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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

George Onslow (1784-1853) : the "French Beethoven" by Baudime Jam
(This article was presented to MusicWeb and was unsolicited)

Biography

George Onslow is a very special figure in the history of music: widely and unanimously acclaimed when he was alive, he is now nearly forgotten and his works, mainly devoted to string chamber music, are largely missing from the repertoire, partly due to the fact that they haven't been available in a modern edition for more than a century.

Stemming from an old aristocratic British family, several members of whom played an important part in British political life (his grand-father, first Earl of Onslow, was the Speaker of the House of Commons), George Onslow was born in Clermont-Ferrand (centre of France) in 1784. His father, Edward, had settled there after a family scandal which forced him to leave his mother country.

Quickly integrated into the Clermont nobility, the Onslows led a peaceful life until the Revolution of 1789 which jeopardised their safety. Jailed in 1793 because of his nationality and in spite of his friendship with Couthon, whose freemason brother he was, Edward Onslow was forced into exile in 1797. His first stops were Rotterdam and Hamburg. His older son, George, joined him in what became a grand study tour. Between 1798 and 1806 he studied the piano with several masters, especially Cramer, Dussek and Hüllmandel who were teaching in London. Stays in Germany and Austria enabled him to improve his training as an instrumentalist. His father’s exile ended in 1804.

Onslow did not mean to become an artist, still less a composer: studying the piano was only part of his education, as well as mathematics, history, fencing, horse riding, drawing (two of his brothers devoted themselves to painting), etc. In his parent's opinion, his musical talent was more a drawing-room gift than a professional ability. Onslow never gave a recital as a pianist: he only gave concerts in the provincial town of Clermont and then only demonstrating his gift for improvisation (which he never did in Paris), He also practised the cello as an amateur in order to be part of a quartet of friends with whom he played the masters' repertoire (Mozart, Haydn, and young Beethoven).

Onslow discovered his vocation as a composer while listening to the Overture of an opera by Méhul, called Stratonice. He was then 22 years of age. His first attempts, a set of three string quintets, were so successful that his friends, Pleyel, his publisher, and his interpreters encouraged him to persevere. Many other chamber pieces followed, but soon Onslow realized his shortcomings. This decided him on completing his theoretical knowledge which he did by studying with Anton Reicha, who was his only master in composition. His influence would be decisive aesthetically as well as stylistically.

Onslow then, launched into a brilliant career which turned him into a leading composer of musical life in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was be played by the greatest musicians of his time and his name was plaaced next to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, of whom it was said that he was the only worthy successor. Nicknamed "the French Beethoven", he was the only musician, at least in France, who devoted himself to chamber music. Composing 36 quartets and 34 quintets, Onslow left us exceptional works which supplied main European concert societies for more than fifty years. His music also enriched publishers even in the United States (Schirmer).

Onslow mainly achieved national glory in Germany where he was much admired and praised. He was famous among musicians and audiences. Mendelssohn and Schumann witnessed this live. His contemporaries admired him and he was widely published. He was also acknowledged by the world’s institutions: being made a member of most European Philharmonic societies: London in 1829 along with Mendelssohn, Rotterdam in 1834, Vienna in 1836, Rome in 1839, Florence in 1839, Cologne in 1847, Strasbourg in 1849 and Stockholm in 1851. He was elected in 1842 to the Fine Arts Academy, in particular before Berlioz.

At a time when, in Paris, vaudeville and opéra-comique were most favoured, Onslow embodied the continuity of the great classic school and represents evidence for those who claim music is decadent while musical life is "privatised". The "soirées de quatuors" of Baillot in Paris, Lindley in London and Zimmerman in Berlin were thought to be the last refuges of "true music". Onslow became the herald of those who defended tradition and instrumental excellence against the drifts of romances, quadrilles and other entertainment compositions and salon effusions.

Onslow composed no less than three operas though he did this out of curiosity and because he wanted to enhance his fame: The Alcade of Vega, 1824 ; The Pedlar, 1827 ; The Duke of Guise, 1837. Although these works were given at the "salle Favart", those who witnessed their premieres unanimously declared that they could have been given at the "Opera". Onslow's lyric scores were dense and unusually complex for the audience. Their librettos were not of great value (a inhibiting defect in those days, especially in France). The critics loved them and Berlioz himself enthusiastically defended the Duke of Guise.

