Notes and Editorial Reviews
Here now the life and times of George Onslow (1784–1853). He was born into wealth and the aristocracy. His father was a member of the English nobility, his mother, French. His birthplace, Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne, was also where he died at the age of 69. In between, he led the life of a gentleman landowner and farmer who neither aspired to be a composer nor needed to earn a living at it. Largely self-taught—his only formal lessons in composition were with Anton Reicha—Onslow discovered early that he had a natural talent for music, which he pursued mainly because he found it intellectually stimulating. Though he became quite accomplished at the piano after studying with J. B. Cramer and Dussek in London, he never appeared formally in
recital, preferring instead to hone his skill on the cello in order to play in an amateur quartet that met to survey the works of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. Not all, however, was the life of a pampered, protected aristocratic prodigy. Political allegiances and alliances following the French Revolution sent Onslow’s father Edward, first to prison, and then into seven years of exile in the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, where the young George joined him for what turned out to be a kind of grand musical tour: nothing like the entitlement of nobility to turn exile into a holiday.
How extraordinary that our “chance” composer should have “accidentally” written four symphonies, four operas—so obscure they’re not even listed in my encyclopedia of opera (The Alcade of Vega, The Two Uncles, The Peddler, and Guise or the States of Blois)—36 string quartets, 34 string quintets, a wind quintet, sextet, septet, and nonet, 10 piano trios, six violin sonatas, three cello sonatas, dozens of solo piano pieces, and the list goes on. One has to wonder if the 15-year-old Mendelssohn was familiar with Onslow’s 1806 The Two Uncles when he made his own early attempt at opera with The Two Nephews.
Onlsow must have been quite perplexed, possibly even embarrassed, by all of the fuss. He was admired by Beethoven and Schubert (the latter modeling his famous C-Major Two Cello Quintet after those by Onlsow); Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Schumann praised him; Breitkopf and Härtel competed with Kistner to publish his works; and he was elected to succeed Cherubini as director of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. So what happened? Well, according to at least one source, “perhaps no composer, more than George Onslow, illustrates the fickleness of fame.” Following World War I, Onslow’s music disappeared into a black hole. Not even the bicentennial of his birth in 1984 stirred much interest. And although a handful of recordings of Onslow’s works—mainly his chamber music—does exist, most of his output still remains unrecorded and public performances are a relative rarity.
Onslow is generally made out to be a French composer, his first name frequently being given as Georges, which is not correct. He has also on occasion been referred to as “the French Beethoven,” which erroneously leads, I believe, to certain expectations of his music that are ultimately unfulfilled. If one had to place Onslow stylistically, it seems to me that he fits most comfortably into the mold of Spohr (1784–1859), with whom he was exactly contemporaneous, and Mendelssohn, but lacking the brilliant virtuosic exhibitionism and daring chromaticism of the former, and the sheer genius, spontaneity, and perfection of the latter. Listening to Onslow’s music, attractive as it is on the surface, one begins to sense a certain salon character about it that gives sentimental pleasure but doesn’t evoke strong emotional reactions. We are not transported to Olympus.
The two string quintets on this disc are for the unusual combination of a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) plus double bass. The first of them, in C Minor, op. 38, nicknamed “The Bullet,” is autobiographical in nature. Please, no Vice President Cheney jokes. In 1829, Onslow was accidentally wounded by a shooting companion while on a hunting outing. The bullet struck Onslow in the left (face) cheek, causing permanent hearing damage to his left ear. His wound still dressed in blood-soaked bandages, he began work on the quintet, each movement of which is meant to represent various phases of the incident, his convalescence, and recovery. If you were totally ignorant of this upon encountering the piece for the first time, what you would hear is a beautifully crafted chamber work for strings, punctuated by occasional dramatic flashes in the minor mode, but in the main upbeat, springy, and not all unlike something Mendelssohn might have written while he was preoccupied doing something else.
The second quintet here, also in C Minor, is darker and altogether more urgent sounding. Mendelssohn again comes to mind, but this time a more mature Mendelssohn. Of course, considering that Onslow came first, perhaps we really ought to be saying that it was Onslow who influenced Mendelssohn, and not the other way around. But since most readers will be familiar with Mendelssohn and not with Onslow, as a point of reference it is easier to say that if you are fond of Mendelssohn’s chamber works for strings, Onslow’s are sure to appeal to you.
The Quintett Momento Musicale is an ensemble new to me. It is comprised of five young Leipzig musicians, all of them players in the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester and Opera House. Though I do have recordings of other works by Onslow in my collection, this is the first of these particular opus numbers, so I have no basis for comparisons; but it is hard to imagine these pieces being played any better than they are here. This is a wonderful recording on all counts, and it is an excellent acquisition for anyone with an abiding passion for early-Romantic chamber music. Very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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