Charles Avison Essay On Musical Expression Paintings

Charles Avison (; 16 February 1709 (baptised) – 9 or 10 May 1770) was an English composer during the Baroque and Classical periods. He was a church organist at St John The Baptist Church[1] in Newcastle and at St. Nicholas's Church (later Newcastle Cathedral). He is most known for his 12 Concerti Grossi after Scarlatti and his Essay on Musical Expression, the first music criticism published in English. He composed in a transitional style that alternated between Baroque and Classical idioms.


The son of Richard and Anne Avison, Charles Avison was baptised on 16 February 1709,[2] at St John the Baptist Church, in Newcastle. According to The New Grove Dictionary, he was also born in this city.[3] His educational history, though unclear, could have been at one of the two charity schools serving St John's parish. Some sources claim that Charles was the fifth of nine children, while others claim that he was the seventh of ten children. Regardless, Avison was born into a family with a high rate of infant mortality, as many of his siblings died at a young age.[4] His father was a musician and was likely to have been Charles’s first teacher. When Charles was 12, his father died, leaving his mother widowed with at least one and possibly two children at home.[4] Avison's adolescent and teenage years are mostly undocumented, but they may have included an apprenticeship with a local merchant named Ralph Jenison, a patron of the arts, and later a Member of Parliament, as well as further study of music.[4]

In his twenties, Avison moved to London to further pursue his career as a musician. It was during this period of his life that he met and began to study with Francesco Geminiani.[5] Avison's first documented musical performance was a benefit concert in London on 20 March 1734. This was also his only known concert in London and probably contained some of his early compositions written under Geminiani.[3][4] Avison left London and, on 13 October 1735, was appointed organist of St. John’s, Newcastle.[6] This appointment took effect once the church had installed a new organ in June 1736. Avison then accepted a position as organist of St. Nicholas Church in October 1736,[7] and later was appointed director of the Newcastle Musical Society. He remained at these two posts until his death. Avison also taught harpsichord, flute, and violin to private students on a weekly basis.[3] Much of Avison's income was generated through a series of subscription concerts which he helped organise in the North East region of England.[4] These were the first concerts of their type to be held in Newcastle.[8] Despite numerous offers of more prestigious positions later in life, he never again left Newcastle.[8]

Avison was married to Catherine Reynolds on 15 January 1737. The couple had nine children, of whom only three – Jane, Edward, and Charles – survived to adulthood. Edward succeeded his father as both the director of the Newcastle Musical Society and the St Nicholas's organist after his father’s death. Charles was also an organist and composer.[3] Avison died in May 1770 of unknown causes. According to his will, he had become a very wealthy man between his collection of books, musical instruments, and his stock holdings, which were left to his children. His will specified that he wanted very little money to be spent on his funeral and that he wished to be buried beside his wife at St Andrew's Church, Newcastle upon Tyne where he was buried near the north porch.[4] Avison was one of the subjects in Robert Browning's Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in their Day:[8] "Hear Avison! He tenders evidence/That music in his day as much absorbed/Heart and soul then as Wagner's music now."


Avison was a bold and controversial author. He is said to have had no fear in expressing his strong ideas with elaborate language, an incredible understanding of music, and a sense of humour. One of the ideas which receives much criticism is his preference for Geminiani and Marcello and his lack of preference for Handel. Although he did praise Handel for his genius, he was not afraid to criticise him either.[7] In addition to his published essays, Avison often wrote lengthy prefaces to his compositions, which have been called “advertisements."[3]

Essay on musical expression[edit]

Avison’s best-known writing is his Essay on Musical Expression which was originally published in 1752.[9] This essay was written in three parts. The first discusses the effect of music on character and emotion, as well as comparisons of music to painting. Avison states that "A full chord struck, or a beautiful succession of single sounds produced, is no less ravishing to the ear, than just symmetry or exquisite colours to the eye."[9] Avison also discusses in this section the common thought that music reaches all aspects of human emotion. He disagrees with this belief and instead argues that music evokes positive emotions while suppressing the negative ones.[9]

Part II of the essay is a critique of certain composers and their styles. Avison includes a section criticising the emphasis on melody and neglect of harmony as well as the neglect of melody and focus on harmony. For each condition, multiple composers are named in varying degrees to which they offend the balance between these two aspects of music. It is in this section that Avison defines musical expression as a balance between melody and harmony further stating, "Air and Harmony are never to be deserted for the sake of expression: because expression is found on them."[9] Avison does not hold back in expressing his opinion of the composers whom he is criticising. One such passage in the essay exemplifies this: "In these vague and unmeaning pieces, we often find the bewildered composer, either struggling with the difficulties of an extraneous modulation, or tiring the most consummate patience with a tedious repetition of some jejune thought, imagining he can never do enough, till he has run through every key that can be crowded into one movement; till, at length, all his force being exhausted, he drops into a dull close; where his languid piece seems rather to expire and yield its last, than conclude with a spirited, and well-timed cadence."[9]

