- All four of the movements of Avison’s concerto are based on Scarlatti sonatas, but they are not literal transcriptions. Avison fleshed out harmonies, rewrote difficult passages, made cuts, and occasionally changed harmonies.
In contrast to the other well-travelled composers on this program, Charles Avison spent nearly his entire life in his native Newcastle, turning down offers that would have taken him to less provincial places. He was one of England’s most prominent composers of what had become one of England’s most prominent musical forms: the concerto grosso, often known by the Anglicized name “grand concerto.” The form became rare in its native Italy in the 18th century, but in England it thrived in London theaters and concerts, and in the provinces as entertainment for orchestras of well-to-do amateurs, who might leave the solo parts to hired professionals.
The market in grand concertos must have been bustling and lucrative, and it was met in some odd ways. A London publisher assembled a bunch of unrelated Handel pieces into an unauthorized set of six concertos and published the pastiches as Handel’s Opus 3. Because the grand concerto was essentially a work for a trio sonata of soloists with an accompanying body of strings, it was fairly quick work to convert a trio sonata into a concerto. Francesco Geminiani, a disciple of Corelli who settled in London (Avison seems to have left the Newcastle area only to study with Geminiani during the early 1730s), composed his own grand concertos, but also arranged Corelli trio sonatas as concertos. Geminiani’s friend Francesco Barsanti arranged some of Geminiani’s sonatas as concertos.
Avison may get the prize for most unlikely concerto conversion: his Twelve Concerto’s in Seven Parts … Done from Two Books of Lessons for the Harpsicord Composed by Sig. Domenico Scarlatti, published in 1744. Avison pulled most of the music for the 12 concertos from a collection of keyboard pieces by the Italian-born Spanish transplant Scarlatti, published in London in 1739 with the inexplicably French title, XLII Suites de pièces pour le clavecin.
The collection played a big part in creating a Scarlatti craze in England, which Avison was quick to capitalize on. But it contained only two slow movements, and Avison, who used Geminiani’s slow-fast-slow-fast concerto form, needed 24 of them, which meant Avison had to find some slow movements elsewhere. He wrote that he had found manuscripts of other Scarlatti sonatas at “extraordinary expense.” He also converted some Scarlatti fast movements to slow ones, and since a dozen of the slow movements are not found in Scarlatti’s surviving music, Avison probably composed them himself.
All four of the movements of tonight’s concerto are based on Scarlatti sonatas, but they are not literal transcriptions. Avison fleshed out harmonies, rewrote difficult passages, made cuts, and occasionally changed harmonies, so there is as much Avison as Scarlatti in the finished product.