More people should listen to…

I haven’t been posting much, I know, even by my standards. My reading has hit a brick wall, and while I’ve watched a lot of TV*, I don’t seem able to write about TV much. I think it’s because it takes so long to watch something that I’ve lost hold of my original thoughts by the time I’ve finished. Also, the fact I might conceivably write a book one day – conceivably, I said, albeit perhaps not plausibly! – gives me an angle to examine my thinking about books; the fact I’m never going to be involved in writing a TV show makes it hard to engage in the same way, intellectually.

But anyway, I thought I’d just drop in to say: more people should listen to George Onslow.

That’s a sentence I imagine few people have heard recently.

Onslow, for those (i.e. all normal people) who don’t know, was a French aristocrat-composer of the early 19th century. At first untrained, a life of leisure and wealth allowed him to become self-taught, and to acquire some education from Anton Reicha, the great teacher and theorist (whose other pupils included Liszt, Berlioz and Franck, among many others). In a France dominated by grand opéra, the gigantic and the fashionable, Onslow’s work, cultured and predominately for chamber ensemble, perhaps more German in style, was overlooked in his lifetime, though his publishers ardently promoted him as “our French Beethoven” – and was entirely neglected for a century. Allegdly there is now an Onslow revival, but that just means that the amount of Onslow being played is now slightly greater than zero. [for his own part, Onslow was fairly sanguine about his lack of popularity – his immense family wealth meant that he could vanity-publish all his works, and didn’t much have to care about critical opinion]

I came across Onslow a couple of years ago when I happened to buy a CD of some of his cello sonatas, and was immediately impressed. More recently, I came upon a CD of some quintets, and it’s this that I alluded to when I mentioned Onslow in my recap of 2018. I’ve been listening again recently, and just get more impressed each time…

Comparisons are hard; Onslow in his day was compared, by respected writers and composers (Berlioz, Schumann and Mendelssohn all sang his praises), to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The comparison is valid, but unfortunately needs the caveat “not as good as”. I’d actually say he’s less the French Beethoven and more the French Schubert – though still not as good as the latter.

The thing is, though, you can be not as good as Schubert and yet still really good, and I think classical music is only just slowly beginning to realise its own vast richness, the depth of its back catalogue – the existence of composers like Onslow, previously dismissed as second-rate and unfashionable, who are nonetheless worthy of happy attention. As Grammophone put it in one review, Onslow “may not be a great composer, but he is certainly an extremely interesting one”.

It may not seem that way at first hearing. Onslow was an experimentalist, but was not a radical: he clearly admired the middle Beethoven, but detested the ‘chaos’ of late Beethoven. His hallmark appears to be, somewhat like Schubert, responding to Beethoven in a way that emulates the master’s passion and ingenuity, while holding on with one hand to the reins of classical restraint. He is considerably more passionate than, say, a Hummel, but more elegant than, say, Schumann. He has a quality I like, not exactly of ‘darkness’, but of a sort of warm, oaky richness, of  a sort many of his contemporaries, while talented, lacked – if Hummel is a sparkling white, and Mendelssohn tends toward, we might say, a bright, drinkable merlot, Onslow (like Schubert) is closer to a rich shiraz. In my limited lexicon, the closest composer I can think of is, oddly, Dvorak – if we imagine Dvorak pulled half a century back in time, and drained of his distinctive Central European character. A semi-classical French Dvorak, as it were. Grammophone rather insightfully speaks of fundamentally Classical works, bathed in a Romantic glow. When he is inspired, particularly with some beautiful tune in a slow movement, his music would not be out of place alongside great works by Schubert or Beethoven, though nothing I’ve heard so far reaches their heights; when he’s less inspired, he’s still perfectly capable.

