Saturday, June 25, 2022

"Exuberance and profound sweetness": Carl Friedrich Abel

Karl Friedrich Abel by Thomas Gainsborough, ca. 1765. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Carl (or Karl) Friedrich Abel was a composer and musician of the generation between Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadé Mozart: he was 38 years younger than Bach and 33 years older than Mozart. His music looks both backward and forward. He was a virtuoso on the viola da gamba, an instrument that even in Bach's time had begun to be superseded by the violoncello; when Abel died, an obituary stated that "his favourite instrument was not in general use, and would probably die with him." But as we'll also see, an Abel symphony was used as a model of advanced musical style by Mozart when composing his own Symphony No. 1 at age eight. [1]

Carl Abel was born in Cöthen, about 50 miles northwest of Leipzig in eastern Germany, on 22 December 1723. He was the son of Christian Ferdinand Abel and his wife; Christian was a chamber violinist and viola da gamba player in the court of Prince Leopold I of Anhalt-Cöthen. Christian Abel was good friends with the prince's Kapellmeister, Johann Sebastian Bach, who was named as the godfather of Abel's first (and only) daughter Sophie Charlotte. In May 1723, however, Bach had left the prince's court and taken another position in Leipzig, and so was not present to celebrate the birth of Carl.

During Bach's time in Cöthen he wrote (among other works) the suites for solo cello. Bach's 19th-century biographer Philipp Spitta speculated that the cello suites may have been written for Christian Abel; however, in Cöthen there was a court cellist, Christian Bernhard Linike, who is a more probable candidate.

Grove Music Online states that "it is likely that Bach provided the three sonatas for bass viol and harpsichord for [Christian] Abel to teach to the prince," who was an avid amateur viol player. [2] From what I can discern from other sources, though, it is highly unlikely that Bach's three viola da gamba sonatas were written for Christian Abel. The performance materials date from Leipzig in the late 1730s or early 1740s; Prince Leopold died in 1728, and Christian Abel died in 1737. However, the sonatas might have been written for Christian's son Carl, who was also a viola da gamba player. Sometime after his father's death Carl may have gone to Leipzig to study with Bach. The viola da gamba sonatas, based on earlier works for other instruments, may have been transcribed to provide instructional or performance pieces for Carl or another student of Bach's. [3]

In Dresden with Hasse

In 1743 the 19-year-old Carl Abel successfully auditioned for the court orchestra at Dresden, seat of the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II. Johann Reimer wrote of a concert he gave in the city, "Herr Abel was particularly praised for his playing on the viola da gamba of a Trio and a solo, a Musical Fantasia." The concert resulted in an invitation to play before the Elector: "Some days afterwards he played alone for His Majesty, and had the good fortune to receive the Royal Clemency of being admitted into the Royal Chapel." [4]

Abel remained a member of the court musical establishment under the direction of the composer Johann Adolf Hasse for the next 15 years, performing in masses, oratorios, cantatas, operas, and chamber music. Musicologist Mary Cyr has identified an aria by Hasse that may date from Abel's time in the orchestra, "L'augelletto in placi stretto" for soprano with viola da gamba obbligato. She writes, "The lively interplay between soprano and viola da gamba, presumably highlighting references to birds in the text, calls upon the upper register of the instrument for trills and scale passages requiring considerable agility." [5]

Johann Hasse by Baltasar Denner, ca. 1740 (detail). Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 1750s Prussia invaded Saxony, inaugurating the Third Silesian War. Eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney, who knew Carl Abel, reports that "finding that the oeconomy to which that court was reduced by the horrors of war rendered his subsistence scanty and precarious, he quitted the service in 1758." [6]

Abel in London

Abel left Dresden, and may have travelled to Mannheim and Paris. By 1759 he had reached London, where he gave his first public concert on 5 April. He had apparently begun to compose while in Dresden, and almost immediately after settling in London began to arrange for the publication of his music in England and on the continent.