The third section includes Avison’s views on how certain instruments should be used in ensemble performances. This section especially focuses on the concerto, as Avison frequently composed them. He lays out certain guidelines for the use of instruments, such as; "Thus, the Hautboy will best express the Cantabile, or singing style, and may be used in all movements whatever under this denomination; especially those movements which tend to the gay and cheerful."[9]

This essay is often viewed as judgemental and controversial, mostly because of the strong opinions put forth in the section critiquing composers. In January 1753, William Hayes anonymously published Remarks on Mr. Avison’s Essay, which was a review criticising Avison’s writing. This writing also contained strong opinions and was more lengthy than Avison's original writing. Avison then published a response to Hayes's writing titled A Reply to the Author of Remarks on the Essay on Musical Expression in February 1753.[3]


Avison's best-known compositions are his concerti grossi. They are similar in style to those of Geminiani and change very little across his career. Some were based on existing works by the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti.[10] Avison placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of melody in his compositions. They are considered to be "unusually tuneful" because of the value which he placed on melody.

Avison also wrote chamber music. His trio sonatas are modelled after the Baroque style. His later chamber works were inspired by Rameau and are keyboard pieces with accompaniment by flute, violin and other instruments. Avison composed a small amount of sacred music including a verse anthem, a hymn and a chant, and a collaborative oratorio with Giardini[who?] entitled "Ruth".


  • Op. 2 Six Concertos (g, Bb, e, D, Bb, D)
  • Two Concertos
  • Op. 3 Six Concertos – With General Rules for Playing (D, e, g, Bb, D, G)
  • Op. 4 Eight Concertos (d, A, D, g, Bb, G, D, c)
  • Op. 6 Twelve Concertos (g, Bb, e, D, Bb, D, G, G, D, C, D, A)
  • Op. 9 Twelve Concertos: Set 1: (G, D, A, g/G, C, e), Set 2: (Eb, Bb, c, F, A, D)
  • Op. 10 Six Concertos (d, F, c, C, Eb, d)


  • Op. 1 VI Sonatas (chromatic dorian, g, g, dorian, e, D)
  • Op. 5 Six Sonatas (G,C, Bb, Eb, G, A)
  • Op. 7 Six Sonatas (G, g, Bb, d, a, A)
  • Op. 8 Six Sonatas (A, C, D, Bb, g, G)


  • "Hast thou not forsaken us" (verse anthem)
  • "Glory to God" (Christmas Hymn/Sanctus)
  • "Ruth" (oratorio) collab. Giardini
  • "Psalm CVII", chant, Cantico ecclesiastica


Avison continued the Italian-style tradition, which Francesco Geminiani heavily attributed to his popularity in London. In his Concerti Grossi, in particular, he carried on Geminiani's technique of modelling orchestral concertos after sonatas by older composers. His Essay on Musical Expression criticised Handel, who was much admired in England at the time.[8]

Since 1994 the Avison Ensemble of Newcastle has been performing Avison's music using period instruments.[11]

Newcastle's City Library building which opened in 2009 was named after the composer.[12] The Avison Archive is held at the library.[5]

In April 2014 a play about Avison, written by Sue Hedworth from Ovington, was staged at Gateshead. The play, entitled Mostra, was billed as "a play with live music about our very own 18th Century Newcastle composer".[8]



  1. ^"A Brief History of the Church", St John the Baptist Church, 2014, archived from the original on 29 March 2010, retrieved 6 June 2015 
  2. ^
  3. ^ abcdefStephens, Norris L. (2014). "Avison, Charles". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 20 September 2014. (Subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ abcdefSouthey, Roz; Maddison, Margaret; Hughes, David (2009). The Ingenious Mr. Avison: Making Music and Money in Eighteenth Century Newcastle. Newcastle upon Tyne: Tyne Bridge Publishing. ISBN 978-1-85795-129-5. Retrieved 6 June 2015. 
  5. ^ ab"Newcastle Collections – Charles Avison". Retrieved 6 June 2015. 
  6. ^Robert Hugill (August 2006). "MusicWeb International". Retrieved 6 June 2015. 
  7. ^ abKingdon-Ward, M. (1951). "Charles Avison". Musical Times Publications Ltd. pp. 398–401. doi:10.2307/934970. Retrieved 20 September 2014. (Subscription required (help)). 
  8. ^ abcdeWhetstone, David (2014-04-25). "Play about Charles Avison takes to the stage in Gateshead". The Journal. Retrieved 6 June 2015. 
  9. ^ abcdefCharles, A; Dubois, P; Hayes, W (2004). Charles Avison's Essay on musical expression: with related writings by William Hayes and Charles Avison. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-75463-460-7. 
  10. ^"Avison's Scarlatti stylishly delivered | D Scarlatti Album reviews". Classic FM. Retrieved 6 June 2015. 
  11. ^"The Avison Ensemble". Kings Place. Retrieved 5 June 2015. 
  12. ^"City Library | Newcastle City Council". 2014-06-03. Retrieved 6 June 2015. 

External links[edit]

A page from Avison's second workbook

AgrandirOriginal (jpeg, 65k)

William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician, 1741.

