Carl Friedrich Abel: The Drexel Manuscript (29 Pieces for Viola da Gamba)


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    The world of music has some resemblance with the natural world. Just as happens in nature with living beings, but at a much quicker pace, musical instruments, genres and styles are created, offered to the public, and then may succeed or not in conquering a place in the musical world. Success and popularity, furthermore, can be fleeting or stable, and their object, in turn, may remain more or less the same for a long time, or evolve. It is not always clear why a particular instrument or genre gains recognition, and another does not; instruments with beautiful timbres fail to survive, and others which are not substantially better become extremely widespread.
    And just as happens in nature, at time an instrument emerges which is related to an older one, and novelty displaces tradition, even though the two could have easily coexisted.
    Such phenomena can constitute the object of lengthy musings as concerns the fate of the viola da gamba, and, in general, of the family of the viols. They can be considered as the oldest important bowed string instruments; in the Renaissance and early Baroque era, the consort of viols was a true protagonist of musical life across Europe, but in particular in the British islands. Slowly, the family of the violins gained momentum over the family of the viols, although for decades the two cohabited rather peacefully alongside each other. Johann Sebastian Bach, for instance, employed more commonly the instruments of the violins’ family, but was keen to employ the viols both in solo roles and within the orchestra (and even as a viol consort, as in the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto). In both Passions he wrote, the viola da gamba has a (literally!) “crucial” role, since it becomes a visually poignant symbol for the cross; and the beauty of his gamba sonatas stands side by side with that of his Cello suites, neither of these cycles detracting from the other in the least.
    Still, of these wo instruments, the cello was on the rise; Bach’s cello suites are numbered among the earliest important works for this instrument, along with the Ricercari by Domenico Gabrielli and a handful of other Baroque masterpieces. By way of contrast, the viola da gamba was losing ground; what had used to be a true protagonist of musical life was quickly falling out of the spotlight, and was going to be nearly forgotten for more than a century.
    Bach’s interest in the viola da gamba had arguably been sparked not only by the instrument’s intrinsic qualities, but also by his acquaintance with one of the greatest virtuosos on that instrument. Taken in and by itself, the gamba was a fascinating instrument: a unique and mellow timbre; the capability of singing like a human voice but also of accompanying itself in a fully polyphonic and/or harmonic texture, thanks to its numerous strings; the capability to play large arpeggiated chords and decorative patterns; and, perhaps not irrelevantly, its very physical shape, which certainly had a role in Bach’s choice to adopt it as a symbol for Christ’s cross.
    But every instrument needs a player, and gifted performers may reveal to a composer the hidden potential of their instrument. Thus, Bach discovered the full palette of the gamba’s possibilities through his acquaintance and friendship with Christian Ferdinand Abel. The two men met in Cöthen, where both served in the Chapel of the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen. Christian Ferdinand was a virtuoso of the viola da gamba, but he also played professionally both the violin and the cello. He certainly left a durable impression on Bach; their closeness is testified by the fact that Bach acted as the godfather of one of Abel’s daughters in 1720, and the two remained friends even after Bach’s departure from Cöthen to Leipzig.
    This momentous move took place in 1723, i.e. precisely three hundred years ago; in that same year, a few days before Christmas, a son was born to Christian Ferdinand, whom he named Carl Friedrich. According to Charles Burney, when Carl Friedrich had turned twenty, he went to Leipzig in order to study with Johann Sebastian Bach. The Thomasschule records do not support this statement, since C. F. Abel’s name is nowhere to be found in them; however, twenty was not the typical age for enrolling at the Thomasschule, and Bach willingly taught private students, particularly if they were gifted, motivated, and (as an added feature) also related to a friend and esteemed colleague. The question is therefore still open. Certainly, however, Bach took an interest in his friend’s son, and encouraged him, in 1748, to seek employment at the Dresden Hofkapelle, then led by Johann Adolf Hasse. Following in his father’s footsteps, Carl Friedrich had become a virtuoso of the gamba (but also of the cello), and it was in this capacity that he was employed there. In Dresden, Abel doubtlessly got acquainted with, and probably befriended Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Sebastian’s eldest son.
    It was to another of Bach’s sons, in that case the youngest, Johann Christian, that Abel would become most closely associated in the following years. The two became very good friends in London, where Abel had arrived already in 1758-9, obtaining the prestigious role of chamber musician of Queen Charlotte in 1762. He took the city by storm with a sensational concert, where he played several instruments, including the “pentachord”, a freshly created five-string cello. In 1762, Johann Christian crossed the Channel in turn, and took residence in London. Two years later, the two musicians launched a series of concerts, which were the first subscription concerts in England. For this reason, and also due to the fact that – for the first time – works from the musical past were performed there, these concerts acquired a fundamental role in the history of music. At first, their venue was a concert hall at Carlisle House in Soho Square, owned by a retired Venetian singer, Mrs Teresa Cornelys. In 1775, the two friends and music entrepreneurs took the matter solely in their own hands, and the series – by then known as the “Bach-Abel concerts” – continued until the death of Johann Christian Bach, in 1782.
    Abel survived his friends for five years, touring extensively in Continental Europe and concertizing to great acclaim; back in London, he was a central figure in the Grand Professional Concerts at the Hanover Square Room.
    Besides being an internationally successful performer, Abel had also an intense and prolific activity as a composer. His output includes mostly chamber music and symphonic works, which were arguably conceived for the Bach-Abel series. Curiously, the best known of his works obtained lasting and global fame because… it had been misattributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had copied it in 1764 during his tour in England. Wolfgang was barely eight at the time, and his visit to London proved fundamental for his musical and personal growth: in spite of the difference of age, Mozart and J. C. Bach became very good friends.
    The esteem in which Abel was held is demonstrated by the attention which young Mozart – and certainly his father Leopold – dedicated to his work, to the point of copying it for study purposes. It was for his favourite instrument, the viola da gamba, that Abel composed the most numerous and probably the most beautiful of his works. Arguably, no other musician after the Baroque era left so many works of such a high quality for this instrument. The gamba is a solo or obbligato instrument in no less than ninety-five pieces authored by Abel. Thirty of them plus three short cadenza-like fragments are for unaccompanied gamba, while nearly fifty works are solos or sonatas, and the gamba intervenes in a number of chamber music works. Furthermore, pieces officially advertised as “for the cello” may have been initially conceived for the gamba (and then attributed to the cello for marketing purposes). Sadly, a conspicuous component of the gamba repertoire authored by Abel has been lost.
    A good number of the unaccompanied works is found in the so-called “Drexel manuscript” (we do not know the reasons for this name). Abel was considered, at his time, an excellent improviser, and this skill clearly emerges in the works recorded here. Some of them, in fact, are of considerable concision and brevity, and reveal a freshness of inspiration which seems to be directly recording the composer’s improvisation. This applies particularly to the shortest and prelude-like pieces, while other appear to have been more elaborated. The Drexel manuscript, in all likelihood, was intended for Abel’s personal use, and therefore even the most “finished” pieces were probably open to improvisation, embellishment and improvement. As we have them, though, they represent a true Thesaurus of gamba technique and of musical situations. In many cases, we can easily identify dance styles in the pieces; generally, their main musical aim seems to be the pure enjoyment of music, the sheer delight in the beauty of sounds and in their organized appearance. If (as it likely happened) Abel played these works at the Bach-Abel concerts, he certainly managed to conquer his listeners, with the wise combination of virtuosity, expressivity, dance rhythms and singing styles. It was a music conceived for the well-to-dos of contemporaneous England; for the kind of society which Gainsborough was so able in portraying. And, not by chance, Gainsborough was a good friend of Abel, and portrayed him on more than one occasion – one of these portraits is currently on display at the National Gallery of London.
    It is that world – a rich, educated, cultivated and ironic world – which is portrayed visually by Gainsborough and aurally by Abel; and this recording allows us to imagine it, and to be temporarily transferred into it.
    Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


