Charles Avison was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1709 being baptised at St. John’s Church on 16th February. He was the fifth of nine children of Richard and Anne Avison who lived in the house beside St. Bartholomew’s Nunnery in Nolt Market, Newcastle. They were both were musicians and were presumably Avison’s first music teachers. Richard was a member of the ancient Incorporated Company of Town Waits i.e. a member of the official town band, who was licensed to teach music in his spare time. He was paid the very small salary of £4 per annum (plus a uniform – valued at £5 when a cash substitute was offered) which he presumably supplemented with teaching. His wife Ann was a church organist.
As Avison’s first published composition (Six Sonatas for Two Violins and Continuo) was dedicated to Ralph Jenison (1696-1758) it is presumed that Jenison had some early connections with the composer. Jenison, a patron of the arts, was from an old Newcastle family and was elected Member of Parliament for Northumberland from 1734 to 1741. Jenison’s association with music is evidenced by the fact that Johann Pepusch (1667-1752) dedicated his edition of Corelli’s concertos to him. Avison was later assisted in his studies by Colonel John Blaithwaite who was a retired director of the Royal Academy of Music. During the period with Jenison, Avison must have moved to London, as according to the music historian Charles Burney, he studied music there with the Italian composer Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762).
The first recorded mention of Avison’s musical life was reference to a concert for his benefit at Hickford’s Room, London on 20th March 1734.
On 13th October 1735 he was appointed organist of St, John’s Church, Newcastle and was then offered a similar position in October 1736 at St. Nicholas’s, now the Cathedral, at a salary of £20 per annum. In the same month Avison conducted a series of subscription concerts in Newcastle – similar to those running in London – in the name of the Newcastle Musical Society. They took the format of a series of 14 concerts – held fortnightly – each winter. In July 1738 he was formally appointed musical director.
We have knowledge of his teaching practice through the following announcement:
“Mr. Avison begs to acquaint his friends that Mondays and Fridays are set apart for his teaching in Newcastle He proposes to attend young ladies on the harpsichord between the hours of 9 and 1 in the forenoon; and from 2 to 6 in the evening he will teach the violin and German flute. The terms are half-a-guinea per month (or eight lessons) and one guinea Entrance.”
On Tuesdays he travelled the 20 miles to Durham to participate in the subscription concerts given by John Garth (Avison and Garth also collaborated to form a Marcello society in Newcastle devoted to performing the choral music of Benedetto Marcello). On Wednesdays he was involved in local theatre activities – probably supplying music for the play intervals – as was customary at that time. He retained this position as well as that of Cathedral organist until his death. He also organised benefit concerts and musical events at the Newcastle Pleasure Gardens.
He was obviously much attached to his home town of Newcastle, refusing many prestigious positions offered to him in other parts of the country, i.e. organist at York Minster in 1734 (accepted by James Nares), recommendations from Geminiani of two organist posts in Dublin between 1733 and 1740, a teaching position in Edinburgh and as successor to Pepusch as organist at the Charterhouse in London.
On 15th January 1737 Avison married Catherine Reynolds. They had nine children but only three reached adulthood: Jane (1744-1773), Edward (1747-1776) who, following in his father’s footsteps became organist of the church of St. Nicholas and also director of the Newcastle Music Society and Charles (1751-1795) who also became organist at St. Nicholas and a composer of several works including a hymn collection.
In 1752 Avison’s fame spread nation-wide with the publication of his celebrated Essay of Musical Expression – the first English work on musical criticism.
In it Avison discusses the contrast between sublime music and beautiful music, between the great, the elevating and the inspiring in contrast to the graceful, the elegant and the gentle and as to what is merely pleasing. In giving musical examples he went against the general view of Handel’s genius and accordingly upset many Handelians. One of these, William Hayes, wrote a pamphlet (published in 1753) called ‘Remarks on Mr. Avison’s Essay on Musical Expression’ .
Soon afterwards a second edition of Avison’s Essay was published containing a ‘reply’ to Hayes’s ‘Remarks’. Later, a third part was published entitled ‘On Musical Expression as it relates to the performer’. In this he discusses the actual practice of music in his lifetime – it has been described as a miniature treatise on orchestration.
In it he advises the composer to:
“minutely observe the different qualities of the instruments themselves. For, as vocal music requires one kind of expression, and instrumental another, so different instruments have also a different expression peculiar to them. Thus, the hautboy will best express the cantabile, or singing style, and may be used in all movements whatever under this denomination; especially those movements which tend to the gay and cheerful.”
“The flute”, he said, “will best express the languishing or melancholy style”.
He recommends the bassoon as a continuo instrument, “if performed by an expert hand, in a soft and ready tone, and only in passages that are natural to it, [the bassoon] may then be of singular use, and add fullness to the harmony”.
Geminiani visited Avison in his home town during 1760 breaking a journey between Edinburgh and London.
Avison died on 10th May 1770 and was buried in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, Newgate Street, Newcastle.
Charles Burney described Avison was “an ingenious and polished man, esteemed and respected by all that knew him; and an elegant writer upon his art”.
12 Concerti Grossi after Scarlatti (arrangements by Avison of sonatas by Scarlatti)
Divine Art 24108
Avison: The Six Concerti from Opus 9
(The Georgian Concert)