1As Hogarth’s famous print, The Enraged Musician, made clear, “sound” and “noise” are antithetical notions. For the violin master, the variety of sounds made by the crowd of common people gathered in the street outside his window cannot claim to belong to the world of harmony. His gesture – putting his hands over his ears – symbolises his rejection of this array of sounds as pertaining to the category of noise. Interestingly, the music master aligns the sounds produced by the street musicians’ instruments with the other kind of din made by the rabble. For him, even the sounds of popular music are discordant. One implicit connotation of Hogarth’s print is therefore that music is a form of social distinction whereas noise is fundamentally vulgar.

2Indeed, noise is always defined negatively as a disruptive element. It is a pejorative term. As Paul Hegarty – the author of a compelling history of noise and music – explains, noise is “a negativity (it can never be positively, definitively and timelessly located), a resistance, but [it is] also defined by what society resists. It works as a deconstruction”.1 Since noise is “negative... unwanted, other, not something ordered”,2 it is therefore quite the opposite of music, which is by definition a formal construct and more or less clearly implies aesthetic gratification. Thus, if noise is a negative notion, it is therefore not an objective fact or reality but something we are forced to react to. Noise implies judgement: it is “a negative response to a sound or set of sounds”.3 It implies an aesthetic transgression of the order of music. Consequently, the discourse on noise can be used as a means of control, to reassert the existing musical order threatened by noise. Traditionally, music can thus be defined in opposition to noise: it is what we do not reject as unpleasant and discordant but consider as being regulated, ordered, pleasant and beautiful.

3However, what is considered to be “noise” today might be considered as music tomorrow. The free jazz musician making “obscene” sounds on his saxophone or trumpet; or the rock star making distorted sounds and resorting to Larsen effects on his electric guitar, would certainly deny the charge of making “noise” – and John Coltrane, Dizzie Gillespie or Jimmy Hendrix arecertainly considered to be great artists. The history of music is a long sequence of changes in the status of given sounds: such or such interval, chord or sonority which was deemed unbearable at a given time, and therefore labelled “noise”, may acquire what might be called respectability in the course of history and thus eventually find its rightful place in the home of music. Music has often been lured by the temptation of noise, for it is noise that enables music to cross the boundaries of conventional form in order to attain new, more powerful means of expression and charter as yet unknown territories.

4In the eighteenth century, the idea that music should entirely pertain to the realm of the pleasant, ordered and beautiful was to be gradually replaced with theories of the sublime, which encouraged a shift from the object (i.e. music) to the subject (i.e. the listener). Music was gradually “freed”, as it were, from its dependence upon mathematics, and since – for Edmund Burke – terror was considered the main cause of the sublime, the temptation arose to suggest sublime terror in music by way of imitating natural noises. This clashed, of course, with another dominant aspect of the theories of musical expression, which decreed that whatever was harsh or discordant could not claim the title of “music”. This paper attempts to analyse the epistemological and aesthetic crisis that resulted from the eighteenth-century theories of expression and of the sublime in England and made “noise” both something that one was tempted to introduce into music to create sublime effects, and something that was fundamentally incompatible with harmonious sound and expression. It focuses primarily on the philosophical appraisal of the effect of music as theorised by eighteenth-century philosophers and writers on aesthetics, rather than on an in-depth study of the repertoire, although a few references to specific compositions are made.

5The most commonly accepted conception of music in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was well summed up by the Rvd. Thomas Salmon in his Essay to the Advancement of Music published in 1672. Salmon explained that music could “sweeten the life of man, and with a pleasing variety refresh his wearied mind”.4 He then explained that the faculty of hearing was created by God “to receive harmonious sounds, clearly different from that by which we perceive ordinary noise.” There must be therefore “some specifick power which sub-divides this more private faculty from the common nature of hearing”, the pleasure of music resulting from “a combination of sounds as they are proportioned in numbers.” For Salmon, then, the taste for harmony or music was firstly a natural faculty granted by God, which you might either have, or be deprived of. Secondly, music consisted in harmonious sound, depending upon proportion. Salmon still thought within the same conceptual frame as the ancients who considered music to be a branch of mathematics. In the Platonic perspective, music used to be thought of as an art based upon harmonious sound and right proportions – thought to correspond to the proportions in the cosmos – that is, as fundamentally opposed to noise which did not depend on harmony or mathematical rules. Thirdly, music could be accounted for rationally, in opposition to noise, which could not. Noise could thus be defined a contrario as indistinct sound not grounded upon some mathematical rule.

