On the occasion of the release of his complete biography of George Onslow in September 2003 *, we have been eager to speak to Baudime Jam, a passionate onslowphile who has been working for several years and in many ways for the rehabilitation of this unfairly forgotten composer. An English summary of this book is available on our website as well as a commentary.
Besides, we also invite you to listen to the series of broadcasts (5 x 1 hour) produced by David Meichtry and Jean-Luc Rieder for the Radio Suisse Romande (Swiss Roman Radio) : Baudime Jam was the guest of this series entitled "Do you like Onslow ?" which was recorded in Clermont-Ferrand on February 21st and 22nd, 2004. It has been aired in 2004 from March 1st to 5th, and rerun recently from December 27th to 31st.
The George Onslow website : In which circumstances were you introduced to George Onslow ?
Baudime Jam : Being born in Clermont from a family of musicians, this name has always been familiar to me, even if the opportunities to listen to some Onslow twenty years ago were extremely rare and scattered. I nevertheless knew well the "Onslow quintet", the members of which, teachers at the school of music in Thiers, were friends of mine. Their repertoire was unfortunately very restricted because Onslow composed only one single work for their band. Later, I started to study this issue while I was producing the programmes of classical music on Radio France station in Clermont : I had then a daily chronicle and a weekly programme, which allowed me to dedicate several broadcasts to George Onslow, by using the rare recordings then available, that is mostly the excellent vinyls recorded in Valprivas by Carl de Nys. Afterwards, I created the Prima Vista quartet, and the need to put down one of Onslow's numerous scores on our music stands immediately felt essential. We made this move mainly out of curiosity, and not out of knowledge because nobody knew how these quartets sounded as none of them was available in a modern edition ; but from the first reading (it was opus 65), it appeared very clearly to us that we had the duty to help making this forgotten music be heard. Then sprang the plan to dig out every year two of onslow's quartets in order to add them to our season and tour repertoires.
The G. O. w. : How did the audience respond ?
B. J. : They were not enthusiastic right away, or let's rather say the specificity of this music was not perceived at first. Some hindsight is needed to appreciate Onslow, but in the absence of anything to refer to, especially as far as quartets and quintets were concerned, listeners hesitated to express an opinion. But very quickly, and thanks to more numerous concerts, we ourselves became conscious of the stylistic features of this repertoire which made the work easier for us with regard to the public : "what is clearly understood can be clearly expressed" ! There still is a long way to go to reintroduce on a long-term basis Onslow's work into concert repertoires, and the move the Prima Vista quartet made is still too much an isolated one (at least in France) : but our experience showed us unmistakably that Onslow's quartets have their place in chamber music programmes because they play a central role in the concert structure which is something to take seriously into consideration, especially nowadays. The opening concert of our season in Clermont is one of the important onslowian events : there, every year, we share with the music lovers the discovery of a new opus, brought out of oblivion in a sense. Henceforth our subscribers wait for this highlight and, to answer your question, their response never disappoints us.
The G. O. w. : You also set up a festival dedicated to George Onslow.
B. J. : In association with "La Route historique des châteaux Auvergne" which allows us the possibility to offer one week of concerts in magnificent places where we are welcomed with a genuine sense of hospitality, which is one of the most charming aspects of these "Soirées Onslow".
The G. O. w. : Internet users are to refer to the Prima Vista quartet website to keep informed about the next occurence of this festival which will take place from 1st to 6th of August, 2004. Thus it is by performing in a quartet that you became familiar with Onslow's work, that is not only on a very personal level, but also through its favourite genre, chamber music : how did you make the decision to write his biography ?
B. J. : My job on Radio France had already led me to do a little research, and my work as a lecturer, within the context of the Prima Vista quartet's lectures-concerts series, had also allowed me to go deeper into these first results. One significant stage was an invitation, in 2000, to give a lecture at the Massillon Library in Clermont-Ferrand : I undertook then my first important research work, especially through the archives of the regional collection of the Bibliothèque Municipale et Inter-Universitaire, which allowed me to take the measure of the challenge such a research meant insofar as, in particular, the press had never been perused before, despite the significant importance of these documents. Thus the project of a biography became naturally obvious, all the more since the subject seemed right away to lend itself to numerous socio-musicological digressions.
