Georges Onslow: String Quartet no. 28 in E-flat, op. 54

performed by Quatuor Diotima, available on Spotify or below

second, third and fourth movements

(cover image by Dmitrii Medvedev)

André Georges Louis Onslow was born on 27 July 1784 in Clermont-Ferrand to an English farmer and French mother, thus considered on Wikipedia to be a “French composer of English descent.” Well, I obviously didn’t include him in the English symphony, so here we are.

Of his station in life, career, and later decline, Wikipedia says:

His wealth, position and personal tastes allowed him to pursue a path unfamiliar to most of his French contemporaries, more similar to that of his contemporary German romantic composers; his music also had a strong following in Germany and in England… Esteemed by many of the critics of his time, his reputation declined swiftly after his death and has only been revived in recent years.

Onslow studied piano with Jan Ladislav Dussek and Johann Baptist Cramer (who studied with Clementi, and also published Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto in England, giving it the title of the ‘Emperor’ concerto).

Onslow lived and studied for a time in Hamburg (with one of the above teachers?), where the family was exiled after his father’s counter-revolutionary activities, and Onslow apparently (contrary to some potential rumors) never visited Vienna nor did he ever meet Beethoven.

Onslow’s “attitude to music was transformed” after hearing the music of Mehúl, whom we discussed yesterday. He said of the experience:

On hearing this piece, I experienced so lively an emotion in the depths of my soul that I sensed myself at once penetrated by feelings previously unknown to me; even today this moment is present in my thought. After this, I saw music with other eyes; the veil which had hidden its beauties from me was rent; it became the source of my most intimate joy, and the faithful companion of my life.

That quote should perhaps have been included in the Mehúl article; what a compliment to another man’s work. He published his first quintets and quartets at his own expense due to what Wikipedia says was “no composition tuition.” I don’t know if ‘tuition’ here refers to training or funds.

In 1808, he studied composition with Anton Reicha in Paris, as did so many others. In 1825, he met the 16-year-old Mendelssohn. His music was published by Pleyel in Paris, Breitkopf & Härtel in Germany, Peters in Austria. In 1831, he was elected the second honorary fellow of the Philharmonic Society of London, succeeding Mendelssohn. In 1834, Liszt and Chopin played Onslow’s sonata for piano four hands (op. 22) (just imagine those two men sitting at the same piano!), and in 1842 he succeeded Luigi Cherubini as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He died unexpectedly in 1853 after a morning walk.

In total, he wrote 36 quartets and 34 quintets, and his work was greatly admired by the likes of Schubert and Beethoven, which is saying something.

The work is in four movements, with a duration of about 25 minutes, as follows:

  1. Introduzione- Adagio- Allegro moderato
  2. Preghiera- Andante con variazioni
  3. Scherzo- Allegro
  4. Finale- Allegro non troppo

Onslow’s introduction presents us with the kind of polished, refined, slow introduction we might expect from late Schubert or something. It’s pensive and dark and there’s an utterance from the cello that sounds like it might be presenting something melancholy and morose, but it marks the beginning of the exposition proper. The movement comes to life pretty quickly, but doesn’t suddenly erupt in cheerful tunes.

The slow introduction seems to echo back here and there. Of Onslow’s opening movements, a reviewer named Hexameron comments in a review of this album on Amazon that:

Onslow has a predilection for suspense, excitement, and power. You can hear this in his opening movements, often heralded by pathos-laden introductions before exploding forth with drama and passion.

I’d say so. It’s beautiful, relatively compact, but also so effective. What it is NOT, though, is the most substantial movement in the work. That title belongs to the second movement. It is subtitled, or marked, or something, Preghiera, or ‘prayer’ in Italian, in which language Onslow marks all movements of this work.

In this second movement, we have a theme and variations, one of the greatest and most straightforward ways a composer can show their creativity outside almost any formal structures. At more than ten minutes, it’s by a long shot the longest movement of the quartet, and feels in some ways the most passionate, heartfelt. I hear tinges of the kind of breathtaking clarity and spirit we would get from Mendelssohn, but also a bit of the timeless, iconic beauty from something like, Dvorak’s American quartet. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it lies in a moving quality that seems disproportionately strong when considering the movement’s quaintness and charm.

Some passages of the movement seem almost to serve as a scherzo, but it’s just another variation. Later passages seem to speak in whispers and fragments before the movement ends relatively quietly and we get to the scherzo proper. It’s a very short movement, only about three minutes in length, but succinct. It offers another kind of finesse, with tendrils from the four instruments creating the subtle fabric of this short little movement. It almost never erupts into a full ensemble affair, but remains subdued; even the trio is hushed, and we get a restatement of the scherzo before the also brief finale.

Even the finale is sparse on outbursts. There are only a few passages where the entire quartet is speaking with their big voices. There’s almost always some restraint, and those few climaxes are therefore all the more effective. It isn’t unfair to expect a finale to be the roaring finish of a quartet, but what impresses me more here than any wild ride or heart-pounding excitement is the overall polish and finesse of this work.

The entire quartet charms in the deepest, most convincing way possible. It’s not the kind of piece that changes your life, or bowls you over with emotion, or brings you to tears. Instead, it has subtlety and reserve, leaving the biggest, brightest, most spirited flourishing gesture for the absolute end of the piece. It’s a work that impresses me with its level of detail and the exceptional quartet writing (and Diotima’s performance), which I guess we should expect from a man who wrote as many quartets and quintets as he did.

This piece is as good an argument as any that posterity did not always get it right. If this quartet is any indication of Onslow’s talent, this man’s music is superb, and very much worth greater discovery, as intimidating as such a prodigious output is. All in due time, I guess.

We’ll be getting more symphonies next week, and at least one name that a few of you should know very well, maybe two, so stay tuned, and thanks very much for reading.

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