Last week, I went to a chamber concert at the Proms, with quartets by Schubert, Sirmen, and Haydn. The Schubert was his first quartet, published when he was 15 and written a year or two before that – it’s a remarkable work for a teenage boy in its sophistication. Sirmen was a female composer (and violinist, and singer) who wrote quartets before Haydn invented them – the one played here was her fifth, the only one in four movements, and it’s an appealing, short work that punctured my accreted “oh, a token ‘rediscovered’ woman composer” cynicism, and that provided an interesting look at what, for better and for worse, the quartet was before Haydn took it over. But I’d rank Onslow’s quintets as better than either. And while the Haydn (the Sunrise) may have been just as interesting, if not more so, than the Onslow, I’d certainly pick the Onslow for listenability (late Haydn, I find, while perfectly pleasant, is often a little cold and hard).

Onslow wrote 34 quintets, to go along with his 36 quartets. Unlike almost all his contemporaries and predecessors (other than Boccherini), Onslow wrote most of his quintets for two cellos, although he also provided adaptations for the more common two-viola ensemble. At a performance of his 10th quintet, however, that he happened to be attending himself, one cellist was missing, and the great Domenico Dragonetti (the man who did more than anyone to popularise the double bass) stepped in to play the part on the double bass; Onslow was so impressed that all his subsequent quintets were published with alternative parts for double bass.

It’s this version that I’ve heard. A group called the Elan Quintet were hired by Naxos to release a complete, 16-CD cycle of the Onslow Quintets, most of which have never before been recorded. At, so far, 1 CD a year (though their own website hasn’t been updated since the 3rd (and latest) came out), it would seem they’ve their career made…

Including the double bass seems like a stroke of genius. The music would be perfectly nice, and indeed perhaps rather more polished, with a second cello instead, but the wonderful timbre of the bass, and the addition it makes to the ensemble’s range, perfectly complements that rich warmth, and also helps to give the five voices room to stand apart, without merging into a block of sound. Compared to the harsher sound of the quartet and the viola quintet, it’s remarkable that more composers haven’t explored the cello, or better yet double bass, quintet.

It helps that Onslow’s music must be a joy to play. In addition to his lush, appealing style, there’s a constant curiosity – rather than settling back into a style or a format, he always seems to be trying something different. The parts cross frequently, and the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material is well-shared between the players – rather than, as in some (particularly early) chamber music, ending up as a solo violinist with her accompanists – and if I were a second violin or a violist, I’d be overjoyed to get to play this compared to the meagre roles some composers give them.  His movements are less wild than Beethoven sometimes gets, but they are reliably characterful – now tender, now agitated, now aggressive, now playful – and for the most part very busy (without sounding like notes for note’s sake) and often unexpected, so both listener and performers always have something to entice their attention.

Onslow is not one of the great composers – he’s a solid, capable composer with moments of being very good. But he’s a little more interesting than that makes him sound – he’s willing to take some risks. As a result, although his style is immediately and unambiguously of his age, it’s also very individual – you can instantly pinpoint his rough location in time, but if you don’t know him yet you may struggle to think which specific composer he might be. He’s not just an imitator. That quality, of having an individual voice, is surprisingly rare, and combined with his delightful style for listeners, and engaging style for performers, should make him much better known than he currently is. While his reputation may not be strong enough to anchor major chamber recitals, this is music that would merit its place as a fine supporting act alongside almost any great quartet or quintet.

It’s unlikely that picking up some George Onslow chamber music is going to change anybody’s life. But if you like characterful, accessible, but interesting chamber music of the late classical or early romantic period, then you may be pleasantly surprised!



*Continuing this post’s themes of classical music and delightfulness, I’ve now seen all of Mozart in the Jungle. Like Onslow, it’s not one of the true greats, but I found it a reliable pleasure, both funny and moving, despite some tonal missteps in the first season. It also didn’t rest on its laurels, and did some admirable work introducing new and modern music and the music of forgotten female composers in its later season.