The G. O. w. : What were your goals ?
B. J. : I understood at once that it was imperative to structure all the aspects of Onslow's career : his presence in the musical life of Paris certainly, but also his implication in the cultural provincial landscape of Clermont-Ferrand, and the response his work received in the two border countries of France, Germany and England. Onslow offers the very rare opportunity to study an artistic career in very different contexts : I just couldn't miss this opportunity to analyse and understand the mechanisms of the audience, the press and the performers on such different scenes. As a musician, and regularly confronted with various situations, I was very much responsive to this aspect. Besides, there are only very few studies on provincial musical life because few researchers from the capital are interested in this topic and an extensive work of gathering and perusal is required : the local press is not ready to use as the collections of the "Gazette musicale" kept Rue de Louvois are ! It is a long-term job very few researchers undertook.
The G. O. w. : Hence the positive response your work received especially in Clermont-Ferrand.
B. J. : More or less : some people do not appreciate it when somenone investigates certain fields before they do ! But apart from some gnashing of teeth from the institutions, I was pleased to see that readers quite mostly enjoyed the possibility to learn more about the cultural landscape and the running of the musical life in as symbolic a provincial town as Clermont. Increasing the value of archives particularly of the " Patrimoine Auvergne" collection, in a still unexplored field, was the topic of a lecture in March, 2004 within the context of the cultural season of the Bibliothèque Municipale et Inter-Universitaire : this meeting was important because it acted as a link between research and readership whose interest in the issue of sources is more and more growing. Thus it was an opportunity to share with the audience the discovery of these documents kept to Clermont and which I used abundantly in my work considering their large historiographical interest. Besides, the lecture was followed by a concert, because we shall take advantage of the excellent acoustics of the Massillon Library where we are pleased to have been invited many times for a few years. I am glad to have often the opportunity to pronounce lectures about George Onslow : it is one of the best way to make the music lovers eager to know more about he and his music.
Le site G. O. : Let's remind that you have been invited to make lectures about George Onslow by the University of La Sorbonne, the University of Samara (Russia), the Conservatory of Nijni Novgorod (Russia), the Association "Onslow d'Auvergne", the Alliance Française, the Association historique Napoléon III, the Institut du Temps Libre, the French Cultural Association of the UNO in New York where the Journée Onslow 2005 was organized recently, but also that you took part recently to the fifth "Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain Conference" which was organized by the University of Nottingham from July 7th to 10th 2005 : the subject matter of your lecture was "George Onslow in London : an Unexpected Failure" (George Onslow à Londres : le rendez-vous manqué).
B. J. : The relationship between Onslow and England are complex and mostly interesting especially when compared with his success in Germany. This lecture will be preceded by a concert of the Prima Vista quartet in London on April 24th at the Blackheath Theatre : the programme will of course include a work by Onslow.
Le site G. O. : Thanks to you and your quartet, Onslow and his music are going to come back to his ancestor's country...
B. J. : I hope so !
The G. O. w. : We suspect, by reading your chapter dealing with Clermont, that you dedicated a considerable amount of time to perusing and analysing these archives, but furthermore what about the research you made abroad ?
B. J. : The comparative and contextual study of the musical life in the main cities of Europe brought up other problems, especially concerning the access to the documents which are scattered. But it did not put me off and I packed my bags to go out there and gather the sources necessary for this project.
The G. O. w. : What is your best memory on this matter ?
B. J. : My stay in London during which I literally scoured the collections of the British Library. Onslow's history in England is a complicated and puzzling one : what I discovered there could not fail to surprise me and the theory I was led to develop on this subject - that is the very lukewarm response to his music – was met approvingly by several researchers from Oxford and other places. It is there, in London, that I became certain that Onslow's European career (or more exactly careers) should not be ignored. The same remark applies to Germany where Onslow received a very different response from that of Britain. Judging by the reactions I received from British and Germanic universities , I can conclude that I did not waste my time pursuing this issue. Limiting the knowledge of Onslow to his career in Paris is denying much richer and more significant perspectives : on the contrary, the so charming cultural characteristics of our capital take on a far more fascinating dimension when they are connected to those of our neighbours.
