The independent German label MDG continue their survey of Onslow’s
string quintets. Highly regarded by the music world in
his day before falling into relative obscurity there is
now widespread and growing interest in the music of French
composer Onslow which has revealed the scope and beauty
of his works. Clearly MDG have taken on a substantial commitment
as the prolific Onslow wrote the staggering number of 34
String Quintets. The first two volumes comprise Opp. 33
and 74 from the Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt on MDG 603
1233-2 and the Opp. 34 and 35 from the Quintett Momento
Musicale on MDG 603 1253-2 (see review).
George Onslow (see biography
page), the son of an English father, from an old aristocratic
British family and a French mother, was born at Clermont-Ferrand
in 1784 and lived his entire life in France. George’s father
Edward had settled in France after a family scandal forced
him to leave his mother country. Several members of George’s
family had played an important part in British political
life, notably his grandfather, the first Earl of Onslow,
who was the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Onslow studied piano with Johann Baptiste Cramer as a young boy
whilst in London. His only composition teacher was Anton Reicha
with whom he studied in Paris 1807-1808. The 'Gentleman
Composer' was launched into a brilliant career which turned
him into a leading composer of musical life in the first
half of nineteenth century
Perhaps no composer, more than Onslow, illustrates the
fickleness of fame. Onslow’s 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets
were, during his own lifetime and up to the end of the
19th century, held in the highest esteem. Sometimes nicknamed the ‘French Beethoven’, Onslow
was particularly admired in Germany, Austria and England
where he was regularly placed
in the front rank of composers alongside Mozart,
Haydn and Beethoven, of whom people declared that he was
the only worthy successor. Artist
A. Maurin, in 1844, produced a drawing of a ‘Galery
of the modern lyric composers’ that showed Onslow
seated alongside fellow composers; Halévy, Meyerbeer, Spontini,
Rossini, Berlioz, Donizetti, Auber, Mendelssohn and Berton. Onslow’s
work was admired by both Beethoven and Schubert, the latter
modelling his own Cello Quintet, D.956 on those
of Onslow and not, as is so often claimed, on those of
Boccherini. Schumann, perhaps the foremost music critic
during the first part of the 19th century and also Mendelssohn,
regarded Onslow’s chamber music on a par with that of Mozart.
Haydn and Beethoven. Onslow was the only musician, at least
in France, who devoted himself almost entirely to the genre
of chamber music.
Breitkopf & Härtel and Kistner were among many publishers that
competed to bring out Onslow’s works. Such was Onslow’s
reputation that he was elected to succeed Cherubini as
Director of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts. This
was based on the excellence of his chamber music; this,
in an “Opera Mad France”, a country that at that
time had little regard for chamber music. Onslow’s writing
was unique in that he was successfully able to merge the
drama of the opera into the chamber music idiom perfected
by the Vienna masters.
After the Great War, Onslow’s music, along with that of so many other
fine composers, fell into oblivion and up until 1984, the
bicentennial of his birth, he remained virtually unknown.
Onslow’s works were missing from the repertoire for so
long partly due to the fact that they haven’t been available
in a modern edition for more than a century. Another reason
why interpreters gave up playing his quartets and quintets
was because they were considered difficult to perform.
Besides his 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets, which were
and remain his best known and regarded works, Onslow also
wrote 10 piano trios, 3 piano quintets, a quintet for piano
and winds, 2 sextets for winds and piano, a septet for
winds and piano, a nonet for strings and winds, 6 sonatas
for violin and piano and 3 sonatas for cello and piano.
in addition to his chamber music, Onslow composed four
symphonies, four operas, several works for solo piano as
well as vocal works.
Onslow’s String Quintet, Op. 38, subtitled ‘The Bullet’ is
linked to a dramatic episode in his life when he was accidentally
shot in the cheek whilst boar hunting at a country house
called Saint Augustin, near Château-sur-Allier. It seems
that Onslow wrote the movement Délire (Delirium)
on the night of the shooting in 1829. The title page of
the 1830 edition of the score states, “Following a serious
incident, the Composer has attempted to express his pain,
convalescence and recovery in the Minuet, Andante and Finale
of this Quintet.”
The work opens with a substantial and close-textured movement marked Allegro moderato
ed espressivo. The first theme is darkly dramatic
in character and suggests that Onslow was planning, even
before the dramatic hunting accident, a deeply expressive
score. In the second movement, a feverish and hectic
mood of the Minuet - Dolore, Onslow
uses contrasting elements to achieve striking effects
and make his suffering palpable. The third movement Convalescenza, Andante has
a quiet mooted tone and sways gently like a peaceful
lullaby. The final movement Guarigione (Recovery)
is a joyful expression of gratitude. Mainly for its expressive
character Onslow’s Op. 38 Quintet has been compared
to the Beethoven’s late String Quartet Op. 132.
Onslow’s String Quintets are usually marked for performance either
by two cellos or cello and double-bass; it seems likely that the Op. 67 score
was more specifically intended for the cello/double-bass combination. Onslow
had described how he welcomed the considerable improvement of the new four-string
double-bass over the old three-string instrument. Composed in 1843 the Op.
67 score is also in C minor, which is always a very expressive key
in Onslow’s music.
In the opening movement the first theme is resolutely dynamic and
open but can also be very lyrical. The exuberant virtuosity
of the first violin soon gives way to a second theme that
unfolds its fluid melodic line throughout all parts. The
second movement is a frantic Minuetto followed by
a lyrical Andante with melancholic undertones. Onslow
does not submit to the tradition of a carefree and boisterous Finale.
Instead the sweeping last movement combines a rich and
contrasting sound palette, making the musical conversation
even more dramatic and contributes to making this one of
Onslow’s most significant works.
The players of the Quintett Momento Musicale impressed
me recently with their release of Onslow’s contemporary
the Austrian Joseph Eybler’s String Quintet in D major
and String Trio, Op. 2 on MDG 603 1321-2 (see review).
The Quintett Momento Musicale,
are a string quartet with double-bass who perform using
modern instruments. They were formed in 1992 by young musicians
from Leipzig and Halle/Saale who are leading players from
in the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester and the Opera House
Orchestra in their respective cities. In addition each
member has chamber music teaching posts at the Martin Luther
University in Halle-Wittenberg.
The players of the Quintett Momento Musicale in these Onslow
scores display the ability to make even the simplest phrase
expressive and they produce the most beautiful tonal shading.
The German ensemble have an impressive sense of line; balancing
the phrasing and points of emphasis to project the composer’s
expansive designs to great effect. In the feverish second
movement Dolore of Op. 38 I was particularly impressed
with their playing of the strong and sudden contrasts between fortissimo and pianissimo that
follow each other in breathless succession. The Ensemble
Momento Musicale is impressive for their warm tone and
careful sense of blend and balance to bring out the full-toned
beauty of their playing. I loved their expressive and lyrical
playing in the Andante of Op. 67 where the melancholic
undertones that pervade the movement are highly convincing.
This is impeccable playing from the Leipzig-based quintet
with an especially beautifully blended timbre.
The recorded sound from the MDG engineers is of a decent
enough quality and the liner notes are helpful. Onslow’s
music is well worth exploring and in performances such
as these will
provide considerable rewards.