George Onslow

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String Quartet No.15 in E flat Major, Op.21 No.3

“Onslow's String Quartet No.15, Op.21 No.3 in E flat Major is the last of a set of three composed in 1822. The Quartet opens in quite a striking fashion, Allegro Maestoso, with the two lower voices presenting a theme of operatic drama. The theme is then picked up by the two violins and shortly after takes on a heroic, military element created by the drumming of repeated quarter notes in the lower voices. Onslow surprises by ending the movement pp after building to climatic ff. A Minuetto Allegro, instead of something slower, is placed second. The attractive opening theme is given to the viola as a solo. The trio is more or less a serenade based on a Ländler or Danse type theme. The masterly Larghetto in g minor which comes next is reminescent of a Shepherd’s Lament. The main theme is introduced by the cello. All of the voices then participate in the development. The middle section in G Major features a lovely interplay between the first violin and the cello in its tenor and treble registers. Absolutely first rate. In the finale, Allegro, quasi Allegretto scherzando, the violin takes off in a hurried flight and is virtually given no rest whatsoever, even when the others join in on the way to a suprise finish. This is a fine quartet worthy of performance and can certainly be enjoyed by good amateurs.”—–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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