By late 1763 Abel began collaborating with another new arrival, Johann Christian Bach, J.S. Bach's youngest son. If Abel had studied with J.S. Bach in Leipzig in the early 1740s, he would have known Johann Christian as a 5- or 6-year-old boy. Now in his late 20s, J.C. Bach had come to London with a commission to write two operas for the King's Theatre. 1763 would be a watershed year for Bach: the première of Orione in February created a sensation (Zanaida, mounted in May, achieved a more modest success), and he was quickly appointed Queen Charlotte's music master and director of the queen's band. Abel had been a chamber musician to the queen since 1761, and if he had not already renewed his acquaintance with Bach in the summer or fall of 1762, he certainly would have done so when they met in the queen's service.

Johann Christian Bach by Thomas Gainsborough, ca. 1776. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

By early 1764 they were sharing lodgings and producing and performing in a series of public programs later known as the Bach-Abel concerts. In early 1774 they moved to separate residences (probably on the occasion of Bach's marriage to the singer Cecilia Grassi), but continued to offer their joint concerts until Bach's death at age 46 on 1 January 1782. (Grove Music Online's entry on J.C. Bach states that Abel completed the final season with Bach's widow as his financial partner, ending it with a benefit concert for her; its entry on Abel states that Abel continued the season by himself, and that "Bach's widow declined Abel's public offer of assistance." [7])

Karl Friedrich Abel by Thomas Gainsborough, ca. 1777. Image source: Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California.

Bach and Abel alternated as musical directors for the concerts, with the director for each evening composing or selecting most of the pieces to be performed. No programs from the Bach-Abel series are extant, but those from court concerts and benefits that they produced are a likely guide to the repertoire performed in the series: the scope ranged from large-scale compositions such as symphonies, concertos, and serenatas to more intimate works such as quartets and trios.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Abel as a composer was paid by the young Wolfgang Mozart, who visited London with his family between April 1764 and July 1765 (midway through the trip Wolfgang celebrated his ninth birthday). Wolfgang copied out in his notebook Abel's Symphony in E flat, Op. 7 No. 6, as a model of advanced musical style. The existence of the symphony in Wolfgang's handwriting led to its misattribution to Mozart for a century or more. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Mozart's Symphony No. 1, written in the summer and fall of 1764, is in E flat.

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, probably by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni, 1763 (detail). Image source: Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg.

Many of the Bach-Abel concerts included a viola da gamba solo for Abel. Writing in the closing decade of the 18th century, Johann Reichardt praised Abel's playing as "touched by exuberance and by profound sweetness." Burney attended many of his concerts and wrote,

His performance on the viol da gamba was in every particular complete and perfect. He had a hand which no difficulties could embarrass; a taste the most refined and delicate; and a judgment so correct and certain, as never to let a single note escape him without meaning. His compositions were easy and elegantly simple, for he used to say, "I do not chafe to be always struggling with difficulties, and playing with all my might. I make my pieces difficult whenever I please, according to my disposition and that of my audience." Yet in nothing was he so superior to himself, and to other musicians, as in writing and playing an adagio; in which the most pleasing, yet learned modulation; the richest harmony; and the most elegant and polished melody were all expressed with such feeling, taste, and science, that no musical production or performance with which I was then acquainted seemed to approach nearer perfection. [8]

"A Solo on the Viola di Gamba [by] Mr. Abel" by John Nixon, 1787. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

After a hiatus of three years after Bach's death, Abel resumed producing and directing concerts. His final appearance was in a benefit concert for the daughter of one of Bach's pupils on 21 May 1787; he died just a month later, on 20 June.

The Drexel Manuscript

A manuscript of 29 short pieces for unaccompanied viola da gamba, in Abel's hand and with his name and initials on the title page but no date of composition, was owned by the painter Thomas Gainsborough. Gainsborough was a good friend of Abel's (twice painting portraits of him, both included in this post) and was an avid amateur musician. A modern biographer of Gainsborough has written that Abel exchanged his music for Gainsborough's art.