6Numerous writers over the course of the eighteenth century insisted that music was fundamentally incompatible with any “disagreeable combination of sounds”, for, Lord Kames explained, “all music is resolvable into melody and harmony, which imply agreeableness in their very conception”.5 Daniel Webb felt that “if there are passions which come not within the reach of musical expression, they must be such as are totally painful”6 and deduced the moral sense of music from that observation:

It has been observed, that music can have no connexion with those passions which are painful by their nature; neither can it unite with our other passions when they become painful by their excess; so that the movements of music being in a continued opposition to all those impressions which tend either to disorder or disgrace our nature, may we not reasonably presume, that they were destined to act in aid of the moral sense, to regulate the measures and proportions of our affections; and, by counter-acting the passions in their extremes, to render them the instruments of virtue, and the embellishments of character?7

7As for James Beattie, he also insisted that musical sounds “must all be consistent with the fundamental principles of the art, and not repugnant either to melody or to harmony”.8 The conception one had of music’s “agreeableness” thus depended upon a definition of the art as intrinsically reducible to the two constituents of melody and harmony. Harmony was founded upon mathematical rules which precluded disorder or unresolved discord. As for melody, one thought that it could not but be pleasant since it took the human voice as its model, as Beattie explained:

Now, the foundation of all true music, and the most perfect of all musical instruments, is the human voice; which is therefore the prototype of the musical scale, and a standard of musical sound. Noises, therefore, and inharmonious notes of every kind, which a good voice cannot utter without straining, ought to be excluded from this pleasing art: for it is impossible, that those vocal sounds which require any unnatural efforts, either of the singer or speaker, should ever give permanent gratification to the hearer.9

8The justification Beattie provided for the fact that melody must be pleasant, and therefore essentially other than noise, came from a conception of the link between music and the very constitution of man himself. Music must be “natural” and therefore free from all excessive effort. Art and nature were thus intrinsically bound together and whatever was considered “unnatural” was to be rejected from music. It is interesting to see that Beattie used this as the basis for a scathing attack against the singers of the Italian opera whose“preternatural screams” might “occasion surprise, and momentary amusement” but were “not music” and were admired, “not for their propriety or pathos, but … merely because they [were] uncommon and difficult”.10 In saying this, Beattie is reducing Italian music to noise – that is, something both unpleasant and unnatural – which was of course part of an ideological strategy to condemn that imported genre and conversely assert the qualities of English national art. The opposition between noise and musical sound thus acquired a moral overtone. The noise made by Italian singers was condemned because it was at variance with the laws of nature, which cast a suspicion of impropriety upon the castrati. For Beattie as for Webb, then, the definition of musical sound was ripe with moral overtones and noise could consequently be discarded as what was morally suspect.

9Beside the questions of harmony and melody, that of imitation in vocal music was also central to the definition of agreeableness as opposed to noise. For Kames, there was no doubt that music and words should “go naturally into union” and that “dissimilar emotions, forc’d into union by these causes intimately connected, [obscured] each other, and [were] also unpleasant by discordance”.11 In other words, if the music did not match (or “imitate”) the meaning of the words, not only did it fail to raise the same emotions as those expressed by the words, but the result was altogether discordant. Music had no autonomy and it was supposed to follow the lead of the words. But since music must in all cases be “pleasant”, this conversely limited the kind of lyrics that could be set to it:

Music accordingly is a very improper companion for sentiments of malice, cruelty, envy, peevishness, or of any other dissocial passion [...]. Music is a companion no less improper for the description of any disagreeable object, such as that of Polyphemus in the third book of the Aeneid, or that of Sin in the second book of Paradise Lost: the horror of the object described and the pleasure of the music, would be highly discordant.12

10Incidentally, Handel himself was confronted to that very conundrum when he set Acis and Galatea (on a libretto by John Gay) to music, as the piece includes music for the character of Polyphemus. Interestingly, he chose to paint Polyphemus as a grotesque and rustic character, rather than highlight the horror he was supposed to embody. According to Kames’s conception, in any case, music was better associated with soft emotions, either “expressive of mirth and jollity”, tenderness, love or melancholy, for “music must be pleasant, or it is not music”.13 In such a construct, music and poetry checked each other and vocal music consequently appeared to have a narrower field of expression than poetry. Contrary to the latter, vocal music could not express the full range of all emotions, for some emotions required the composer to resort to sounds akin to noise in order to translate into music the horror these emotions inspired. James Beattie agreed with Lord Kames when he wrote: “Now, all the affections, over which music has any power, are of the agreeable kind. And therefore, in this art, no imitations of natural sound or motion, but such as tend to inspire agreeable affections, ought ever to find a place.”14

11In his Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations (1749), David Hartley approached the question of sound and noise in terms of physical vibrations. For him, “The Doctrine of Vibrations seems to require that each Pain should differ from the corresponding and opposite Pleasure, not in Kind, but in Degree only; i.e. that Pain should be nothing more than Pleasure itself, carried beyond a due Limit”.15 He eventually deduced from this that “all very loud noises are disagreeable” because they cause a “violent agitation of the Membrana Tympani” and that “single musical, i.e. uniform Sounds, whether vocal or instrumental, are pleasant in proportion to their Loudness, provided this be not excessive”.16 Hartley thus provided a scientific explanation to support the dominant aesthetic discourse by showing that all excessive sounds were unpleasant and painful, and, conversely, soft and uniform ones were pleasant. “Harsh, irregular, and violently loud noises add something to the disagreeableness of the objects and ideas, with which they are often associated”, he explained, whereas “moderate and tolerably uniform Sounds” always tend to please us.17 Thus, interestingly, Hartley’s “scientific” observations agreed with the conclusions reached by most British writers on taste, ethics and aesthetics in the eighteenth century, according to which moderation should be valued above any kind of excess, a condition necessary for a given sound to qualify as “musical” as opposed to a-musical noise.18 A few decades later, Alexander Gerard was to write:

