George Onslow

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String Quartet No.14 in e minor, Op.21 No.2

"In Quartet No.14, Op.21 No.2 in e minor, each of the instruments plays a considerable role in the introduction and development of the melodic material. Onslow opens the work with the cello playing a downward plunging chromatic run, Although in minor, the movement does not have a tragic feel to it but is full of restless excitement. A hunt-like second theme is introduced by the first violin and then restated by the viola. Onslow ends this fast-moving, satisfying movement by finally providing the answering phrase to the opening downward chromatic passage. Next comes a pleasant Andante grazioso. One often finds a contrasting turbulent middle section in Onslow’s slow movements, but not here. The almost pastoral mood is not disturbed from start to finish. The part-writing is quite good. The following Minuetto Allegro is in reality a stormy, quick scherzo in e minor. In the short trio in E major, the chords of the three lower parts are made to sound like a bagpipe accompaniment to a cheerful country dance played by the first violin. The finale, Allegretto, begins with a jaunty theme which is given a military flavor by the drum-like rhythm which later is beat out against it by the other voices. There is a tendency to begin this movement too quickly and players who do so come to grief by the time they hit the middle of the movement as Onslow switches from 8ths and 16ths to 16ths and 32nds. Again, each of the voices plays a considerable role in this very excellent movement. This is a very fine quartet which deserves to be heard in the concert hall but will pose no problems to experienced players."---The Chamber Music Journal


Perhaps no composer, more than George Onslow (1784-1853), illustrates the fickleness of fame. Onslow was born and lived his entire life in France, the son of an English father and French mother. His 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets were, during his own lifetime and up to the end of the 19th century, held in the highest regard, particularly in Germany, Austria and England where he was regularly placed in the front rank of composers. His work was admired by both Beethoven and Schubert, the latter modeling his own 2 cello quintet (D.956) on those of Onslow and not, as is so often claimed, on those of Boccherini. Schumann, perhaps the foremost music critic during the first part of the 19th century, regarded Onslow’s chamber music on a par with that of Mozart. Haydn and Beethoven. Mendelssohn was also of this opinion. Publishers such as Breitkopf & Härtel and Kistner were among many which competed to bring out his works. Such was Onslow’s reputation that he  was elected to succeed Cherubini as Director of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts, based on the excellence of his chamber music and this, in an “Opera Mad France”, which had little regard for chamber music. However, after the First World War, his music, along with that of so many other fine composers, fell into oblivion and up until 1984, the bicentennial of his birth, he remained virtually unknown. Since then, his music, to the delight of players and listeners alike, is slowly being rediscovered, played and recorded. Onslow’s writing was unique in that he was successfully able to merge the drama of the opera into the chamber music idiom perfected by the Vienna masters.

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