Thomas Gainsborough by Thomas Gainsborough, ca. 1759. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Gainsborough's patron, friend and biographer Philip Thicknesse wrote that his wife Ann Ford Thicknesse, herself a highly accomplished viol player, "consented to give him [Gainsborough] an instrument made in the year 1612, of exquisite workmanship, and mellifluous tone," which he had admired. Thicknesse continued, "he would fagg [toil wearily] through the day's work to rest his cunning fingers at night over Abel's compositions and an instrument so highly valued." [9]

Gainsborough outlived Abel by little more than a year, dying on 2 August 1788. It's not known when the Abel manuscript left the Gainsborough household. Gainsborough's widow Margaret held sales and auctions to realize money from his estate, and no doubt much of what remained of their belongings was dispersed in the aftermath of her own death in December 1798. At some point Abel, Gainsborough, or a later owner bound the manuscript of viola da gamba solos together with music of Corelli, blank pages, and a harpsichord solo. Whenever it was originally sold or given away by Gainsborough's family, on 8 April 1801 the manuscript of Abel's viola da gamba compositions came into the possession of Joseph Coggins, who wrote his name and the date on its first page.

In 1866, after Coggins' death, the manuscript was given by his widow to Edward Francis Rimbault, organist, editor for the Handel Society, and co-founder of the Musical Antiquarian Society. Rimbault died in September 1876, and the following summer his large library was auctioned at Sotheby's. At that auction the manuscript was acquired by Joseph W. Drexel, the financier, collector, philanthropist, and former business partner of J.P. Morgan.

Joseph W. Drexel by Jacob Hart Lazarus, 1877. Image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

On Drexel's death in 1888 his collection of 6,000 music items was bequeathed to the Lenox Library, which later formed the basis of the Music Division of the New York Public Library. The volume containing Abel's solo viola da gamba music is now Drexel Collection Manuscript 5871, cataloged as [27 pieces for the viola da gamba] in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and has been published in facsimile by Alamire (1993). (I'm uncertain why the manuscript has been cataloged as containing 27 pieces, when by the evidence of recordings it contains 29 or 30. One explanation may be that the three cadenzas, which don't have separate catalog numbers, are considered to be associated with their preceding pieces.) [10]

The manuscript is a collection of short pieces (their timing ranges from under a minute to around six minutes) that were clearly not intended to be performed as a continuous sequence as written. The first 21 pieces are all in the key of D major; they are followed by five in D minor, one that returns to D major, and a pair in A major.  There are six solos designated allegro, allegretto or vivace; four designated as tempo di minuet; one designated as andante; three designated as adagio; and fifteen without tempo designation, although four are probably additional minuets. The first four pieces in the collection include two of the three adagios. The pieces were probably intended for study/practice or as an interlude in a concert of longer works. Nonetheless, although they lack the structural coherence of Bach's cello suites, by the evidence of the recordings below they work as a larger sequence as well.


I'm aware of three recordings of the Drexel manuscript in large part or whole:

  • Susanne Heinrich, Mr. Abel's Fine Airs (Hyperion CDA67628). This pioneering recording—the first album I'm aware of entirely devoted to Abel's solo viola da gamba music—includes 20 pieces from the manuscript, plus Abel's viola da gamba sonata in G minor.

    I have not heard this album in full; however, the excerpts I've heard on the Hyperion website linked above suggest that she takes a reflective and elegant approach to these pieces. Heinrich's recording, released in October 2007, was the Gramophone Editor's Choice for January 2008, a 2008 Gramophone Awards finalist in the Baroque Instrumental category, and the winner of the Editor's Choice award that year.
  • Paolo Pandolfo, The Drexel Manuscript (Glossa GCD 920410). On this album Pandolfo, a former member of Jordi Savall's Hesperion XX, performs 28 of the 29 Drexel Manuscript pieces (omitting a six-bar fragment apparently meant as the basis for an improvisation).

