In East Anglia there was nothing in the field of music like the Norwich School of Artists in the field of painting. Although there were individuals of great musical ability born in the provinces, there was no group of musicians in Norfolk or Suffolk who could be described as a school. The typical genius was drawn to the capital to advance a musical career. James Hook was an infant prodigy, the son of a razor grinder, who was composing and performing harpsichord concertos in Norwich before he was ten, but before he was twenty he had moved to London, where he spent his career playing in the Pleasure Gardens of the capital.
In the 18th century there was however a flowering of musical talent in North East England. Two notable musicians stayed local to the area, and were able to build their careers far from London; the area around Durham had the cellist John Garth, who was a prolific composer and performer, and his older friend Charles Avison was similarly a frequent performer in Newcastle. Theses were not folk musicians, of whom there was also a strong presence (playing on the Northumbrian pipes), but classical musicians in the European style of the time. Charles Avison was born in Newcastle into difficult circumstances; although the family was not poor his musical father, the breadwinner, had died when he was only twelve. He later travelled to London as a young man, where he studied composition with Francesco Geminiani, the Italian virtuoso who spent much of his career in England and Ireland. After seven years in the capital Avison moved back to Newcastle, when he was appointed organist on the newly installed instrument in St John the Baptist’s church. He later transferred to St Nicholas, which became Newcastle Cathedral in 1882. On hid death he was succeeded by his son as organist there.
The two musicians Charles Avison and John Garth held weekly concerts, alternating between Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, twenty miles to the north. There was nothing provincial about the style, which fell into the late Baroque/Early Classical period. Avison and Garth’s music could equally well have been German, where the divided political situation made provincial music the norm. The career of Joseph Haydn makes the point; he spent most of his life in Eisenstadt, a place nobody could point to on a map; it is in fact in Austria, and was the principal residence of the Esterhazy family. In spite of the composer’s eminence he was not based in the capital. In England things were different, and the capital did exert a strong pull, so it is remarkable that the area around the rivers Tyne and Tees should have produced a cultured audience for these performances. It is an area which we normally associate with the gritty business of coal mining. This educated elite was not the product of a great noble family like the Esterhazy princes; it arose out of the local middle class.
Charles Avison was not only an accomplished composer and keyboard player; he is regarded as the first music critic in the English language. He published the pioneering work An Essay on Musical Expression in 1752. As a writer he was not afraid to be controversial, and while a great admirer of Handel he was prepared to criticize aspects of his work. Another local musician who led the way in criticism was the East Anglian Richard Mackenzie Bacon, who in the 1820s published the first music magazine in the English language. His eldest daughter assisted him in producing the magazine, and she was an excellent musician in her own right, who could play a score she had never seen before from sight. The magazine, although published in London, was put together in Norwich. Richard Mackenzie Bacon was a professional writer, but he was a very good musician as well. He was instrumental in setting up the Norwich Triennial Festival of classical music. This festival lasted until 1989, when it was replaced by the Norfolk and Norwich Festival of Arts, which is held annually. The Norwich Festival was one of the oldest such events in the country.
The musician Robert Leng was an unusual personality in mid 19th century Yorkshire. He was not of the middle class like Charles Avison or John Garth; quite to the contrary, he was working class and entirely self-taught as a musician.
”On the 28th ult., at Malton, Mr Robert LENG, woodturner, aged 66… [He] has been totally blind and being gifted with no ordinary musical ability, attained great proficiency on various instruments. As a vocalist he also excelled; and all our townspeople will have vivid remembrance of his nightly perambulations of the town, during the Christmas season each year. So far as he is concerned, the Christmas carols will no longer be heard in Malton.” [From the Malton Messenger, 3rd December 1864.]
As you can see from the illustration below, he also published booklets of religious music, pieces of his own composition. He was born in Malton 1799 and lived his whole life in the town. He had been blind since early adulthood, and for a man who had lost his sight he was a successful businessman. From a labouring background he rose to employ two woodturners, from his home in Malton Market Place. See the list of places where this book could be bought; they include addresses of a brush manufacturer in York, a hairdresser in Whitby and a Bradf0rd shoemaker.
I picked this booklet out of a pile of junk in a secondhand shop in Norwich many years ago. It may have cost me the sixpence printed on the cover. I think the music department of York University or some other northern institution ought to have this, and if anyone from an interested place of learning would like to contact me I can probably arrange to send it to them. That is if I have not already given it to Malton Museum.