An Inconspicious Sonata and a New Passion

Sanguisorba minor © Charles Thibo

I remember that early spring walk a year or two ago. It was warm already, and we wandered as a family along the rocks that bordert the western side of the Mosella valley. The rocks trap and reflect the sunlight; the warmth they radiate and the minerals in the soil contribute to a substantial degree to the excellence of Luxembourg’s white wines. On the small path I encountered this inconspicious plant, Sanguisorba minor, than can be used as aromatic plant in a salad for instance. It was as nondescript as Carl Friedrich Abel’s Viola da Gamba Sonata No. 10 in E Minor (WK 150) hidden on a recording by Rebeka Ruso (viola) and Sebastian Wienand (piano).

Abel was a contemporary of Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. The German composer was born in 1723 in Köthen, close to Leipzig and Halle, and quickly became an excellent viol player like his father. In 1743 he joined the musicians at the court of Saxony in Dresden and remained on this post for 15 years until he started to tour the continent and in 1859 England. In 1756 he teamed up with the said Johann Christian Bach to give a series of highly successful subscription concerts in London. The concerts ran until 1781, one year before the death of Bach and six years before Abel’s own death, hastened by prolonged and excessive drinking.

Unexpected discoveries

The sonata in three movements was written for viol and basso continuo*, most likely in 1776, and published at the earliest in 1783. Recently a number of hithero unknown viola da gamba works by Abel have been discovered: In 1994, what is now known as the the Pembroke collection, had been bought by a private collectioner at an auction at Sotheby’s. It cam from the bequest of  Lady Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery, a pupil of Abel. A second set of works was discoverd in 2017 in Poland: the Maltzan collection. Count Joachim Carl Maltzan (1733–1817) was a Prussian diplomate stationed in London when the “Bach-Abel Concerts” took place. He probably attended the famous concert series, or he too may have been  a student of the composer.

Oxford Music Online notes that Abel’s music is “generally genial, energetic and light-hearted” and that “his harmonic style is exceptionally rich and expressive”. The sonata in E minor is an excellent example for the expressive richness. The first movement is a “Siciliano”, characterized by a slow, dance-like rhythm and a bitter-sweet melody. The following movement – allegro – is fast-paced and derived from a court dance while the final movement – presto – is even more dynamic, graceful, serious, descendimg sometimes deep into the bass tones and thus giving the bass viol a possibility to let its warmth radiate like the Mosella rocks.

Once I started to research the facts and figures for this post, I quickly became hooked to Abel’s sonata. It triggered a passion similiar to the one that made me buy all available records of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s works and I am looking forwad to present more of Abel’s compositions in due time.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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