Roz Southey and Eric Cross, eds. Charles Avison in Context: National and International Musical Links in Eighteenth-Century North-East England. Abingdon: Routledge (Ashgate), 2017. 222 pp. £110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-47245-074-6.
As someone who is actively involved in researching the history of music production in 18th-century Britain, it has become clear to me just how important and influential Avison was. Evidence also suggests that he was well known beyond musical circles, perhaps even more so than his famous contemporaries William Boyce and Thomas Arne. Much of Avison’s notoriety was undoubtedly due to the attack on him and his music by the Oxford-based academic, William Hayes, brought about through Avison’s publication of his important treatise, An Essay on Musical Expression (1752). If anything, the dispute appears to have boosted Avison’s reputation as a composer, evidence of which can be seen in the success of his first musical works issued in the dispute’s wake, namely the 1755 op.4 concerti grossi. It has come to the point that I expect to come across Avison, whether researching the musical life of Durham, Spalding, Scotland, Cornwall, Kent or even British India, and new information on him is still coming to light on a fairly regular basis. As such, this project is somewhat premature as, even before this book was published, some of the research had already been superseded.
The book itself is formed from seven essays, all of which are well written, but with varying degrees of quality in terms of their content. ... The most successful of all is that by Stephen Marini as he investigates Avison’s participation in the psalmody movement in Britain. Even though there are some relevant sources that were not discussed, I was genuinely impressed with the amount of detailed work that had gone into this chapter; even I was somewhat taken aback with just how influential the ‘Avisonian reform’ of psalmody was. One largely associates Avison with secular instrumental music, and this chapter is both informative and refreshing. Matthew Gardiner has also done some excellent work on Avison’s oratorio Ruth, and the circumstances around its composition and performance history, expanding upon what was previously known. One laments the loss of this work, although the rediscovery of the two Avison workbooks, auctioned in 2000 and 2002, that were purchased by the Avison Ensemble, raises the hope that this oratorio, or part of it, might resurface at some point in the future. Gardiner additionally discusses the oratorio The Cure of Saul, the text of which was written by John Brown, a friend of Avison and the vicar at the church where Avison was organist. Like Ruth, the history of this work is well researched and nicely presented. ...
As a whole, I found the book to be eloquently written, stimulating and—a few caveats aside—well researched. This book is not, however, a one-stop-shop for Avison’s worldly associations and one needs to read more widely to get a full appreciation of just how well connected he was. ... That being said, this work provides a fascinating insight into the life and impact of one of Georgian Britain’s foremost native composers.