George Onslow: has history judged the Anglo-French composer unfairly?

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Admired by several notable contemporaries, the man once dubbed ‘the French Beethoven’ is surely ripe for reappraisal, says Misha Donat

A book on the Onslow family published in the 1950s gives the composer George Onslow short shrift.

His music, we are told, ‘has a dry and fireless amateur competence; and surely it is remarkable that a musician of any sort could thus have appeared as an offshoot of the Onslow tree’.

Certainly, that tree had produced figures of considerable distinction in their own field – pre-eminent among them Arthur Onslow who was a universally admired Speaker of the House of Commons for more than 30 years, and a close friend of prime minister Robert Walpole.

Who was George Onslow?

Yet in his own time George Onslow, nephew of the second Earl of Onslow, was one of the most highly regarded composers in Europe and – born and raised in France – was dubbed on more than one occasion ‘the French Beethoven’.

Berlioz called George Onslow ‘one of France’s finest musical glories’. When Schumann heard Mendelssohn conduct Onslow’s First Symphony at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1835, he reported that in the minuet ‘everything glitters with diamonds and pearls’.

Cherubini was present at the same work’s Paris premiere some four years earlier, and was so taken with one particular passage that at the end of the concert he went up to the conductor’s stand, searched through the as yet unpublished score for the relevant page, removed it, took it home and copied it out in full. Placing the original in his own album, he instructed his servant to return the copy to Onslow, and to tell him that he had long wanted to have an autograph of his.

When and where was George Onslow born?

Like most males of the Onslow family, George’s father Edward seemed destined for a parliamentary career. However, barely a year after he was elected MP for the district of Aldeburgh in 1780, he found himself embroiled in a homosexual scandal.

He fled to France and settled in Clermont-Ferrand, where he soon married a member of the French nobility. Georges (he later anglicised his forename) was born in 1784, and received the best education upper-class money could buy: he learned not only such essential pursuits as horse-riding and hunting, but also the less useful occupation of music.

Where did he study music?

Onslow was sent to Hamburg for piano lessons with the famous composer Jan Ladislav Dussek, and continued his keyboard studies in London with Johann Baptist Cramer. He appears not to have shown any exceptional aptitude at this stage.

However, following his return to France Onslow acquired a passion for chamber music and took up the cello. He also began to compose and, after publishing his first set of string quintets, in 1808 he took lessons from the prolific composer and well-known teacher Antoine Reicha.

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What did Onslow compose?

By the late 1820s, George Onslow had a large body of instrumental music to his name, but his real ambition was to succeed in the realm of opera. His first two stage works had already been produced at the Opéra-comique with some success, though they suffer from weak characterisation as well as a shortage of memorable melodies. Onslow himself felt continually frustrated by a lack of good librettos – they were, he said in a simile that revealed his ancestry, as rare as good governments.

His second opera, Le colporteur, ou l’enfant du bûcheron (‘The Pedlar, or the Woodcutter’s Child’) was staged in 1827. The action takes place in Russia, where the royal family has been assassinated by a bandit, who seizes power for himself. Only the infant Alexis has been saved by Igor, an officer who gives him to a woodcutter without revealing his identity. Alexis survives an attempt on his life by a hired thug, and eventually accedes to the throne and is able to marry the ferryboat-girl whom he has long loved.

A further opera, this time based on the assassination of the 16th-century Duc de Guise, followed ten years later. In a long review, Berlioz expressed admiration for its overture, but was bemused by the stage action:

‘The characters come and go, they dance, they sing, the ladies of the court drink milk, the Scotsmen drink wine, Guise drinks eau-de-vie, the Queen Mother drinks coffee – I’ve never seen so much being imbibed as in this piece. At last the assassination succeeds: Guise, pursued by around 20 soldiers, falls bleeding on the stage; Catherine dies of exhaustion; Henri III gives thanks to God and goes back to playing royal tennis.’

