Georges Onslow (the French Beethoven)

GEORGES ONSLOW  (1784 – 1853)

 There are composers whose names we have heard of even when we have not heard their music, like Hummel or Spohr. But who on earth was Georges (or George as he preferred) Onslow and where did he hail from with a name like that? Well one thing I can tell you is that if you should emerge from South Ken underground station you will come to Onslow Place, Onslow Square and Onslow Gardens all named after the English Onslow family from which George Onslow came. So aristocratic connections certainly but no link to the brother in law of Hyacinth Bucket. George Onslow himself was French born in Clermont Ferrand   His great grandfather was Sir Richard Onslow, 1st Baron Onslow 1654 –1717), a Whig Member of Parliament. He was the Speaker of the House of Commons from 1708 until 1710 and later Chancellor of the Exchequer. He campaigned strongly against Catholic succession and as Speaker was very unpopular being extremely pedantic and given the nickname of “Stiff Dick”. Later an earldom was created and the family always seemed to possess a seat in the Commons.

 Edward Onslow was the second son of the second earl and was just a common or garden honourable. He was joint member for Aldeborough constituency but at the age of 23, got involved in a homosexual scandal and was obliged to take the Stewardship of East Hendred in 1781 so as to disqualify him from the Commons. With a court appearance looming he was rushed off to Calais and thence onwards. Having reached the Auvergne he chanced upon a very wealthy aristocratic family with a dynasty traceable to the eighth century. There was just the one daughter, Marie Rosalie de Bourdeilles de Brantôme who was a catch for anyone and  Edward successfully sought her hand and the dowry which was as extensive as her name. They married in 1783. Georges was born the following year. So aristocratic stock with a good cross pedigree, a bit like that between a Hereford Freisian and a Limousin Taurus.

 In 1789, shortly before the Revolution the family acquired as a family seat Le Château de Chalendrat outside Clermont. Here the children would despite the revolution be brought up in style and leisure according to their expected station. There were clearly artistic genes within the family. Georges had two younger brothers both of whom became talented painters but Georges’’ gifts were musical and he learned the piano very early. The French revolution was not as bloody in Clermont as it was in Paris and the Terror there was mild in comparison. Still Edward was treated with suspicion and the locals went as far as seizing his horses, weapons and other possessions. Louis XVI was executed on 23rd January 1793; on 1st February France declared war against Britain and therefore little surprise when in October 1793 Edward was arrested because he was English. He was placed for a while under house arrest. By 1797 Edward was secretary to the Royalist party, which existed despite the Revolution, and was accused of spying for William Pitt, which he always denied. However he elected to go into exile taking Georges with him to Amsterdam and leaving Marie and the other children behind.

 From Amsterdam father and son went on to Hamburg where they met the Bohemian composer, Dussek, who in 1799 had fled England and his creditors when his publishing house in London had gone bankrupt. Georges took piano lessons from Dussek but it could not have been for long as Edward’s ban had been lifted and he and Georges returned to the Auvergne in summer 1800.

 From now on the family spent six months of the year in Paris which included going to the opera and it was here that Georges, now 17, first heard the music of Méhul which he stated aroused his passion in music. Méhul is almost forgotten today but he was a rare composer of symphonies in France and I have the pleasant memory of hearing at the Festival Hall an overture of his, “La Chasse du Jeune Henri”, a Beecham lollipop.

 Georges’ musical talents became apparent to his parents and these were further developed during his sojourn in England where he met with his English family. This seems likely to have been between 1802 and 1803 following the Peace of Amiens which was a kind of half time for lemons during the course of the Napoleonic Wars. In England, Georges was to be given a proper classical instruction as befitted an English gentleman including horsemanship hunting and fencing. More particularly he took further piano lessons from the greatest piano teacher of the day, J B Cramer. Georges would have learned of the latest techniques from Cramer who introduced him to contrapuntal settings by J S Bach as well as the latest sonatas of Beethoven. Here we are talking about Beethoven at the time of his writing his Heilingenstadt Testament. In France Napoleon was still First Consul and in Vienna the Eroica symphony was still two years away.

