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Twelve Concertos/Avison Ensemble, Beznosiuk

by Charles Avison

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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).

Avison 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.
  antimuzak | Dec 3, 2008 |
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