George Onslow

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String Quintet No.12 in a minor, Op.34

For 2 Violins, Viola & 2 Cellos (or Cello & Bass)

During his lifetime, Onslow, above all, was known as the composer of string quintets for 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos. With the exception of Boccherini, all of the other major composers before him, including Mozart and Beethoven, wrote string quintets for 2 violins, 2 violas and cello. (Schubert's great work remained undiscovered until 1850 and unknown for another decade after that.)

Schumann and Mendelssohn ranked Onslow's chamber music with that of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. George Onslow (1784-1853), certainly illustrates the fickleness of fame. He was born 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.  As tastes changed 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.

Although the first 3 of Onslow's string quintets were for the standard 2 violins, 2 violas and cello, thereafter, his quintets, with the exception of his last three, were for 2 cellos and one viola. Onslow began providing alternative bass parts to all of his subsequent quintets, in lieu of a second cello, after hearing the famous bassist Dragonetti substitute for an absent second cellist during a performance of his tenth string quintet.

String Quintet No.12, Op.34 dates from the composer's middle period. It was completed in 1829 and immediately published whereupon it became immensely popular. It is not hard to understand why. The opening movement, a big and fecund Allegro, begins with the first cello stating the appealing and somewhat slow and yearning main theme. Immediately, the tempo picks up as the others join in. The second theme is equally charming and the conclusion quite exciting. The second movement, although marked Menuetto, is actually a somewhat pounding, chromatic scherzo. The contrasting trio is a simple but lovely folkdance. Next comes an Adagio espressivo, which serves as the slow movement. A gorgeous, valedictory melody is played over an accompaniment of soft pizzicati. Gradually, we hear a heavenly duet in the form of a chorale. This is some of the finest chamber music writing to be found in the entire literature, almost the equal of the slow movement in Schubert's quintet. In the wonderful middle section, the second cello (bass) comes into its own with very telling  chromatic passages.  The finale, Allegro non troppo presto, begins with a bright, virtuosic theme over a very effective pizzicato accompaniment. The quintet is brought to a memorable finish with a thrilling coda.

Here is another of Onslow's very best works and certainly one of the best string quintets to be found. Our edition (the first since the late 19 century) has been 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 first cello part which appears extensively 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, is a recognized Onslow specialist. He is extremely familiar with the Onslow quartets, having performed most of them, 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.


(A)   2 Violins, Viola & 2 Cellos-Parts $29.95
(Aa) 2 Violins, Viola & 2 Cellos-Parts & Score $39.95
(B)   2 Violins, Viola, Cello & Bass-Parts $29.95
(Bb) 2 Violins, Viola, Cello & Bass-Parts & Score $39.95
(C) All Six Parts $36.95
(D) All Six Parts & Score $46.95




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