A Wealthy Maverick
Music by the French composer George Onslow,
heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Who was André George Louis Onslow, normally called George Onlsow (1784-1853) in music history books? Often, he is only mentioned in passing, as on page 403 of Lucien Rabatet's Une Histoire de La Musique, for a long time one of the best sellers in the field, at least in France. In spite of the very British name (his father was born in the UK), he was quintessentially French, even though he was very interested in developments on the other side of the Rhine. In a period when music (and many other things such as politics and finance) were centered in Paris, he lived in rural Auvergne, in his castles near Clermont-Ferrand. He was born wealthy. Through inheritance, bequests as well as management by God, he became extremely rich. Thus, he spent his life composing without any need to be seen in Parisian salons begging for commissions, contracts or performances. His impressive catalogue includes thirty-six string quartets, thirty-five string quintets, ten piano trios, six violin sonatas, four symphonies and three lyric operas.
Onslow was appreciated in his own time, even though various forms of musical theatre attracted most of French music lovers' attention; thus, chamber music had quite a limited audience, mostly in private performances. Then, he was forgotten. His style was considered 'too German'; his friends and fans nicknamed him 'the French Beethoven', even though his chamber music is more similar to that of Schumann and Mendelssohn. His works were quite difficult to perform, with long and elaborate movements. Briefly, he was a wealthy maverick on the French Romantic musical scene.
The Venice-based Centre de Musique Romantique Française (A Real Joy, 16 February 2015) has programmed its Spring Festival around Onslow, including ten concerts and lectures in Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice and also concerts in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Paris and Stockholm — a major effort of rediscovery. Based on past activities the centre ha already produced two CDs of Onslow's music. More are likely to result from this Festival. Time will tell if Onslow will return to ordinary chamber music seasons.
I was in Venice for the Festival's inaugural weekend, 11-12 April 2015. The small concert hall of Palazzetto Bru Zane holds seventy people. Thus it is perfect for Romantic chamber music.
The first concert — titled Génération Romantique — juxtaposed Onslow cello and piano duos with similar duos by Camille Saint-Saëns, Charles Valentin-Alkan and Frédéric Chopin. Emmanuelle Bertrand played cello and Pascal Amoyel was at the piano.
It was a stimulating confrontation which showed how close these composers were to each other, all belonging to a visionary brand of Romanticism. Onslow's intimate and melancholic character also emerges, especially in the engrossing Andante of his sonata. The audience requested an encore. The performers selected Alkan's Barcarole.
The 12 April concert included two string quartets by Onslow and was performed by the Diotima Quartet which enthralled Rome's Villa Medici audience last year by performing Beethoven's last four string quartets along with Boulez's four string quartets (A Tremendous Success, 20 February 2014).
The Onslow quartets selected were Nos 54 and 56 — both requiring technical virtuoso work. This was a great success: the Scherzo of Quartet No 54 was encored by audience request.