Single sounds are either loud or low, acute or grave, slender or full, even or broken. To these qualities attention must be paid, if we would please the ear. If sounds are too low, they do not strike with enough force to gratify: if too loud, they confound us. Great acuteness lacerates the organ: and an excess of gravity renders the impression too dull and spiritless to please. Exility hinders sound from sufficiently filling the ear, and thence is attended with a perception of meanness and futility: but full and swelling notes, by occupying its whole expansion, acquire grandeur, and inspire delight. Broken sounds grate the ear, by their harsh inequalities: smoothness and evenness is necessary to prevent their being disagreeable.19

12All these examples show that for most British theorists of the eighteenth century, whether they approached the question in aesthetic, social or physical terms, musical sound had to remain within the confines of moderation and pleasantness in order to be compatible with the demands of art and not to be considered as noise. In the same way, Mozart’s father advised his son that “passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed in such a way as to excite displeasure” and that “music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words, must never cease to be music”.20

13This insistence upon moderation, however, clashed with the tenets of the discourse on the sublime that emerged concomitantly – particularly after the publication of Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). In his discussion of the sublime, Edmund Burke listed the sounds or natural noises which he thought were apt to produce sublime effects: the “striking of a great clock”, a “single stroke on a drum” or “the successive firing of cannon at a distance.” These were all “single sound[s] of some strength” repeated after intervals,21 which were likely to produce “a grand effect”, he explained. Following a radical dichotomy, Burke pitted the beautiful against the sublime. Consequently, the beautiful in music could not bear very loud or harsh sounds, which were the preserve of the sublime:

The beautiful in music will not bear that loudness and strength of sounds, which may be used to raise other passions; nor notes, which are shrill, or harsh, or deep; it agrees best with such as are clear, even, smooth, and weak [...]. Great variety, and quick transitions from one measure or tone to another, are contrary to the genius of the beautiful in music. Such transitions often excite mirth, or other sudden and tumultuous passions; but not that sinking, that melting, that languor, which is the characteristical effect of the beautiful, as it regards every sense.22

14But Burke was clearly not interested in music, which he easily relinquished to the feminine sphere of the beautiful. Those who were interested in it, on the other hand, and who agreed with Burke’s rating the sublime as a higher form of emotive and aesthetic experience, had to find ways of reconciling music with the production and perception of sounds capable of striking the fancy with particular force. Theories of the sublime effected a shift from the object (i.e. music) to the subject (i.e. the listener). Music was now “freed”, as it were, from its dependence upon mathematics, and since terror was thought to be the main cause of the sublime, there was a great temptation to suggest sublime terror in music by way of imitating natural noises. This, however, clashed with the other aspect of the theory of expression which directed that whatever was harsh or discordant could not claim the title of “music”, as we have seen.

15In his thorough discussion of music, Beattie’s efforts to tackle the question of the nature of sounds are a good illustration of this theoretical and epistemological crisis. His starting-point is that “Sounds are disagreeable, which hurt the ear by their shrillness, or which cannot be heard without painful attention on account of their exility”.23 The focus is clearly on the listener’s pleasure or discomfort: whatever is painful has no place in music. Consequently,

Sweetness of tone, and beauty of shape and colour, produce a placid acquiescence of mind, accompanied with some degree of joy, which plays in a gentle smile upon the countenance of the hearer and beholder. Equable sounds, like smooth and level surfaces, are in general more pleasing than such as are rough, uneven, or interrupted.24

16It is interesting to note that Beattie attempted to bind together “the hearer and beholder”, that is, sounds and visible objects. He was working out a general theory of perception that might apply to both the visual arts and music. It is not surprising, therefore, that he should have attempted to find the musical equivalent of the sublime. This led him to investigate the imitative powers of music. He drew up a list of the kind of sounds that he reckoned music could, or could not imitate:

The song of certain birds, the murmur of a stream, the shouts of multitudes, the tumult of a storm, the roar of thunder, or a chime of bells, are sounds connected with agreeable or sublime affections, and reconcilable both with melody and with harmony, and may therefore be imitated, when the artist has occasion for them: but the crowing of cocks, the barking of dogs, the mewing of cats, the grunting of swine, the gabbling of geese, the cackling of a hen, the braying of an ass, the creaking of a saw, or the rumbling of a cart-wheel, would render the best music ridiculous.25

17Noise appears here basically linked to the animal, untutored world, as opposed to agreeable or sublime sounds, which are defined by their ability to be “reconcilable both with melody and with harmony.” At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the rather conservative composer William Crotch was to takeissue with Haydn’s imitations in The Creation (Die Schöpfung) for very similar reasons:

But when composers (however eminent) endeavour to represent, by musical notes, frogs hopping, arrows flying, a rainbow, a lamp in a high tower, the depths of the sea, the flight of an eagle, great whales, crawling worms, tigers bounding, the places of the stag and horse, flakes of snow, forked lightning, a dog running over the fields, the report of the gun, and the fall of the wounded bird, we must surely acknowledge that they have exceeded the true limits of musical expression.26

