The Kennedy Center

Carl Friedrich Abel


Composer Carl Friedrich Abel was born on December 22, 1723, into a family of accomplished musicians in the east central German city of Köthen.  His grandfather was a composer and bass violist as was his father; his older brother, a violinist.  Carl learned to play the bass viol or viola da gamba (leg viol) from his father.


Following his father’s death in 1787, Carl traveled to Leipzig to study with his father’s friend, J. S. Bach. Although formal training with Bach cannot be verified, Carl was connected to members of the Bach family throughout his life. Abel was appointed court gamba player in the Dresden Court orchestra in 1743 where Wilhelm Bach, eldest son of Johann Sebastian, was organist.  It was in Dresden that Carl began to compose. Abel remained with the orchestra until 1758 when he left Dresden and settled in London, where he gave his first public concert in April of 1759.


In 1760, Abel was granted permission to publish and sell his compositions. In 1762, he met and began an association with Johann Christian Bach, out of which arose concerts of their original compositions.  These evenings, the Bach-Abel concert series, entertained Londoners from January 1765 to May 1781. 


During this time, the two musicians taught and mentored many young musicians from the Continent.  Although both were close to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it was Abel’s Opus 7 No. 6 that young Mozart chose to copy for his study.  The work was so similar to Mozart’s compositions that it was credited to him for many years. 


Following Bach’s early death, Abel completed their musical obligations for that season. His last concert performance as a gamba virtuoso was in a benefit appearance on May 21, 1787.  On his death on June 20, 1787, Carl Friedrich Abel was described as the last great gamba player in Europe.


Abel’s compositions were primarily instrumental and reflected his genial, energetic personality.  He wrote over 200 compositions including sonatas for the viola da gamba, cello, harpsichord, and flute, concerti for flute, and forty-six symphonies, nearly all of which were published across Europe during his lifetime.

Carl Abel