    Gaetano Simone
    Both a cellist and viola da gamba player, Simone began studying music at the age of seven. He attended the Conservatory "N. Piccinni" in Bari, where he obtained his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in cello soloist, viola da gamba, chamber music, and cello teaching. Among his teachers were Harvey Shapiro, Enrico Bronzi, Paolo Pandolfo, and Vittorio Ghielmi.
    He is an active performer and teacher, working both in Italy and abroad. Some of his notable recordings include "Drei Kleine Stucke" for cello and piano by A. Webern, "Quatour pour la Fin du Temps" by O. Messiaen, "Le Muse Napolitane" (Neapolitan cello sonatas) played on the baroque cello, the "Cello Works" by G. Fauré, and the "Six Cello Suites" by J. S. Bach. Since 2009, he has been teaching cello in public schools, and in 2017 he won first place in the national competition for teaching cello at high schools in Italy. He plays an Italian 18th-century cello made by David Tecchler and a copy of a Thielke viola da gamba made by the luthier Sergio Gistri.


    Carl [Karl] Friedrich Abel
    (b Cöthen, 22 Dec 1723; d London, 20 June 1787). Composer and bass viol player, son of (2) Christian Ferdinand Abel. He was no doubt a pupil of his father’s, especially for the bass viol; but on his father’s death in 1737 Carl Friedrich may have turned to the former relationship with the Bach family and gone to Leipzig to study, as Burney, who knew Abel, stated. By 1743 Abel was a player in the court orchestra under Hasse in Dresden; the connection with the Bachs was maintained – W.F. Bach was an organist there until 1746, and J.S. Bach had held an appointment as court composer from 1736. Abel left Dresden in 1757–8 during the destruction of the city by Frederick the Great. He then travelled, visiting the house of Goethe’s family in Frankfurt and probably the musical centres of Mannheim and Paris. He had already begun to compose in Dresden; the Breitkopf catalogue of 1761 advertises solo and trio sonatas and concertos, all with the flute, and describes Abel as a chamber musician to the King of Poland.