 Back home at Clermont, Georges was developing a specific interest in chamber music which he began composing for performance at the chateau. It would be the start of something quite unique in the history of French music. At this stage Georges had only taken piano lessons. His newly found passion for music led him to a teach yourself composition by studying published treatises on harmony. For domestic and social entertainment he formed around him some local talented players. There being no cellist he taught himself the instrument. Thus there commenced the most unique series of string quartets and string quintets, written for performance by talented amateurs. Georges already knew his Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Scores for quartets by Haydn and Beethoven’s Opus 18’s, copied in Onslow’s own hand, have since been found. In France there was no tradition of chamber music for its own aesthetic purpose, nor of symphonies. Most chamber music was salon stuff by its composer in seeking to gain an entrée into the world of opera. Over the years Georges showed little interest in opera although he did write three of them all the same. Operas meant being confined to Paris and remaining around to make sure of securing a performance. Georges preferred to spend his time at Chalendrat producing works for home consumption.

 He began writing his own compositions in 1806, first a one act opera, the overture to which was reproduced a quarter of a century later as the first movement of his first symphony, piano sonatas in four movements according to the Viennese model as Beethoven was developing it; there followed piano trios influenced by Haydn and Boccherini rather than the more prevalent string trio in France. The idea for the slow movement of the early Onslow string quartet opus 9 came from the Haydn Emperor quartet opus 77 no 3 written in 1800. This is best known for its variations on the Austrian national anthem. Inspired similarly, the slow movement of the Onslow contains as its main theme the British national anthem, also with variations. I very much doubt that Her Majesty has heard it but she will be familiar with the tune. George, as we shall call him from now on, had been to Vienna previously with his father and probably also in 1806. Clearly Vienna was going to be the inspiration for his writing and not Paris. He appeared to be a natural composer but natural composers still need to learn the tricks of the trade and it was George who realized he was going to need tuition. He was to get this from Antonin Reicha in 1808.

 Those of you who read my notes on “Beethoven and The Concerto” may recall Reicha who was the same age as Beethoven, both becoming child members of the orchestra in Bonn at 12. Beethoven playd the viola and Reicha the flute. They would go their separate ways in due course but they were childhood friends and always maintained contact. Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in 1792. Reicha left Bonn and moved on to Paris in 1799. In 1801 he went to Vienna, re-established contact with Beethoven and took lessons from Albrechtsberger and Salieri –everybody did that. By 1808 the French had re-entered Vienna and Reicha made his way back to Paris. It was that same year that Reicha took George on as a private pupil. Reicha is pretty well unknown today but we do occasionally hear one of his eighty or so of the wind quintets he wrote and for which he is most famous. He did however write for other genres, including symphonies, string quartets and others. His skills at the time were as a theorist and he wrote a number of manuals. Ultimately in the 1820’s he became the professor of composition at the Conservatoire in Paris with Cherubini (much pilloried by Berlioz) as its director. He propounded a number of eccentric theories the modernity of which has to be believed including polyrhythm, polytonality – Stravinsky, eat your heart out. Reicha was much admired and amongst his pupils, official or unofficial, were Berlioz, Gounod, Saint-Saëns and Franck. It was Reicha who first sought to have Beethoven played in Paris in 1825.

 George benefited from learning from Reicha but it would not have lasted for long and music would have to take second place when in 1809 George married Charlotte de Frontages, daughter of a wealthy property owner. The couple settled down comfortably managing with a house in central Paris as well as their country chateau. I am sorry to say that they got a little stretched towards the end of the Empire with heavy impots being charged to pay for Napoleon’s war efforts and with the British blockade of French ports preventing money getting through from George’s English relatives. The end of the wars and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy brought relief to the old aristocracy and from 1815 George was able to visit England regularly.

 One cannot give an account of what transpired from year to year but we do know that in 1817 George had a composer’s block and said he would never write a string quartet again. Actually it was piano writing he was to give up and he would fortunately return to the string quartet. He concentrated more on writing for the string quintet and then for various other groupings including a nonet. His string quartets were packaged in threes for each opus number, (like Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets opus 59) but later on, as with Beethoven, each individual quartet was accorded its own opus number. All in all George Onslow wrote 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets. Not bad for a gentleman farmer, an amateur! But he was a pro as well. Commissions arrived and the Onslow name and brand would spread.