Chamber music

Onslow’s operas are unlikely to be revived, but his chamber music is well worth investigating. There’s no shortage of it: no fewer than 35 string quintets and an almost equal number of string quartets, three piano quintets scored for the same ensemble as Schubert’s ‘Trout’ (violin, viola, cello, double-bass and piano), ten piano trios, a half-dozen violin sonatas, three cello sonatas and two sonatas for piano duet.

Onslow was himself a cellist, so it’s not by chance that the vast majority of his string quintets call for two cellos, rather than the string quartet plus second viola as favoured by Mozart. On one occasion during a visit to relatives in England, Onslow was taking part in a soirée where his music was featured.

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When one of the cellists failed to turn up, his attention was drawn to the fact that the famous double-bass virtuoso Dragonetti was present. Onslow at first wouldn’t hear of the substitution, but in the event he was so delighted with Dragonetti’s playing that he composed a series of four quintets in which the second cello was replaced by a bass.

What accident happened to Onslow?

In the summer of 1829, George Onslow suffered a near-fatal accident while hunting on the estate belonging to his friend Antoine de Jonville, an incident that gave rise to his best known work – a string quintet nicknamed the ‘Bullet’. The circumstances surrounding its composition were described in colourful mixed tenses by the influential music critic Joseph d’Ortigue, who obtained his information from the composer himself: ‘Onslow was wakened well before dawn. At first, the composer, who was extremely preoccupied with his quintet, declined [to join the hunt].

However, as his friend became increasingly insistent he was afraid of offending him, and agreed to accompany him. They arrive in the forest. Onslow is stationed by his friend on a small mound near a tree, not far from the place where the boar would pass by. Some time afterwards, the dogs bark, a boar crosses, Onslow fires his rifle and misses. At the same instant, a second shot comes from the place where his friend was positioned, and the bullet intended for the boar hits Onslow in the middle of his left cheek.

‘Onslow fell, and would inevitably have been choked by his blood if one of the hunters had not arrived just in time to raise him up… It was the following night that he composed his piece called “Delirium”. This accident caused his deafness in the left ear, and since then Onslow has not been able to play the cello. The bullet penetrated right through the skin and the bone, and has never been recovered.’

The ‘Bullet’ Quintet

George Onslow dedicated the ‘Bullet’ Quintet to his friend Louis Norblin, cellist of the Baillot Quartet which gave the Paris premieres of some of Beethoven’s late string quartets around that time. The notion of an autobiographical work depicting its composer’s illness and recovery, indeed, recalls Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor Op. 132, with its ‘Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity’. Onslow, however, was no admirer. ‘If one likes such music,’ he once asked a friend, ‘how can mine ever be tolerated?’

The Quintet’s minuet, with its fortissimo stabs of pain and anguished chains of chromatically descending chords, depicts Onslow’s suffering. In the trio, pain has given way to fever and delirium, the racing of the composer’s pulse suggested by an obsessive ‘knocking’ rhythm that appears to surge ahead of the underlying metre. The slow movement’s gentle strains depict Onslow’s convalescence, and the ebullient finale his recovery.

Onslow retired from composing in 1850. ‘The more I scrutinise what comes out of my brain, the more it seems to me that I lack invention,’ he confessed. ‘I won’t say that there isn’t occasionally some charm in my inspirations, but they don’t seem original to me, and that worries me.’

All the same, his career had been showered with honours: in 1830 he had become one of the first two honorary members of the Royal Philharmonic Society (the other was Mendelssohn), and in 1836 he was elected to membership of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. The following year he received the Légion d’honneur; and in 1842, on the death of Cherubini, he was appointed Director of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His rivals for the post included Berlioz.

When did Onslow die?

On returning from a walk in Clermont-Ferrand, George Onslow died suddenly in 1853

At the time of his death Onslow’s star had already begun to wane. His music is undeniably conservative and suffers from a lack of strong melodic ideas. Nevertheless, it is put together with considerable skill, and just occasionally Onslow shows himself capable of writing music of sustained passion and intensity – as in, for instance, his fine piano duet Sonata in F minor Op. 22. When all is said and done, he was a gentleman-composer par excellence – overrated in his own day, but unjustly neglected in ours.

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