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…