18Significantly, however, one notices that Beattie introduced the notion of “sublime affections”, which ushered in a critical disruption in the commonly accepted idea of the pleasantness of music. Just as previous authors defined the sublime in nature in terms of the emotion prompted in the beholder’s mind by great landscapes, Beattie suggested that “loudandmellowsounds, like those of thunder, of a storm, and of the full organ, elevate the mind through the ear; even as a vast magnitude yields a pleasurable astonishment, when contemplated by the eye”27. Apart from the organ, he chose natural sounds as indices of the sublime, for only what comes from nature itself was deemed acceptable. The notion of “pleasurable astonishment” is at the very heart of the theory of the sublime: for man to experience the true sublime, the mind must be overwhelmed by something too big for its capacity, as Addison and Burke had explained. In the same perspective, Webb noted that “a growth or climax in sounds exalts and dilates the spirits, and is therefore a constant source of the sublime”.28 Whereas it was now thought ridiculous to imitate natural noises, one expected music to create as strong an effect upon the hearer’s mind as the most powerful and striking of natural sounds. Of all the composers of the period, Handel was of course the one who best managed to astonish his audience, in particular in his vast oratorio choruses, as was acknowledged in numerous contemporary accounts, and his very practice may have been influential in the working out of the theory of the musical sublime by various authors in the second half of the eighteenth century.

19Beattie and Webb grounded their theories partly on Charles Avison’s Essay on Musical Expression (1752). Avison explained that “Air and Harmony [were] never to be deserted for the Sake of Expression” and that, consequently, not all imitations of natural sounds were acceptable for “shocking Sounds cannot be called Musical Expression”. The aim of musical expression was not to “excite a reflex Act of the Understanding” but rather “to affect the Heart and raise the Passions of the Soul”.29 Charles Avison envisaged the possibility that terror might be a source of pleasure in musical expression, provided it was through a mechanism of illusion: “The Terror raised by Musical Expression, is always of that grateful Kind, which arises from an Impression of something terrible to the Imagination, but which is immediately dissipated, by a subsequent Conviction, that the Danger is entirely imaginary”.30

20The discourse on expression spearheaded by Charles Avison and taken up by sundry authors after him opened up new critical vistas. At the end of the eighteenth century, as music became more and more autonomous and theories of musical imitation were gradually dismissed,31 the desire to “raise the Passions of the Soul” and obtain great, sublime effects encouraged both musicians and theoreticians to make room in music for sounds that would previously have been considered noise.

21In France, Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747) had had the intuition of the possibility of using noise to expressive ends in his extraordinary prelude to Les Élémens, entitled “Le cahos”, in 1738. In Britain, one observes something similar on the occasion of the Great Handel Commemoration that took place in Westminster Abbey in 1784. The various accounts of the Commemoration reveal an attitude towards the sublime that is markedly different from what would have been possible a few decades earlier. To begin with, the amateur musician John Marsh explained the impact that the tuning of the orchestra had upon him even before the concert started:


The orchestra began filling apace & Mr Bates made his first appearance at the organ, soon after which the first tuning began, which (with the fine Canterbury organ, double drums, trumpets, trombones & multitude of violins violoncellos doubles basses etc.) produced an amazingly grand effect.32

23Marsh was clearly overwhelmed by the pure sonorities of the band. The “grand effect” was obviously, in this particular instance, neither the result of harmony nor that of melody, but of disordered, haphazard, individual sounds made by the various instruments tuning up and coalescing into some nondescript body of sonorous texture. Even in the absence of organised musical discourse and, paradoxically, at the very moment when the orchestra was precisely not in tune and was thus discordant, Marsh was ravished by what was commonly considered noise. What marked such noise as “grand” depended only on quantity, not quality. Marsh, no doubt, approached the mass of sound produced by so many musicians gathered together in a vast resonant building exactly in terms of Burke’s sublime experience of natural sounds – the sound of a storm or a cannon being shot in the distance. Paradoxically, sublime sound (or noise) was here divorced from music proper.

24It is interesting to read what Marsh further wrote about the concert itself:

The first movement of this [Coronation Anthem] (or introductory symphony) I had always before thought, for want of a sufficient body of harmony to support the arpeggios of the fiddles to be rather tedious, & (after the first 10 or 12 bars) uninteresting & monotonous, but with the band now engaged in it I thought nothing co’d exceed the grandeur of the effect. This symphony with its beautiful modulation having continued some time at length the whole force of the orchestra with all the voices, full organ, trumpets, trombones, double drums, etc. burst upon us all at once, in the words “Zadoc the Priest” etc. the force and effect of w’ch almost took me off my legs and caused the blood to forsake my cheeks. As to the succeeding movement “And the people rejoic’d” etc. with the following chorus “God save the King” it was all ecstasy […].33

25The size of the orchestra and choir constituted the real cause of Marsh’s astonishment, which manifested itself in his physical reaction (“almost took me off my legs and caused the blood to forsake my cheeks”). Paradoxically, Marsh’s enthusiasm was not caused by Handel’s composition of the Coronation Anthem, of which he said that he usually found it “uninteresting & monotonous”, but purely by the sheer volume of sound. One sees therefore how much such a conception differs from the moderate, neo-classical stance still adhered to by such writers as Avison, Webb or Beattie.

