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  • Charles Avison’s Essay on Musical Expression. With Related Writings by William Hayes and Charles Avison
  • Sandra Mangsen
Charles Avison’s Essay on Musical Expression. With Related Writings by William Hayes and Charles Avison. Ed. by Pierre Dubois. pp. xlviii + 222. (Ashgate, Aldershot and Burlington, Vt., 2004, £45. ISBN 0-7546-3460-4.)

In this volume, Pierre Dubois has provided the complete published writings of Charles Avison: the well-known Essay (1752), William Hayes's Remarks on Mr. Avison's Essay on Musical Expression, and Avison's own Reply to the Author of Remarks on the Essay on Musical Expression (both 1753). He supplies as well the prefaces to Avison's concertos and sonatas, in which the composer strove to enlighten his purchasers in matters of performance practice, aesthetics, and musical style. As a bonus, we are given Avison's 'Remarks on the Psalms of Marcello' (1757), which he assigns to the categories (grand, beautiful, or sublime) that he had defined some four years earlier in an advertisement appended to his response to Hayes. While the first three items have been available in facsimile since 1967, the prefaces, along with Dubois's enlightening introduction and extensive footnotes combine to make a very useful package for those interested in Avison, eighteenth-century British aesthetics, and performance practice. Two of Avison's letters published in the Newcastle Journal (1758–9) dealing with the concert series he oversaw, a catalogue of his compositions, and a detailed description of the organs in the two churches he served complete the volume. The only omission is the 'Letter to the author, concerning the Music of the Ancients', originally included in the second edition of the Essay (on which Dubois has primarily relied). That forty-three-page letter, later attributed to Avison's friend John Jortin, is to be found in the aforementioned facsimile (New York, 1967).

Avison was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1709, the son of a town wait. Although he is reputed to have had several opportunities to leave Newcastle, he chose to remain there for his entire career, active as organist, organizer of concerts, conductor, composer, and writer on music until his death in 1770. (See Roz Southey's very interesting report—published too late for Dubois to refer to—'Competition and Collaboration: Concert Promotion in Newcastle and Durham, 1752–1772', in Susan Wollenberg and Simon McVeigh (eds.), Concert life in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Aldershot and Burlington, Vt., 2004), 55–70). Between 1744 and 1769, Avison published ten collections of concertos and sonatas, the former modelled on those of Corelli, whom he greatly esteemed, and the latter mainly devoted to accompanied keyboard sonatas inspired by Rameau's Pièces . . . en concerts (1741), which he apparently introduced to audiences in Newcastle shortly after 1750. His concerto arrangements of a dozen Scarlatti sonatas remind one of Geminiani, with whom him he is thought to have studied; Geminiani also recycled many of his own and others' works in various guises. Avison was partial not only to Rameau but also to Italian music; in that connection, he assembled volumes of sacred music by Benedetto Marcello and Carlo Clari, with the texts in English translation.

Well respected in his day, Avison's compositions have not fared so well over the years. They are an odd mix of backward- and forward-looking styles: Corellian rather than virtuosic solo concertos, and keyboard sonatas with accompanying [End Page 651] strings rather than trio sonatas. Seven of his works (presumably the concertos) enjoyed some twenty-six performances in the Concerts of Antient Music in London between 1785 and 1819 (see William Weber, The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1992), 256; Dubois's footnote, citing Weber, asserts that Op. 4 was performed twenty-six times (p. xliii n. 40), but the evidence for this more specific claim is not made clear). In contrast, Avison's name appears only once (in 1785 at the Hanover Square Rooms) among composers whose works were performed at the Professional Concerts in London late in the century (see Simon McVeigh, 'The Professional Concert and Rival Subscription Series in London, 1783–1793', RMA Research Chronicle, 22 (1989), 1–135). If he was...


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