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Roz SOUTHEY (b.1952)

Music-Making in North-East England during the Eighteenth Century

Published 2006

Ashgate Publishing

ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-5097-3

259 pages



Most biographies of Handel tend to be rather short on detail when it comes to the actual mechanics of his opera and concert giving; we simply lack the information and must rely on occasional glimpses thanks to the patchy survival of documents.

How much more difficult then, to give a picture of music-making in the provinces where the music-making is spread over a wide variety of institutions; meaning that a bewildering variety of sources have had to be investigated. Yet this is what Roz Southey has done, shedding light on the musical activities in the North-East during the 18th century, centred on Newcastle and Durham.

The artist at the centre of this activity is Charles Avison, composer, concert promoter, organist and entrepreneur. Born in Newcastle, he took his early training there but then travelled to London for further study. This was a route taken by many of his contemporaries; so keen were the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral to improve the quality of their musical life that they sponsored a number of the singing men to take sabbaticals in London.

Of course, some of those who travelled to London did not return, but many did. Avison set himself up as organist, composer and promoter of concerts. The promotion of concert series was something that tended to come with the job of organist at major churches. In the absence of established orchestras, people like Avison assembled a band and promoted concerts. The band would have consisted of local professionals - organists, the city waits, musicians from the theatre, dancing masters etc - along with gentlemen amateurs, resulting in rather a mixed group. This mixture of abilities is probably way the rather old-fashioned concerto grosso survived as Avisonís principal type of orchestral composition; it enabled him to write for a mixed group.

But if the band was mixed the audience was anything but that; such concert series were aimed securely at the gentry. The gentry also promoted their own private concerts, but about these we know even less than we do about Avisonís activities. We are reliant on occasional comments in the press. And this is the problem with the era, survival of information is hit and miss. Southey has had to patch together a narrative from all sorts of sources. An example of this is the fact that Avison never advertised what his concert programmes were, so our knowledge of his important concert series is rather limited.

But though Avison is inevitably at the centre of Southeyís book, he does not completely dominate. Southey examines all types of music, covering theatrical bands, the city waits, dances and other outdoor events - the only sort that the lower classes could afford.

What is fascinating is how ad hoc and precarious musical activities were. There seems to have been no concept of the gentry subsidising musical activities for the common good. They had to pay their way, with popular figures getting the occasional benefit to help their finances. Charles Avison was good at this and was popular so he made a good living and died a wealthy man, described as a gentleman. His son, Charles junior, who took over much of his fatherís activities, was simply unable to build on the goodwill built up by his father. Charles junior spent most of his working life hovering on the brink of bankruptcy and died in his forties in penury.

The other major lode-stone in North-Eastern musical life was of course Durham Cathedral. The Dean and Chapter were generally southern men, scions of noble and gentry families and were familiar with the standard of music-making in the south. Many held livings in plurality and spent part of the year in the south of England. They were thus keen to have a decent standard of performance in and around the cathedral. The singing men of the choir were important members of the musical community, turning up at a variety of musical events besides the cathedral. That Avison and the cathedral authorities were frequently on bad terms meant that there was often little collaboration between Avison and the cathedral authorities. Southeyís narrative is dense but enlivened with occasional anecdotes such as the cathedral chapterís continual battles with some of their more reprobate singing men.

The book covers the whole gamut of musical activity in the region, with chapters on Public Concerts, Theatre Music, Popular Entertainments, Music in the Cathedral, Organs and Psalms and Oratorio Performance. In addition, Southey considers the various uses to which music was put, such as the popular sentiments which arose during Britainís continental wars.

Inevitably, the book is rather densely written and comes over as a series of lists and summaries. Only occasionally do sources survive in sufficient quantity for Southey to expand the narrative into something descriptive. But it is worth persevering for there is a wealth of embedded detail. Quite often when reading about the 18th century we can all too easily project our own centuryís methodologies on the 18th century background; organists, church services, concert series canít have changed all that much can they? This fascinating book helps is to realise that they have and that the past is truly a different country. Even if you are not particularly interested in the North-East of England this book is well worth investigating as it adds enormously to our picture of music-making in England; more importantly it tries to examine what was happening in ordinary places away from the glare of celebrity which surrounded such musicians as Handel.

Robert Hugill


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