The main thing I’ve been watching, however, is a complete binge-watch of all five series of Alias, which I’ve almost finished…

The Lord’s Prayer in Vestan

From the past to the future. Here’s a translation of the paternoster into 26th-century Vestan:

||:|||::: iee1 ô2vo3 fûzo4 :: in āvan5 see6 ::
io nààm shə̀ bá sāwraaza
bòn uud laig in āvan see :||:
gēv dɛ̀7 plɛ̀i8 gə̄iəd ôvo dáála mīmbo9 |
noo fōgev dɛ̀ plɛ̀i vìr ôvo lêze10 glàin11 ::
laig ɛ̀ fōgev dɛ̄dam see :: díí glàin gààs ɛ̀ see |
noo díín lá ɛ̀ plɛ̀i nó bá là êni nee tíítaajhan |
bɛ́ líver ɛ̀ plɛ̀i fən rûie :||:
aamen :::|||:||

(it seems this font can’t handle diacritics over schwa, sorry about that)

Some notes:

1: Vestan, like all Space English, requires all vocatives to be made explicit with a preposed pronoun; the distinctive, irregular lowering of the vowel in this word is a Vestan trait.

2: Space English is a tonal language (or family of languages, depending on your point of view). The diacritics in this transcription (into contemporary Detroit Letters – Vestan is natively written mostly in its own script with an archaising and idiosyncratic spelling, largely indecipherable to outsiders) indicate tones.

3: Vestan, like other asteroid dialects, strengthens medial /w/ to /v/; this is a major diffeence between these dialects and the non-asteroid forms of Space English, which instead tend to strengthen /w/ to /ɾ/.

4: the first vowel is a prominent example of the asteroid-wide back vowel chain shift. By contrast, the Asaphian translation of this nominal clause reads i̯ii ɔru fozu.

5: an example of Space English’s occasional conservativism – the final nasal here has been lost in many English languages by this time.

6: our first example of one of the most distinctive grammatical features of Space English: the “see-relative”. Early Space English introduced the clause-ending particle see as an auxiliary marker of various subordinate clauses, including relativisation and comparisons of manner. In the former case, it has generally entirely taken over the relativising function – in āvan see translates to “who is in heaven”. However, while this is true within the Solar System, the more conservative and isolated dialect of the world of Valhalla also retains the original pronoun, and hence has iúús in ávan sēē.

7: another unusual feature of Space English is its retention and regularisation of the dative pronouns to mark recipient arguments of certain verbs (even in the absence of themes). Their use is most widespread in Vestan. In the case of the verb “to give”, all Space English regularly uses the dative: hence, for example, Asaphian gēf dɛ̀s and Valhallan gééf das alongside Vestan gēv dɛ̀ (Modern English “give (to) us”). However, in the case of the verb “forgive”, only Vestan uses the dative: Vestan fōgev dɛ̀, but Asaphian fògef ɛ̀s and Valhallan fógeef as.

8: Space English requires all imprecatives to be marked with the imprecative particle; however, the exact placement of this particle varies somewhat between dialects. Vestan tends to place the particle after a pronominal object of the verb if present, but Penuman prefers to place the particle immediately after the verb, and Asaphian allows single-word adverbs to also precede it: hence Vestan gēv dɛ̀ plɛ̀i gə̄iəd, in a way the middle ground between Penuman gēv plɔ̀iz dɛ̀z jhodɔ́i and Asaphian gēf dɛ̀s gɔ́ɔ́biɔt plɜ̀ɜ̀s. Valhallan, meanwhile, is as usual more divergent, and regularly places the imprecative particle at the end of the clause it modifies: gééf das gáájət ąr hāni kɛɛk pilɔɔs.

9: the word mīmbo or its relation is found in all Space English, but the exact meaning differs. In Vestan, it refers both literally to yeastcakes (the staple food) and metaphorically to the requirements of living, or by extension to money; in Valhallan, however, it refers almost entirely to money. In Asaphian, it can refer to money, or to food, but more specifically refers to the universal basic income.

10: as in several other English languages, the plural has been entirely lost from Space English, and wholly replaced by the use of numerical classifiers, along with numerals and adjectives – lêze is the classifier for most abstract nouns.

11: the merger of post-consonantal /l/ and /r/ is one of the shibboleths of Vestan and Vestan-influenced asteroid dialects. Penuman has grain, Valhallan has krain, and Asaphian has graam. However, it should be noted that the historic contrast is not entirely lost, but is partially preserved through consonant quality and tone.