 His life was split between town and country and hunting remained one of his great pleasures in life. In 1829, whilst on a wild boar hunt, he just escaped a bullet which whistled close by causing loss of hearing in one ear. The experience led him to include in one string quartet a reproduction of the whistling sound with which he was left. Smetana produced a similar effect fifty years later for his own deafness in his quartet, “From My Life”.

 In 1828 Onslow encountered the late quartets of Beethoven which left him stunned and confused. Nevertheless he must have studied them as his own quartets began to take on similar explorations and there is a feeling in the few I have heard of a greater sense of depth. His links to Beethoven are not however imitation in the way that Ferdinand Ries, an otherwise underrated composer, nevertheless would reproduce Beethoven sounds in a Rory Bremner fashion. George Onslow was very much his own man and continued down the path of chamber music where Beethoven had pointed the direction. The result might explain Berlioz having described him as “the French Beethoven”.

 By the 1830’s Onslow had embarked upon a cycle of four symphonies over a fifteen year period. There was no tradition here to follow. Back in the 18th century Gossec had produced an output of sinfonias which are more concertante in concept. Méhul had a go around 1810 and Cherubini had written a symphony in 1815 for the Philharmonic Society of London and which he transcribed for string quartet. There was no orchestral concert tradition and the orchestra de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris (always a good example for practising one’s French genitive prepositions) had only just been founded in 1828 by François Habeneck in order to perform Beethoven symphonies. Onslow sought to create the first French symphony to be played by the orchestra but he was not to be the first. That honour went to Berlioz with his Sinfonie Fantastique. The Onslow followed four months later. The two composers are completely different. The Sinfonie Fantastique is a programme symphony. The Onslow is more classical and sounds rather like late Schubert although he would not have known his music. The first movement of the first sounds more like Spohr than Beethoven, a prominent catgut sound that can be explained by the fact that it was lifted from the overture to the opera he wrote in 1806. The remainder of the first symphony and its successors are of their time, well constructed and orchestrated but without a heavy overlay of later 19th century sentiment and emotion. Berlioz who was the most objective of critics gave positive approval to the first symphony. As I write I have just tried out the third symphony on my older son who thought “it sounded after Beethoven, a bit like Mendelssohn”. That’s not bad.

 From this time George Onslow began to grow an international reputation. He was created an honorary member by the Philharmonic Society of London, an honour only previously accorded to Mendelssohn. His works were being played over Europe and he was praised highly by Schumann. A seat on the Académie Française became vacant following the death of Cherubini in 1842. Berlioz had set his sights upon it but he had sufficient enemies and a reputation too revolutionary for the conservative Academicians who were to vote and it was Georges Onslow who got the laurels.

 Georges Onslow, Légion d’Honneur, died in 1853, highly respected and honoured. Within ten years he was all but forgotten and did not emerge from under the carpet until the 1980’s and the compact disc revolution. Why?   No-one can say exactly but recently I began writing a series on the Lost Contemporaries of Beethoven and this note was intended originally to be included with such figures as Hummel, Spohr, Ries, Cherubini and Reicha all of whom had distinguished careers before disappearing into the ether. Such is the fickleness of posterity. George Onslow filled a gap, particularly in the field of chamber music, carrying on between Beethoven and the period of Schumann and Brahms. His music is still coming to light. Don’t expect dramatics, hysteria or sentimentality. George Onslow expresses himself with stiff upper lip. He is good, at times very good. I am not claiming a place for him in the First Division but at least he deserves a wild card now and then. If like me you happen to be more taken with the world of the instrumental rather than opera you might understand why I personally would exchange any number of operas by Delibes and Massenet for the quartets and quintets of Onslow.

 Chamber ensembles spend a lot of time today building a repertoire of the same standard classics. There are other works they should add and the emergence of George Onslow is going to give them a lot of homework and the audiences something new to discover