Charles Frederic Abel

Charles Frederic Abel was one of the most famous viol da gamba players, born at Cothen in 1725.

He was brought up at the Thomasschule at Leipzig under Sebastian Bach. In 1748 he obtained a post under Hasse in the court band at Dresden, where he remained ten years.

In 1759 he vistied London, and gave his first concert on April 5 at the great room in Dean Street, Soho, when, besides playing the viol da gamba, he performed a concerto upon the harpsichord, and a piece composed on purpose for an instrument newly invented in London, and called the pentachord, the whole of the pieces in the programme being of his own composition. His facility was remarkable: he is reported to have performed more than once on the horn, as well as on new instruments never heard in public before.

From the year 1765, however, he confined himself to the viol da gamba.

He was appointed chamber musician to Queen Charlotte, with a salary of 200 pounds a year. On the arrival of John Christian Bach, in the autumn of 1762, Abel joined him; they lived together, and jointly conducted Mrs. Cornelys’ subscription concerts. The first of their series took place in Carlisle House, Soho Square, on Jan 23, 1765, and they were maintained for many years. The Hanover Square Rooms were opened on Feb 1, 1775, by one of these concerts.

Haydn’s Symphonies were first performed in England at them, and Wilhelm Cramer the violinist, father of J.B. Cramer, made his first appearance there.

After Bach’s death on Jan 1, 1782, the concerts were continued by Abel, but with indifferent success.

In 1783 he returned to Germany, taking Paris on the way back, where he appears to have begun that indulgence in drink which eventually caused his death.

In 1785 we find him again in London, engaged in the newly established Professional Concerts, and in the Subscription Concerts of Mr. Salomon and Mme. Mara at the Pantheon. At this time his compositions were much performed, and he himself still played often in public.

His last appearance was at Mrs. Billington’s concert on May 21, 1787, shortly after which, on June 20, he died, after a lethargy or sleep of three days duration. His death was much spoken of in the papers.

Abel’s symphonies, overtures, quartets, concertos, and sonatas were greatly esteemed, and many of them were published by Bremner of London and Hummel of Berlin. A complete catalogue is given in Eitner’s Quellen-Lexikon.

The most favourite were A fifth set of six overtures, op 14 (Bremner), and Six Sonatas, op 18. Abel’s playing was most remarkable in slow movements. On the viol da ganba, says the European Magazine, 1784, p. 366, he is truly excellent, and no modern has been heard to play an Adagio with greater taste and feeling.

Barney’s testimony is to the same effect, and he adds that his musical science and taste were so complete that he became the umpire in all musical controversy, and was consulted like an oracle. He was accustomed to call his instrument ‘the king of instruments’, and to say of himself that there was one God and one Abel.

Among his pupils both in singing and composition were J.B. Cramer, Graeff, and Brigida Giorgi (Signora Banti). His friend Gainsborough painted a three quarter length portrait of Abel playing on the viol da gamba, distinguished by its careful execution, beauty of colouring, and deep expression. It was bequeathed by Miss Gainsborough to Mr. Briggs, and was sold in London in 1866. Gainsborough also exhibited a whole length of Abel at the Royal Academy in 1777. A very powerful portrait of him by Robineau is to be found at Hampton Court, and another by a nameless artist is in the Music School at Oxford.

Probably the most interesting among Abel’s compositions are those written for the viol da gamba. None of them seem ever to have been published, but specimens exist in the British Museum and other public libraries, and in private collections. They include studies and other pieces marked Viola da Gamba senza Basso, sonatas, A Viola da Gamba Solo e Basso, and Duettos marked Per la Viola Da Gamba e Violoncello. They evince a high degree of taste, little musical imagination, and unlimited command over the peculiar resources of the instrument.

Some adagios from his quartets were published in score, with pianoforte adaptations, as a tribute of respect to his memory by his surviving and grateful pupil, J.B. Cramer (1820). A good idea of Abel’s personal appearance is afforded by a caricature representing A Solo on the Viola di Gamba, Mr. Abel, drawn by J.N. 1787, etched by W. V. Gardiner.

Following English traditions, Abel played on a six stringed viol da gamba, instead of the seven stringed one commonly in use on the Continent. The instrument shown in his portraits is evidently by an old German maker, and has a brass rose inserted in the belly under the finger board.