    Pandolfo takes several freedoms with the source: he rearranges the pieces into suites or groups based on key, and improvises "passages, variations and also a pair of cadences. . .something that can be considered normal for interpretation of 'early' music." [9]

    His interventionist approach is combined with an extroverted performance style that includes what I would swear are vocalizations on the second Allegro movement of the first "suite" (track 5; Heinrich's recording identifies this piece by its catalog number, WKO192). On that track Pandolofo is perhaps referencing Burney's comment about "Abel’s. . .manner of expressing, I had almost said of breathing, a few notes. . ." [11] Pandolfo's allegros tend to be faster than Heinrich's, and he vividly brings out the dance character of the minuets. His 17th-century viola da gamba has a deep, rich tone that is superbly captured by Glossa's recording engineer and producer Manuel Mohino.

    This is a vivid, exciting recording; it has been on heavy rotation in our household since we discovered it. We love it, but fair warning: Pandolfo's approach will not be to everyone's taste. This album, released in 2009, was the Gramophone Editor's Choice for July 2009, a 2009 Gramophone Awards finalist in the Baroque Instrumental category, and a 2010 BBC Music Magazine Awards finalist in the Instrumental category.
  • Petr Wagner, The Drexel Manuscript (Accent ACC24305). Wagner, who sadly died  in 2020 after a lengthy illness, is the only musician I'm aware of to record all of the pieces in the Drexel Manuscript, and in their written order.

    Wagner's set has the advantage of being complete (and, like Heinrich, he identifies pieces by catalog number), but I've only heard it on YouTube. From the sampling I've heard, his approach seems to fall somewhere in between Heinrich's and Pandolfo's. Wagner, a former student of Jaap ter Linden and Wieland Kuijken, is at times even fleeter than Pandolfo, but is generally not as exuberant; he is an elegant player, but perhaps his performances are not as inward as Heinrich's.

    As I say, these are impressions gleaned from only partial experience of two of the three albums, and your experience may differ. I don't think you could possibly go wrong with any, or all, of these recordings.

  1. Morning Post, 22 June 1787, quoted in Charles Burney, A General History of Music (London, 1789), p. 679.
  2. Walter Knape, Murray R. Charters, and Simon McVeigh. "Abel, Christian Ferdinand." Grove Music Online. 2001.
  3. Dates of the performance materials of Bach's viola da gamba sonatas taken from Christoph Wolff's Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, W.W. Norton, 2000, p. 357. Abel's study with Bach in Leipzig was suggested by Charles Burney in A General History of Music (London, 1789), pp. 678-679.
  4. Reimer quoted in Paolo Pandolfo's liner notes to Carl Friedrich Abel: The Drexel Manuscript (Glossa GCD 920410), 2008, p.7. 
  5. Description of Hasse aria from Mary Cyr, “Carl Friedrich Abel’s Solos: A Musical Offering to Gainsborough?” The Musical Times, vol. 128, no. 1732, 1987, pp. 317–21,
  6. Burney, p. 678. Abel's choice to leave was fortuitous: Dresden would be bombarded and heavily damaged by the Prussian Army in 1760.
  7. Christoph Wolff and Stephen Roe, "Bach, Johann [John] Christian." Grove Music Online, 2001,; , Walter Knape and Murray R. Charters, revised by Simon McVeigh, "Abel, Carl [Karl] Friedrich." Grove Music Online, 2001, The two entries also disagree on the date the men moved into separate lodgings: the Bach entry states that it was in early 1774, while the Abel entry states that it was in 1771.
  8. Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Musikalisher Almanach, 1796, quoted in Pandolfo, p. 10. Burney quote, p. 678.
  9. Abel exchanging music for paintings: Geoffrey Williamson, The Ingenious Mr. Gainsborough, St. Martin's Press, 1972, p. 93, referenced in Cyr. Thicknesse quoted in Cyr.
  10. Drexel manuscript catalog record from the New York Library for the Performing Arts:
  11. Burney, p. 679.