John Garth (1721-1810) was a Durham cellist, who possibly studied with Charles Avison, the Newcastle composer from the Avison Ensemble takes its name. The detailed CD booklet notes by Simon Fleming provide a wealth of interesting and detailed background information about Garth, Avison and music in the region in the 18 th century. Garth was a prolific composer who wrote various types of music. Although his most popular and enduring works were composed for cello. The set of concertos known as Opus 1 were published in 1760, although they had been in the public domain for several years before that, through various performances in the northeast of England.
Contemporary newspaper reports mention that Garth followed the pattern of many 18 th -century composers and dedicated the works to a member of the royal family. In the second half of the 18 th century, the cello was the most popular stringed instrument, and royalty played no small part in this.. Since Handel’s time, members of the royal family such as Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751) and George IV (1762-1830) had played the cello, and this, of course, had increased its popularity and made it a much sought after instrument. The extensive dissemination of music and instruments, both through the widespread printing of music and through instruments brought back as ‘souvenirs’ by noblemen on the Grand Tour, had made England particularly receptive to music for this wonderfully rich instrument. Great English instrument makers such as Benjamin Banks, Joseph Hill, Thomas Dodd, Peter Wamsley and William Forster came into prominence during the second half of the 18 th century.
Garth’s set of Cello Concertos, op. 1 are dedicated to the Duke of York, who in 1760 was Edward, a keen amateur cellist, allegedly of some talent. Each of the six concertos follows the same 3-movement pattern (fast-slow-fast), sometimes incorporating a popular dance movement such as a Gigue, Siciliana or Minuet. Five of the six concertos are in a major key and all have an elegant gallant feel to them, appropriate to these transitional times, at the end of the high baroque period and foreshadowing the early classical style.
Garth composed these pieces to play himself and, as these concertos show, he was undoubtedly a gifted cellist. Little is known of his cellistic training, such as whom he studied with, or what instrument he played. He is likely to have played an English instrument. One wonders whether he travelled at all, and whether he ever visited London. Would he, for example, have known of the great Italian émigré cellist, Giovanni Basevi Cervetto (1680-1783) who was a vital force in London’s musical life, or was Garth working in a musical vacuum, in terms of cellists? I suspect the latter, especially since Garth’s compositions date from a time when most of the great late 18 th century English cellists and composers (such as John Crosdill and James Cervetto) were only babies.
At this time there were no other cello concertos written by English composers, so far as I am aware. Those by Joseph Reinagle and Robert Lindley, for example, were written much later. It seems that the only cello concerto written by a composer living in England and roughly contemporary with Garth’s set of concertos is one by Carl Friedrich Abel, composer at some point before 1759. Although Abel was latterly associated with English music, he didn’t settle in England until 1759 so his concerto cannot be counted as English, and certainly it would not have been known by Garth.
All of this points to Garth being the first English composer of cello concertos, the first in a line which culminated in a flurry of works written on the 20 th century, the most famous being that of Elgar. However, at the time when Garth was composing his cello concertos, this was a form that was certainly popular on the continent, with numerous examples in the high baroque and early classical eras written by such composers as Vivaldi, Boccherini, Lanzetti, Duport, Bréval, CPE Bach, Monn, Wagenseil, Anton Kraft and, of course, Haydn. The important question seems to be whether or not Garth would have been aware of any of these works.
The Avison Ensemble’s recording is nicely balanced, and Tunnicliffe’s cello blends harmoniously with the small instrumental forces of the ensemble. One point of interest is the string forces that the ensemble uses in this recording. The title page of the Concerti Op. 1clearly states ‘Six concertos for the Violoncello with Four Violins One Alto Viola and Basso Ripieno ‘. However, in the listing of performers on the recording, only two violinists are named. I would have been interested to learn what influenced this decision, yet no mention of it is made in the CD booklet. Was it for matters of musical taste and finesse, or purely for financial economy? I do not, however, find the strings underpowered, so perhaps it was the right decision to make, despite Garth’s specification.
Garth’s concertos are lengthier that those of his high baroque contemporaries such as Vivaldi, moving towards the more substantial examples of the genre from the classical era so typified by Haydn. In some ways, Garth’s concertos compare favourably with the wonderful cello concerto by Monn which was composed before 1750, and which was also many years ahead of its time.
For the most part, Garth’s concertos offer few surprises, although there are little gems such as the third movement of the second concerto, with its wonderful pizzicato theme. In all six concertos, the solo cello’s theme is normally introduced by an orchestral ritornello. Garth then develops and builds upon it, leading eventually to a cadenza at the end of each movement. Whether Garth’s cadenzas exist is not made clear; those on the recording are by Richard Tunnicliffe. It seems likely that Garth would have extemporised at these points, but that his improvisations were either not written down or have not survived. Tunnicliffe’s are suitably in character for the pieces, and are executed with virtuosity.
Some concertos have more energy and vibrancy than others, no doubt due in part to the key chosen. The first movement of the fourth concerto has a fine sense of urgency and determination, although this is the one concerto that Garth chooses to end gently, with a Minuet, a common musical device in the earlier part of the 18 th century. Handel chose to end several of his Trio Sonatas Op. 5 in this way, winding down gently rather than going out with a bang.
There are echoes of Garth’s English predecessors and contemporaries in these pieces, as one might expect: no doubt Handel, Boyce and Avison influenced Garth’s musical development. The slow movement of Concerto no. 5 in D mnor contains a direct quotation from one of Handel’s Concerti Grossi in F major, which seems somewhat abrupt and out of place, especially after the slow D minor opening, with its echoes of Venetian harmony. Garth then beautifully extemporises on the Handelian theme, although all too briefly.
As a fellow cellist, I heartily thank Richard Tunnicliffe and the Avison Ensemble for bringing these works back to the English public. They very much demand to be heard and to be included in the cellist’s repertoire again.
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