26Fittingly, this is confirmed by Charles Burney’s own “official” account of the performances at the Handel Commemoration. Like Marsh, Burney underlined the fact that even the tuning of the orchestra was capable of producing musical pleasure:

But the effects were not rendered more new, grand, and surprising, by the united force of the whole, than sweet, distinct, and audible, by the single efforts of individuals […]. Indeed, the effects of this amazing band, not only overset all the predictions of ignorance and sarcasm, but the conjectures of theory and experience. By some it was predicted, that an orchestra so enormous could never be in tune; but even tuning, to so noble an organ, was, for once, grand, and productive of pleasing sensations.34

27Noise – in this case, the tuning of the orchestra – introduced elements of naturalism in music but at the same time separated it from its usual locus. Burney thus faced a critical dilemma. Now, even though size, strength, power and sheer numbers seemed to constitute the first cause of amazement, the former conceptions whereby music could not in any way be reconciled with any unpleasant impression still dominated Burney’s discourse. The message he tried to convey was, if not ambiguous, at least paradoxical: on the one hand, he insisted on the a-musical quality of the concert; it was the loudness of the whole that he stressed, as something unique, unheard of and exceptional. On the other, he made sure to assert that that multiplicity of voices and instruments and the loudness of the sounds produced by such a powerful band remained within the confines of moderation and musical taste:

By others it was expected that the band would be so loud, that whoever heard this performance, would never hear again; however, the sound of these multiplied tones arrived as mild and benign at the ears of the audience, as they could from the feeble efforts of a few violins, in a common concert-room. And, lastly, that from the immense size of the building, no single voice had the least chance of being heard by those who had places remote from the orchestra; but, luckily, this was so far from being true, that not a vocal breathing, however feeble by nature, or softened by art, was inaudible in any part of the immense space through which it diffused itself in all directions.35

As this Commemoration is not only the first instance of such magnitude being assembled together, but of any band, at all numerous, performing in a similar situation, without the assistance of a Manu-ductor, to regulate the measure, the performances in Westminster-Abbey may be safely pronounced, no less remarkable for the multiplicity of voices and instruments employed, than for accuracy and precision. When all the wheels of that huge machine, the Orchestra, were in motion, the effect resembled clock-work in every thing, but want of feeling and expression.

And, as the power of gravity and attraction in bodies is proportioned to their mass and density, so it seems as if the magnitude of this band had commanded and impelled adhesion and obedience, beyond that of any other of inferior force. The pulsations in every limb, and ramifications of veins and arteries in an animal, could not be more reciprocal, isochronous, and under the regulation of the heart, than the members of this body of musicians under that of the Conductor and Leader. The totality of sound seemed to proceed from one voice, and one instrument; and its powers produced, not only new and exquisite sensations in judges and lovers of the art, but were felt by those who had never received pleasure from Music before.36

28Tellingly, at about the same time, J. Donaldson was reflecting on the contrast between soft, mellow sounds on the one hand, and noise or discord on the other. What is striking in this instance is that he was far less judgmental or prescriptive than Webb or Beattie had been a few decades earlier. Although he conceded that the harsher sounds “deserve the name of noise or discord, rather than of music”, he in the main adopted a descriptive stance, aligning various types of emotions with sounds of different descriptions, instead of rejecting some as incompatible with music. Various kinds of emotions or sentiments corresponded, therefore, to various kinds of sounds:

Of sounds, the mellow, soft, and gentle, are the most pleasing to sense, and best adapted to express the gentle [sic] of sentiment. Sweetly modulated whispers, are the language of the delicious passion. There is a tone of sound, as well as a tint of colour, that is suited to terror and despair; resembling, as it were, the pale and livid complexion… And there is a light which may be said to counterfeit a gloom; – a darkness visible; so there is a voice analogous; as shriek, – faint, shrill, expressive of despondence.

The most refined melody is that which accords with gracefulness of sentiment; it is chiefly employed in soothing the turbulent, and exciting the gentler emotions. The ruder passions are roused by something that deserves the name of noise or discord, rather than of music. As the violent emotions increase, sensibility is diminished; as the gentler ones succeed, sentiment is improved.

