George Onslow

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String Quintet No.21 in g minor, Op.51

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

Onslow's 21st String Quintet dates from 1834. It is without question one of his most exciting and one of his best works. After its publication, it was performed by several well-known players and always to great acclaim, more than holding its own against such quintets by Mendelssohn and Beethoven which sometimes appeared on the same program with it.


It is hard to believe that a composer whose chamber music Schumann and Mendelssohn ranked with that of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn could fall into obscurity. 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.  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.

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.

The opening measures of the first movement, Allegro impetuoso, set the tone immediately creating a great sense of excitement. But rather than develop this pregnant theme, he moves quickly on to the lyrical and more relaxed second subject. The third theme grows seamlessly out of the second and returns then to the first theme which opened the movement. The excitement created by the first movement is only heightened by breathtaking and superb Scherzo, presto which follows. It is a breakneck ride over a mysterious landscape without a moment's chance to catch a breath. Only in the lovely trio section, which has a chorale quality, does the pace slacken. In the slow movement, Andante non troppo lento, which comes next, we have the cello and viola taking the lead in presenting a lovely and calm folk melody. There are two dramatic sections which disturb the mood before order is restored. The exciting finale, Presto agitato, bursts forth demanding the listener's attention and holding it from start to finish. The powerful first theme is counterbalanced by a sad cantabile melody which only appears on occasionaly briefly.

This great work has been out of print for most if not all of the 20th century. We have reprinted the 1834 Kistner edition, the first German edition, which were generally superior to their French counterparts. Besides cleaning it up, we have added rehearsal numbers which were missing from it. Amateurs and professionals alike are certain to find this work to their taste.


(A) 2 Violins, Viola & 2 Cellos-Parts $29.95
(B) 2 Violins, Viola, Cello & Bass-Parts $29.95
(C) All Six Parts $36.95




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