In his instrumental and orchestral music (4 symphonies), Onslow announces romanticism by the richness of his harmony, the preponderance of chromaticisms, his storm-like tormented inspiration and the fervour of his lyrical themes. One of the reasons why interpreters gave up playing his quartets and quintets was because they were so difficult to perform.

His life was mainly quiet and free from anxiety. On one occasion he was victim of a serious accident: during a hunting trip in 1829 he was badly injured by a shot. He could have died and became deaf in the left ear as a result of this accident which inspired him to write the three last movements of his quintet opus 38, entitled "The bullet".

Although he had a brilliant international career and though he was repeatedly in concert demand Onslow always remained faithful to Auvergne. Born in Clermont-Ferrand, he also died in the same town. This loyalty put him apart from artists who moved to Paris. He was deeply attached to his hometown and well-known for his generosity (charity concerts, help to poor people, etc.). By his courteous and gracious behaviour, Onslow gave Clermont all the prestige of his name, but his music was never really appreciated and understood. Onslow was very involved in the modest musical life of his province: his most important project was the foundation of a Philharmonic Society in 1839.

He was a respected and admired castle owner: a real gentleman-farmer, as talented running his properties as in negociating contracts with Breitkopf & Härtel or Schlesinger. Although he had a property in the countryside (castle of Chalendrat, then castle of Bellerive), he always kept his apartments in Clermont: first in Michel de l'Hospital square (called Wood market square at the begenning of the 19th century), then number 2 Blaise Pascal street where he died on October 3rd 1853. He rests at the Carmes cemetary, next to some of the well-know families in Auvergne.

Baudime Jam (translated by Patrick Marcel)

 

 

Gallery of the modern lyric composers by A. Maurin (1844). From left to right, 1st raw: Halévy, Meyerbeer, Spontini, Rossini ; 2nd raw: Berlioz, Donizetti, Onslow, Auber, Mendelssohn, Berton.

Signature of George Onslow

 

 

Baudime Jam is the author of the complete biography of George Onslow (564 pages - ISBN: 2-9520076-0-8) for which he gathered a great deal of documents in France, Germany and England. They enable us, at last, to know the life of this forgotten composer in all its aspects, with great details, and a relevant aesthetic and historical sense of analysis.. This book is entirely based on original sources which were mostly never published (letters, readings of the French and European press, writings, iconography, etc.). It is meant to be a reference, not only on this composer who deserves to be seriously rediscovered, but also on one of the richest times in the history of modern music.

Onslow's career has to be linked with the great questionings which upset musicians, journalists and audience in his days. Studying his life means diving back into the deepest changes which modified the European artistic landscape at the beginning of the 19th century. Baudime Jam is also responsible for the first full critical edition of the George Onslow's 36 string quartets, which had been unavailable for more than a century. This collection has been prefaced by maestro Serge Collot (Parrenin quartet, Trio français, CNSM of Paris, etc.) - excerpt: "This edition of the George Onslow's chamber music arrives just in time to enlarge the repertoire with an important missing link.

This is a very complex task as the sources are very divergent. I trust completely Mr Baudime Jam to fulfil this assignment and I thank him heartily for this achievement." This editorial event should enable the reintroduction of this chamber music treasure into the repertory. Several editions of the time have been studied and compared, so that, in some cases, two different versions of the same movement could be offered.

Baudime Jam has been invited to deliver a number of lectures in order to introduce his works who were supported among others by the French Ministry of Culture: among these lectures, one can mention those which took place at the castle Chalendrat (September 28th), in Clermont-Ferrand for the Alliance Française (October 16th), and at the University of La Sorbonne (Paris) on November 6th.

As the author of this biography and editor of the Onslow's chamber music, but also as a lecturer and an interpreter (member of the Prima Vista quartet), and as the artistic director and founder of the festival "Les soirées Onslow dans les châteaux d'Auvergne", Baudime Jam is currently known as the fullest Onslow specialist.

The biography and the first book of three quartets (opus 9, including the beautiful variations on "God save the King"), were published in September 2003. They are available on many important websites, but also at the "Éditions du mélophile". Inquieries should be made in French, German or English at: melophile@free.fr

The first book of the complete quartets' edition (N.B.: it is volume III because the 12 volumes are not being published in chronological order).

George Onslow website



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