Carl Friedrich Abel

There are five mentions of the Abel family in the New Grove, about whom it says, "They originated from middle and north Germany and were noted chiefly as viola da gamba players, violinists and composers; some were painters and landscape gardeners". The first notable Abel (sometimes spelled Abell for the earliest family members) dates back to the 1580s: our man, however, was born in Cöthen in 1723 and died in London in 1787.

The name Cöthen will be familiar to anyone interested in Johann Sebastian Bach, of course, as Bach worked there from 1717 until 1723. It is possible that Carl went to study with Bach in Leipzig in 1737, when his own father died. The Abel/Bach connection was subsequently maintained as Carl played viola da gamba in the Dresden at the same time as Wilhelm Friedemann Bach played organ in the same city in the mid 1740s.

Carl moved to London in 1758 -and mostly stayed there for the rest of his life. Oddly, he isn't regarded as an 'English' composer in the same way as, say, George Fridrich Handel is (who was yet similarly German by birth and English by subsequent choice!) In London around the same time, of course, was Johann Christian Bach... so the Abel/Bach relationship continued: they worked together in the 1760s to put on concert series, which were generally popular. They were both also friends of the Mozarts when they came calling in the mid-1760s. Indeed, one of Abel's symphonies was copied out by the boy Wolfgang Mozart... and this later caused it to be mis-attributed to Mozart himself, and was thus published as Symphony No. 3, K.18 (and DZ 01054)  in the original complete works of Mozart, published in the late 19th Century. When correctly attributed, that became the sixth of Abel's six Op. 7 symphonies (and note that he wrote several sets of different symphonies, using different opus numbers each time -so, when cataloguing his music, be sure to mention the opus number for the symphonies).

Abel's orchestral compositions therefore fall squarely into the 'Sturm und Drang' period, the transition era between the Baroque and the truly Classical periods. Nevertheless, Groves says of his compositions that they are 'generally genial, energetic and light-hearted, with little trace of deeper emotion or Sturm und Drang, although his harmonic style is exceptionally rich and expressive.' You are not going to listen to Abel for gut-wrenching emotionality, therefore, but for charming music that pleases and delights, without imposing great demands on the listener's patience.

His name, incidentally, can be spelled 'Karl', but the New Groves puts that in square brackets and clearly indicates that 'Carl' with a 'C' is the preferred spelling. All three names are also indicated as required, with none optional.

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(since January 9th 2021)

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