A Trio Composed in the Shadow of Beethoven

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Freshness. © Charles Thibo

You may have seen this: Green leaves after a rain shower. Leaves as green as they can get. A striking, unreal, almost artificial green. Still you know they are real leaves, not some fake leaves made of plastic. It is this green, assertive freshness I thought of when I recently listened to George Onslow’s Piano Trio in E Major, op. 14. You may remember from an earlier post that Onslow was that slightly strange and highly fortunate 19th century Englishman living in southern France and composing for his own pleasure. He was a gifted man, and his chamber music won him an excellent reputation. I must confess I have to rediscover him again and again; I have so much wonderful chamber music to choose from that I hardly get around to give each composer a fair chance to reach my ear.

A piano trio in E major then. Op. 14 was published in 1818 in Paris and it has been recorded in 2004 by the Trio Cascades. The recording was part of a project to record all of Onslow’s trios in 2003/2004 for the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. His music enjoyed great popularity, but the composer remained locked in the Classical style, which explains his nickname: the “French Beethoven”. Fashion moved on and left Onslow behind. After his death he was quickly forgotten. During his lifetime his works were better known in Germany than in his adopted home country, and the dominance of the opera in France may explain why Onslow’s symphonic and chamber works were only known to French experts. Onslow himself tried the operatic genre too and failed miserably.

Onslow may belong to those people who are at pains to acknowledge their strong sides and constantly try to be successful in a field where they are inferior to others. Doomed to fail – I have met such people, and their fate is nothing less than tragic, even more so when you see people trying to help by offering advice, guidance or coaching as one would say today. In 1846 and 1847 Onslow heard his symphonic works performed in Cologne and noted: “The reception of my symphonies in Cologne surprised me […] The execution by that wonderful ensemble and the nuanced playing, that I admire, have no equal in France.”

The Trio in E Major is a well-balanced composition, showing that the money Onslow had invested in composition classes was well spent. He knew his stuff, though I find the nickname “French Beethoven” somewhat exaggerated. Beethoven was inventive, daring, revolutionary, especially in his late chamber works, while Onslow simply applied what he could learn from Beethoven’s example. The trio in E major shows characteristics that are present also in Beethoven’s works, but the best one can say in defense of Onslow is that he was significantly inspired by the German composer.

The question whether Onslow may have merited or may still merit to be called the “French Beethoven” has split musicologists since the nickname appeared (around 1830). I even found a scientific paper devoted to this discussion (in French). It is quite thrilling to read how much ink has already been spilled, but I will not add to the debate. The trio is a very pleasant piece, light-hearted and entertaining music, without being superficial or simplistic. Fresh like a spring shower, making the green leaves glimmer and man wonder.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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