String Quartet No.30 in c minor, Op.56--New Edition
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.
It would not be fair to Onslow to call String Quartet No.30 his masterpiece because he wrote far too many string quartets which can be called masterworks. But there is no denying that String Quartet No.30, written in 1836, can hold its own against anything written in the 19 century. This is clear from the very first measures of the opening Allegro maestoso ed espressivo. There is nothing like them in the entire quartet literature. The sheer drama of the cello solo (listen to our soundbite), as it ascends from the depths of the open c string to an A flat, nearly four octaves above it, is breathtaking. The first violin takes this up and starts to develop it, before introducing the gentler second theme, which rhythmically is cleverly stolen from the cadence of the first melody. The second movement is a very unusual Menuetto. Marked moderato, the lovely first theme is somewhat nostalgic and unhurried. The main theme of the trio section is equally fine and is similar in feel to the minuet. Against this, Onslow places an extraordinary background: long, running 16th note scale passages only in the cello. The third movement, Adagio cantabile e sostenuto, is written on a large scale, similar to what one encounters in one of Beethoven’s Middle Quartets. The main theme is reminiscent of Schubert’s very lovely songs. The gentleness of the music gives it an almost lullaby-like quality. Clearly, Onslow lavished much attention on it and as the movement closes, a quiet sense of peace descends upon the listener. And then——an explosion! Sudden, heart-stopping and powerful, the Finale, Vivace, springs forth without warning. The music is overflowing with wonderful melodies and original ideas and features an exciting and satisfying conclusion.
Our edition (the first since the late 19 century) is edited by Skyler Silvertrust* and has been entirely reset. Of particular importance is the fact that it does not use the "false treble clef" in the cello part which appears in all of the other previous editions and which has always been a problem for cellists. Instead, we have substituted the bass and tenor clefs which greatly improves the readability. Like all of our editions, this quartet is printed on top grade paper with an ornate cover with biographical information about the composer.
*Skyler Silvertrust, a violinist, can be considered an Onslow "specialist." He is extremely familiar with the Onslow quartets and is mentioned by the author of The String Quartets of George Onslow in the acknowledgement section as being one of the performers who helped the author with his work.
Score & Parts: $36.95