String Quartet No.19 in f# minor, Op.46 No.1
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.
String Quartet No.19, Op.46 No.1 is the first of a set of three which were composed during the summer of 1831. Op.46 was dedicated to Monsieur Habeneck, in all likelihood the famous conductor who had done so much to popularize his work. Other than Beethoven’s Middle Quartets no other contemporary quartet was tonally as advanced as Onslow’s Op.46 No.1. The Op.46 Quartets enjoyed considerable popularity and were regularly performed in such premier places as Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden throughout the 19th century.
The opening movement to String Quartet No.19, Allegro espressivo e non troppo presto, begins with a tragic and emotionally charged outcry of great power. It is played in unison and is one of the most striking openings of any Onslow quartet. It is then given to the cello to introduce the chromatic, and somewhat sinister, main theme. The second movement, Menuetto-Allegro, has a genial feel to it, not quite a scherzo though too quick for an old-fashioned minuet, it is nonetheless an impetuous dance. The beautifully contrasting trio, marked dolce, is based on a dreamy hunt-like theme. The following Andante is a typical example of Onslow’s compositional brilliance. Taking what is a very gentle and pastoral theme, he writes a set of variations which explores every possible mood, including a military setting which is a tour de force. The superb finale, Allegro moderato, is quintessential Onslow: Drama, excitement, tuneful melodies, toe-tapping rhythms—it’s all there. This work belongs on the concert stage and will also give amateurs great pleasure .