Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Abel, Karl Friedrich

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ABEL, KARL FRIEDRICH (1725–1787), a celebrated player on the viol-di-gamba, was the son of a musician, Christian Ferdinand Abel. He was born at Cöthen in 1725, received his first musical education from his father, and subsequently entered the Thomas Schule at Leipzig, where he was probably a pupil of J. S. Bach. In 1748 he entered the court band at Dresden, remaining there until 1758. He left Dresden ‘with three thalers in his pocket and six symphonies in his bag,’ and his talent as a performer maintained him during his wanderings until he reached England in 1759. Here he found a patron in the Duke of York, and on the establishment of the queen's private band was appointed one of her chamber musicians, with a salary of 200l. a year. At his first concert Abel was announced to play his own compositions on the viol-di-gamba, the harpsichord, and an instrument of his own invention, which he called the Pentachord; but after 1765 he only performed on the viol-di-gamba. On the arrival in 1762 of John Christian Bach the two musicians joined forces, and in 1765 started their celebrated concerts. Abel was in Paris in 1772 and also in 1783, in which year he returned to Germany to visit his brother Leopold August, who was also a musician of eminence. He returned to London in 1785, and occasionally played at concerts until his death, which took place, hastened by his habits of intemperance, June 20, 1787. Abel's compositions chiefly consist of instrumental music. As a player he was remarkable for the beauty of his execution on an instrument which was even in his days almost obsolete, but to which he was nevertheless devoted. It is said that he declared the viol-di-gamba to be ‘the king of instruments;’ and when challenged to play by Richards, the leader of Drury Lane orchestra, exclaimed, ‘What, challenge Abel! No, no, there is but one God and one Abel!’ He was a great admirer of the fine arts, and completely covered the walls of his rooms with drawings by Gainsborough, which the painter used to give him in exchange for his music. In person he was big and portly. He was twice painted by Gainsborough; a portrait of him by Robineau is at Hampton Court Palace, and another by an anonymous artist in the Music School at Oxford.

[Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, i. 4; Mendel's Musikalisches Conversations-Lexicon, i. 5; Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, i. 13; P. Spitta's J. S. Bach, i. 616, 985; Burney's History of Music, iv. 678; Busby's History of Music, ii. 517; H. Angelo's Reminiscences, i. 19, 58, 184, 187, 190, 457; W. T. Parke's Musical Memoirs, i. 53, 62; Gent. Mag. lvii. part i. 549; European Magazine, v. 366; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. ix. 39.]

W. B. S.