In common discourse, which treats of indifferent subjects, and consists mostly of narrative, the voice naturally tends to a settled monotony, or at best rises to a sort of recitative; as conversation becomes more animated, the variations of voice are proportionally increased. Artificial music is an imitation of these natural variations, as they are more or less expressive of passion, or of all of those tender depressions and rapturous elevations of the soul, when she pours herself forth in generous ecstasy: those notes and combinations which please the ear, being adapted to the pleasing of passion; the sad and discordant moods, as in the passions themselves, to set off the more melodious and cheerful: for our joys are continually mingled with abatement or sorrow; and are best perceived by a certain degree of contrast; gravity of sound being an approach to silence, as shade to darkness, and as slowness of motion is a drawing nearer to rest. We cannot judge of any thing but by relation, and it is in the changes of things that we perceive them.37

29The attraction toward pure sound effect so evidently expressed by Marsh and Burney about the Handel Commemoration was eventually to make its way into musical composition proper. Haydn’s so-called “London symphonies”, composed between 1792 and 1795, are a case in point. Although they remain essentially within the confines of the “beautiful” and “pleasurable”, they nevertheless toy with the temptation of noise. For instance, the “Surprise Symphony” contains a sudden fortissimo chord at the end of the repeat of the pianissimo theme of the exposition in the second movement in variation-form. Haydn himself explained that he was “interested in surprising the public with something new”.38 Contemporary critics wrote that the work was “simple, profound, and sublime” and “striking in effect.” As for the “Drum-roll Symphony”, premiered at the King’s Theatre in 1795, it required an unusually large orchestra for the time, consisting of about sixty players. It starts with a simple, almost “a-musical” drum-roll, as its name indicates – a striking effect, once again, that is not imitative in the least, but surely “expressive.” The “Military” symphony draws its name from the second movement with fanfares written for C-trumpets and percussion effects. It requires a richer instrumentation than the other movements, with divided violas, clarinets, triangle, cymbals and bass drum, and concludeswith an extended coda featuring a bugle call for solo trumpet, a timpani roll and a loud outburst in A flat major. One reviewer wrote that it evoked the “hellish roar of war increas[ing] to a climax of horrid sublimity!”39

30Charles Rosen remarks that none of “the slow introductions of the London Symphonies (eleven out of the twelve begin with one) […] overstep the limits of being only a stepping-stone to a movement of more pronounced character”. He also notes about the “new dramatic role of the introduction” to Quartet op. 71 no. 3 that it “has here become a single, brusque chord” which “creates expectancy”.40 The attempt to introduce sublime “noises”, as powerful as those found in nature, yet of a different kind, leads the composer to create pure sound effects more or less devoid of identifiable musical contents: the sheer texture of orchestral sonorities and a sense of expectation followed by surprise evoke an atmosphere that is, as it were, outside the confines of music.

31I have argued that the theory of the sublime was essentially responsible for, and instrumental in, the growing temptation – both theoretical and practical – to include noise as a powerful expressive means in music. However, as long as the model for all music remained the human voice, as Beattie claimed, the sublime, which implied excess, was partly kept in check. The shift of music away from the mimetic system conversely implied that instrumental music could acquire greater autonomy as the best means to translate emotions and passions.41 “The impressions made on us by musical sounds, are certainly more lasting than the impressions made by words, as we know that we often retain every note of the melody of a song, when every line of the poetry is forgotten”, Richard Eastcock noted in 1793.42The departure from imitation suggested that music was essentially vague, imprecise, indefinite, but capable of acting powerfully on the imagination, which in turn enabled pure sonorous effects – including those akin to noise – to make their way into it. However, these were to be only brief moments, for the dominant conception of order, clarity and pleasantness necessarily harnessed such bold expressive strikes: it was still too early to yield fully to the temptation of noise.

32While the powerful, sublime effects obtained by Handel were thus still controlled by a strong (formal and ideological) precept of moderation – as aptly illustrated by his setting of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – later eighteenth-century composers such as Haydn, and pre-romantic ones such as Beethoven, were to investigate new vistas further. Lewis Lockwood remarks that the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven”s Ninth Symphony (1824) is a “passage unparalleled in fury and power in the whole history of orchestral music up to this time”43 – something that only a greater acceptance of sound volume and sheer effect could have made possible. Gradually turning their backs on classical aesthetic codes, romantic composers felt freer to yield to the temptation of sheer noise in various ways. This was a slow evolution, the idea of which could be adumbrated in the great Handel Commemoration of 1784, as I have suggested.

33If one fast-forwards to more recent times, it is possible to see how noise was eventually to fully make its way into music. When György Ligeti composed his provocative Poème Symphoniquefor 100 Metronomes(1962), in which melody and harmony have totally disappeared and surrendered to mechanical noise and complex, haphazard rhythmic patterns, he was pushing to the limit, and yielding to, the temptation of noise as an expressive mode. After all the metronomes have been set to tick together at the same instant but each at a different pace, they gradually leave off ticking one after the other and the piece ends when, after ticking alone for a few beats, the last metronome eventually stops and leaves room to oppressing silence. This dark (as well as humorous) reflection on the essence of music thus opens out on a form of “horrid sublimity”44when silence emerges out of the initial confusion of mechanical noises, leaving the listener as it were confronted with a sudden sense of terror, so that the piece can arguably be interpreted as a “reflection of the monstrous Nazi mechanism of extermination”45. Such a radical deconstruction of music would of course have been quite impossible in the Enlightenment, but it is nonetheless fascinating to see how the possible interference of noise with musical expression, and temptation thereof, were somehow intuited in the last decades of the eighteenth century.

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