Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Abell, John

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ABELL, JOHN (1660?–1716?), a celebrated lutenist and alto singer, was sworn a ‘gentleman of his majesty's chapel extraordinary’ 1 May 1679. He was sent to Italy by Charles II to cultivate his voice, and returned to England in 1681–2, when John Evelyn recorded of him in his Diary (27 Jan.): ‘I never heard a more excellent voice; one would have sworn it had been a woman's, it was so high, and so well and skilfully managed.’ Between 1679 and 1688 he received from the crown large sums of ‘bounty money;’ but at the Revolution he was discharged from the Chapel Royal as a papist, and went to Holland and Germany, where he supported himself by his talents as a singer and player on the lute. In the course of his travels he went so far as Warsaw, where it is said that he refused a request of the King of Poland to sing before the court. The day after this refusal he was ordered to appear at the palace. On his arrival, Abell sat on a chair in the middle of a large hall. No sooner was he seated than the chair was drawn up into the air until it faced a gallery in which were the king and his courtiers. At the same time a number of bears were turned into the hall, and Abell was given the alternative of singing or being lowered to the wild beasts. The terrified singer promptly chose the former course, and afterwards said that he had never sung better in his life. In 1696 overtures were made to him through Daniel Purcell to return to England and sing on the stage at a salary of 500l. a year; but in 1698 he was still abroad (at Aix-la-Chapelle), though he offered to return and sing at the opera in English, Italian, Spanish, or Latin, for 400l. per annum, provided his debts were paid. In 1698 and 1699 he occupied the post of intendant at Cassel; but he seems soon after to have returned to England, for Congreve heard him sing in 1700, and in 1701 he published two collections of songs, prefixed to one of which is a poem in which he states that—

    After a twelve years' industry and toil,
    Abell, at last, has reach'd his native soil.

He published a song on Queen Anne's coronation, and a few manuscript compositions by him are to be found in contemporary collections. The date of his death is unknown; but in his later years he is said to have been at Cambridge, and in 1716 he gave a concert at Stationers' Hall. Mattheson says that Abell possessed some secret by which he preserved his pure alto voice unimpaired until old age; his extreme carefulness in matters of diet is recorded by the same author.

[Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 5; Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal (Camden Society's Publications, 1872), pp. 17, 129; Evelyn's Diary (ed. 1850), ii. 163; Hawkins's History of Music (ed. 1853), ii. 725; Congreve's Literary Relics, p. 322; Tom Brown's Letters from the Dead to the Living (Works, 2nd ed. 1707), ii. 36; Mattheson's Der vollkommene Kapellmeister (1739); Mendel's Musikalisches Conversations-Lexicon, vol. i.; Ellis MSS. (Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 28883, 57); British Museum Catalogue; Catalogue of Library of Royal College of Music.]

W. B. S.