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Karl Friedrich Abel

German, 1723 - 1787

Karl Friedrich Abel, a prolific composer and the last virtuoso of the viol da gamba, was born in Köthen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany, on December 22, 1723, a son of the musician Christian Ferdinand Abel (d. 1728). He studied at the Leipzig Tomasschüle with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and subsequently went to Dresden, where he composed operas and played in the King of Poland's court band from 1748-58. In 1759 he settled in London, where the Duke of York became his patron and he was honored with the title of chamber musician to Queen Charlotte. In addition to composing many pieces for the viol da gamba and flute, Abel instructed students in the harpsichord, and also played the violin, piano, and French horn. According to Charles Burney, he was a master of heartfelt, but economical, expression, who never "let a single note escape him without meaning. His compositions were easy and elegantly simple." From 1762 until 1773 Abel shared a house in Greek Street, Soho, with Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), eleventh son of Johann Sebastian, and music master to the queen from 1763. Other neighbors in Greek Street included Felice di Giardini (1716-96), an Italian violin virtuoso, and the ironmonger and musical enthusiast Jonathan Buttall, whom Thomas Gainsborough would immortalize a few years later in the painting now known as The Blue Boy. Abel and Bach organized an extremely popular series of public subscription concerts which began in 1765 at Spring Gardens and Almack's Rooms, before transferring to the newly opened Hanover Square Rooms from 1775 to 1782. Abel's bright, elegant, and melodic style was a startling change from the more serious and grandiose Baroque of Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and J.S. Bach. Indeed, Abel was considered to have "brought about a total revolution in our musical taste" in partnership with his colleagues J.C. Bach, Giardini, and Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), a German composer and oboe player who married Gainsborough's eldest daughter in 1780. Abel came to be regarded as "the umpire in all musical controversy, and was consulted in difficult and knotty points as an infallible oracle." He died in London on June 20, 1787, and the following year his portrait was placed above the orchestra in the Concert Room at Hanover Square in honor of his memory.