "CA" was Avison, it is
generally accepted that he was, indeed, the
In 1752 he published "An Essay on Musical
Expression", an expansion of the lengthy preface
on performance of concerti he had published the
previous year with his Op 3 set.
Dr Burney thought this the first work of its kind
on musical criticism in England.
Its content was controversial, suggesting as it
did that Geminiani and Marcello were superior
composers to Handel, and caused a response from
William Hayes, Professor of Music at Oxford.
The bulk of Avison's compositional output consists
of some fifty concerti grossi published in six
sets between 1747 and 1769, the year before his
His overall style is very faithful to that of his
teacher, Geminiani, though he is less Corellian.
He almost always uses the four-movement format
favoured by Telemann (slow-fast-slow-fast), the
second movements usually being fugal.
There are often less formal movements based on a
broad melodic line that could almost be derived
from local songs.
The concertos were enormously popular with music
societies throughout the country, the published
editions finding large numbers of buyers away from
Avison's immediate area.
He also played an important part in popularising
the music of Domenico Scarlatti in this country by
arranging nearly fifty movements by Scarlatti into
a set of twelve concerti grossi.
These were published in 1744.
Many of the movements, though by no means all,
came from Scarlatti's "Essercizi" (binary
one-movement sonatas) which had been published in
London by the Irish composer Thomas Roseingrave in
1739 (the "Essercizi" make up the first thirty
sonatas in Ralph Kirkpatrick's definitive
catalogue of all Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas.
A representative spread of Avison's original
concerti have found their way into the recording
studio at times since the 1960s and the Scarlatti
arrangements have twice been issued as a complete
Avison's chamber music has been less fortunate.
Four sets of sonatas were issued, the first
possibly as early as 1737, the last in 1764.
Here he basses his style firmly on Rameau; the
sonatas take the form of keyboard sonatas with
accompaniments for other instruments.
Somewhat surprisingly for a composer so involved
with the church, there exists almost no choral
It is clear that Charles Avison was a very busy
He appears also to have been a man of great charm,
able to attract those around him, inspire loyalty
and achieve results of high calibre.
Music societies of the day tended to be social
organisations of family and friends more than
anything else, playing concertos on whatever
instruments happened to be available at the time,
a matter of who could play what;
a combination of wind and string instruments was
However, contemporary accounts suggest that the
standards at Newcastle were exceptional.
It is known that the choir from Durham, under John
Garth with whom Avison collaborated, visited
Newcastle on occasion and that Avison took players
from Newcastle to Durham.
Norris L Stephens, writing in "The New Grove",
claims Avison as the most important English
concerto writer of the eighteenth century.
He certainly has a strong original voice if
inclined to be at times more academic than some of
Of his personality, Charles Burney stated that
Avison was "an ingenious and polished man,
esteemed and respected by all that knew him;
and an elegant writer upon his art".
Chris Shoebridge, Regional Representative (South America), ASC