A brief explanation:

Vestan is a prominent dialect of Space English in the 26th century; it has over two million native speakers and a respected body of media content.

Space English is an English language of the Western family – it diverged from West Coast over the course of the 23rd century, and was at first regarded simply as a ‘broken’ vernacular form of the southern variety of West Coast that was developing at more or less the same time and with which Space English has a number of developments in common. It emerged out of a very particular context: among early FTL pioneers exploring and settling the Solar System, West Coast remained the most common lingua franca; but by the 23rd century the dominance of West Coast had faded considerably, and many pioneers spoke it poorly. The Space English that developed consequently emerged from a process of mild pidginisation (though it is msitaken to regard it as a fully-fledged pigeon or creole), in which the number of vowel and consonant qualities was reduced, morphology was dramatically reduced (derivation) or eliminated (inflection) and a large number of loanwords were introduced. Much more use is made of clause-modifying particles, and the language is tonal. None of these features are unique to Space English, but their rapid and simultaneous adoption lead Space English to diverge quickly and to swiftly be recognised as an independent dialect. Since the 23rd century, it has since itself diverged into a number of dialects (or languages, depending on one’s perspective), aided by the generally insular nature of its speaker-communities.

Despite its name, Space English is not really the language of humans in space; the initial faltering steps that created a young and independent culture spread across the solar system were soon wholly overshadowed by the much larger migrations to extrasolar colonies, and the use of the nascent Space English within the early professional spacetraveller community was overwhelmed by the development of the modern space fleet on a dramatically larger scale and a more militaristic footing. Today, the language of the fleet is Fleet, a new mixed language, with some similarities to Space English but no close genetic relation, and no intelligibility, while the colonies speak a range of languages very similar to those they left behind on Earth – above all, Leewefraaka, with which Space English is not mutually intelligible. Space English has survived in only a few, overlooked places: the handful of colonies remaining in the asteroid belt; on Deimos (and to a lesser extent Phobos and Mars); and on the floating sky-world of Valhalla, which was settled directly from early extrasolar colonies, rather than from Earth. Old Venerean English was never widely spoken and is now only of academic interest; Old Lunar, however, has experienced a slight resurgence as a cultural and domestic second language, though it has few or no native speakers.

A defence:

This, you might complain, is clearly rubbish. There’s no way English spoken only a few centuries from now could be so different! But actually, I disagree. Changes aren’t all created equal, and it’s surprising how small changes can have a big effect in a short period of time. In the case of Vestan, I think that the soundchanges up to the 23rd century give a language that’s very recognisable as English, albeit with an unusual accent; but beyond there, I think that the changes suddenly ‘snap’ those bonds of recognition, at least for me. But this has also happened before. Consider, this English from 700 years ago:

Whylom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duk that highte Theseus;
Of Athenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne
Now, there’s a word or two might give a modern English speaker pause, and we should recognise that our conservative spelling obscures a few differences in pronunciation (‘silent e’ was not yet silent). But by and large, this is very recognisable and very understandable English. Oh, we might say, you see, English hasn’t changed much in 700 years, and won’t change much in another 500!
But now here’s some English from 1,000 years ago:

Swá ðá drihtguman      dréamum lifdon
éadiglice      oð ðæt án ongan
fyrene fremman      féond on helle
wæs se grimma gaést      Grendel háten
maére mearcstapa      sé þe móras héold

Look how English changed in just 300 (or400) years! Some of this of course is the replacement of some of these words by loanwords by the time of Chaucer, and some is the use of poetic images (and hence unexpected words), but even when the words are perfectly alive today, they’re different enough, and the grammar is different enough, that it’s hard to recognise them. And some of the changes are quite simple: even if you just regularise the definite article, introduce the indefinite, standardise the word order and cut off some suffixes, you get something like “a feond on hell,  the grim gaest hat “Grendel” (a fiend of hell, the grim ghast hight [i.e. “was called”] “Grendel”).

The Vestan I propose above may at first glance seem alien, but it’s actually not that remote – less remote, I’d suggest, than the changes in a few short centuries between Old and Middle English.