A gifted amateur from England

Onslow's duo mirrors the serenity of a spring evening. © Charles Thibo
Onslow’s duo mirrors the serenity of a spring evening. © Charles Thibo

Rich and gifted – now that’s a lucky combination for anyone, but especially for a composer and a musician. George Onslow was in such a happy position. He lived between 1784 and 1853, he was of English descent, he lived in a lovely castle in southern France and his wealth gave him the possibility to write chamber music in a total independence. This independence was two-fold: He was not forced to compose to survive. And he was free to compose whatever he liked and could disregard what the French audience happened to consider “en vogue”.

Meet a Luxembourg violinist

In 1826, Onslow wrote Op. 29, a duo for piano and violin, and its serenity and mirth may be explained by the lucky circumstances under which it saw the light. I discovered this composer while I did some research on recordings featuring musicians originating from Luxembourg. One of these artists is the violinist Sandrine Cantoreggi. She is known for exploring the works of lesser known composers and has for example recorded works for piano and violin by Eugène Ysaÿe, whom we have recently met. Togeher with the French pianist Laurent Martin, she has released in 2007 a recording of two works by Onslow, Op. 29 and 31, another duo for piano and violin.

Chamber music and operatic works

In his early youth, Onslow had been taught to play the piano. In 1799/1800 he studied the piano with the Czeck pianist and composer Jan Ladislav Dussek in Hamburg, himself a student of Christian Philipp Emmanuel Bach. He became convinced about his musical vocation around 1801 and started to write his first works. In 1808, after having married a French woman and resettled to Paris, he took formal composition lessons.

Once familiar with the theory, he wrote string trios, quartets, and quintets, and took up the cello so that he could play chamber music with his friends. He also wrote three operatic works, but these met little enthusiasm. His chamber music won him an excellent reputation. He displayed such a talent and dedication to music that he was made an honorary member of the London Philharmonic Society in 1830. In 1842, he succeeded Luigi Cherubini at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Preceding German Romanticism

Interestingly, during his life Onslow’s works met considerable success in Germany and Austria, less so in France. This has changed since then. “The French chamber musicians owe a lot to George Onslow because, through his vast production, very often performed in his time, he contributed to preserve a tradition of instrumental music which kept on developing afterwards”, said the French violist Serge Collot, an expert on Onslow, once. Onslow explores techniques and displays an inventiveness in his compositions that would later become one of the hallmarks of Romanticist composer in Germany and Austria. Both piano/violin duos impress me by their sensuality and song-like melodies.

© Charles Thibo

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