Onslow, George

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Onslow, George

Grand Sextuor pour piano, flute, clarinette, cor, basson et contrebasse Op. 77bis (Set Score & Parts)

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Onslow, George

Grand Sextuor pour piano, flute, clarinette, cor, basson et contrebasse Op. 77bis (Set Score & Parts)

Le Beethoven français”: thus the header on the home page of the French Onslow Society, based in Rheims. The only other large-scale online source on this topic, “The George Onslow Website,” opens in a similar vein with “The French Beethoven.” A naive reader, who may at best have encountered this name in passing, will raise his eyebrows: “Can a composer of this stature be overlooked? Not very likely! The quote is probably a wild exaggeration from some ardent fans.” But continuing our search in this novel information medium – as anyone interested in Onslow is practically forced to do unless he has a command of French, the language in which the bulk of the literature on him has been published– will soon stumble across a statement attributed to none other than Hector Berlioz. This central figure of nineteenth-century music claimed in 1829 that Onslow “has held the scepter of instrumental music in his hands ever since the death of Beethoven [1827].”

Comparisons of this sort, though a common ploy of music historians and journalists alike, always provide fertile ground for debate. People will regularly question their import, generally lament the ceaseless creation and reshuffling of pecking orders (à la “The Greatest Composers” or “The Mightiest Masterpieces”), and finally object that, when all is said and done, all these standard practices merely reduce the repertoire to a handful of composers and works, thereby spreading boredom through massive self-limitation. In a case like Onslow’s, however, involving a largely unknown artist from the distant past, such comparisons have their good side: they cause people to take notice. Anyone whose music is mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven’s may well merit a closer look. Often enough the picture we receive from history has traveled quite tortuous paths. We need only look at the stature accorded to such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach and Gustav Mahler today and compare it with the obscurity in which their music was long forced to languish. Both composers underwent a grand renaissance a good half-century after their deaths. But who would seriously maintain that the music lovers of Mozart’s or Richard Strauss’s day knew less about music than we do, if only because they failed to accord Bach and Mahler the prominent historical niches that they enjoy today? George Onslow’s compositional oeuvre falls into the same historiographical blind spot. On closer inspection, it transpires that his case is the exact opposite of Bach’s and Mahler’s: his is one of those artists who vanished from public view against the backdrop of romanticism’s Cult of Genius and Doctrine of Progress, shrinking to the level of a historical footnote on a so-called “minor master,” albeit one who enjoyed a quite different status during his own lifetime.

Onslow was the eldest child of an English aristocrat and a French noblewoman. He was born in 1784 in the Auvergne, the geographical heartland of France, which formed the center of his life for many years. A musical maverick and outsider par excellence, he was able to afford this attitude because of his inherited financial independence. At a time when French music was exclusively focused on Paris and seemed devoted entirely to opera as the genre of choice, Onslow’s oeuvre had a strong emphasis on chamber music to a degree rarely encountered in music history. Besides the Grand Sextuor pour piano, flute, clarinette, basson, cor et contrebasse (op.77), which appears here in miniature score, he also produced thirty-four string quintets, thirty-six string quartets, and ten piano trios. Precisely in the string quintet with cello and double bass instead of two cellos – a combination of instruments for which there are relatively few high-quality works on the market – his music proves to be not only original and personal but in commercial demand. His works are related not least to the chamber music of Haydn, Cherubini, and middle-period Beethoven that he so admired, but without sounding merely derivative. Conversely, he wrote only four works for the opera stage, the institution that reigned supreme over French music in the nineteenth century and in which composers in search of success were called upon to show their mettle: Les deux Oncles (1806), L’Alcade de la Véga (1822-4), Le Colporteur ou l’Enfant du Bûcheron (1826), and Guise ou les États de Blois (1835-6). It should be mentioned that he also produced four symphonies – in A major, op. 41 (1841), D minor, op. 42 (1831), F minor, op. post. (1833), and G major, op. 71 (1846) – another not exactly plentiful genre in France at this time. Till now only his chamber music has proved at least marginally capable of surviving, including many works that are now available in printed editions and reference recordings. One of them is the present Grand Sextuor, op. 77 bis.

That Onslow was viewed as a composer of distinction during his lifetime, despite his wayward paths, is shown by the views of his fellow composers – Berlioz’s aforementioned words of praise were shared by many others of the same ilk, including Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, and Luigi Cherubini – and by the warm reception bestowed on many of his works by contemporary journalists and critics and by established publishing houses such as Breitkopf & Härtel. He was also the recipient of numerous prestigious public awards on an international scale, signifying that he was also regarded with fairly high esteem by the cultural élite of his day. For example, he became the second honorary member of the Philharmonic Society of London in 1829 (the first had been Mendelssohn), an honorary member of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1836, and the successor to Cherubini as a member of the Parisian Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1842 – perhaps the most important position of its kind in nineteenth-century France. Onslow probably reached the zenith of his popularity and renown in the 1820s to 1840s, the very years in which these honors came his way. Toward the end of his life, as composers who reach an advanced age often must, he had to struggle with the fact that his music was increasingly thought old-fashioned and was gradually disappearing from concert programs. Consequently he stopped composing in his final years until his death on 3 October 1853, plagued by self-doubts about his creative potential. Poor health, partly the result of a hunting accident dating from 1829, when he was struck by buckshot and partially lost his hearing, combined with his advanced age to compound the mood of despondency in his declining years.

The work presented here in miniature score probably dates from the year 1848, and hence from this late period in Onslow’s career. None of his incipient gloom is yet in evidence. The work exists for various combinations of instruments, as intimated by its opus number “77bis.” This was quite normal for Onslow’s late period, even if especially pronounced in this case. Many of his late string quintets were composed and published for various instrumental formats, the most common being a) two violins, viola, two cellos, b) two violins, two violas, cello, and c) two violins, viola, cello, double bass. It is important to bear this in mind lest the impression arise that the present sextet format is an abridged version in which, for whatever pragmatic reasons, the piano was meant to substitute for other instruments. On the contrary: the nonet version in A minor, for violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon (op. 77), stands on an equal footing with the sextet version. The latter is a special instance in the classical-romantic repertoire in which Onslow has merely added his beloved sound of the double bass to a typical quintet scoring for piano and four winds (with flute instead of oboe), as in such familiar works as Mozart’s E-flat major Quintet (K. 452) or Beethoven’s E-flat major Quintet (op. 16). The result is a unique atmosphere that conveys a quite different sense of unity compared to piano quintets with winds alone. The double bass always functions as a connecting link, undergirding the sometimes quite virtuosic passages for the other instruments and imparting a warm backdrop to the musical goings-on. The Grand Sextuor pour piano, flute, clarinette, basson, cor et contrebasse, op.77, is, like its creator, a charming special case in the history of music.

Translation: Bradford Robinson

Score No.

896b

Edition

Repertoire Explorer

Genre

Chamber Music

Size

225 x 320 mm

Specifics

Set Score & Parts

Printing

Reprint

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