The G. O. w. : The comparative study you made of the response Onslow's music got in Germany and in England is indeed very instructive as for the cultural differences of these two countries : there even is a sense that all your work is built upon the Franco-German-English triptych. Is it so ?
B. J. : Indeed, it is one of the main lines of my "look" at Onslow : in many respects, his personal life, his career and his ambitions are divided up between these three countries in a dialectical and often contradictory way.
The G. O. w. : It must be said that your researches, concerning not only the provincial career of George Onslow, but also his British and German career represent a brand unprecedented work.
B. J. : Exact, but after all, that was the main goal of this biography : to make understand and to reveal all the aspects of a musical life that deals not only with the Paris microcosm, which is of great interest but which does not suffice, and by far, to understand the complex figure of George Onslow. It was my duty to explore and study those meaningful matters.
The G. O. w. : A journalist (Philippe Thanh) wrote rightly about your book that it is "a mine of informations" (La Lettre du Musicien, october 2003) and one must say that you use very extensively and besides very deliciously a rich amount of never before published period documents : why ?
B. J. : First of all out of ethics : nothing will ever be better than an actual return to basics. Out of pressure then because, in the existing catalogues, there was not any bibliography dedicated to Onslow, beside the brilliant study Christiana Nobach dedicated to his chamber music in 1985, which has never been translated from German and is today unavailable; as for Gérard Faivre's charming monograph - henceforth unavailable too - it was, up to now, the only study of the subject, as Carl de Nys, who had written the foreword, reminded it. A simple glance at the nevertheless very rich collections of the Université de la Sorbonnes hows furthermore no other recent source. Finally, from a personal inclination : as a reader, I do really appreciate it when texts, correspondence, press, literature, etc., are authentic and I distrust, on the contrary, too short quotations which, taken out of their context, are often distorted. The rewritings are too often dull and a lot is lost on the exchange : the style, the anecdotes - so often significant -, the legitimacy ultimately. Besides, gathering hundreds of documents the great majority of which being still unpublished is such a heavy work, that it would be a crime not to share their savour with the readers. If I tell you Onslow repeatedly expressed his failure to understand Beethoven's last quartets, I pass a piece of information on to you : if I allow you to read his own words, taken from, a letter to a friend here, an press article there, I am giving you the chance to enjoy this information genuinely. As far as the press is concerned, it seems important to me to make today's readers feel that the journalists' writing was at this time more virulent (in condemning as in praising), but also more relevant and specific. There is no use in saying that such or such quartet by Onslow was appreciated or denigrated : I prefer to offer the reading of the critics expressing directly and in their words the opinion of their contemporaries. On the other hand, I believe it to be fundamental, for stylistic but also dialectical reasons, for archive documents to be integrated in the course of the story, especially when it is a biography; the process of reproducing a list of letters or of press articles seems to me quite as repulsive as it is uninteresting, no mentioning the fact that it usually is a sign of laziness ! What is complex, it is to connect such a considerable amount of documents in a coherent way : having a clear perspective is necessary in order to succeed. It proved to be particularly crucial in the comparative study of the response Onslow's works got in the three countries where his music was the most performed : France, Germany and England. A very interesting picture comes out of this synthesis of the cultural disparities in Europe, of which Onslow was in a sense the merging reflection.
The G. O. w. : It is definitely something that had never been done before : nevertheless you had predecessors in the 19th century ?
B. J. : Indeed : back in 1889, and one after the other, two short opuscules were published about Onslow : one, written by Cirice Teillard, was published in Paris, whereas the other one, much more consistent and which remained for a long time a reference book, was the work of some Luguet, a philosophy teacher at the Faculté des Lettres in Clermont. Then, it was almost total oblivion : not the slightest book dedicated to Onslow can be found any more in bookshops, except for the two I mentioned previously, but which were not very widely distributed, the first one never having been published in French, and the second one having been published by a small publishing house in Cannes and printed a small number of copies. This is thus more the musicians, the performers who deputized by trying hard to keep the enthusiasm alive : I am naturally talking about the Parrenin quartet who, spurred on by Carl de Nys, produced very beautiful records in the castle of Valprivas, and much more lately, I cannot forget to mention the outstanding work of the Mandelring quartet, who is based in Germany.
The G. O. w. : And then there is the Prima Vista quartet of which you are artistic director : did your experience as a musician influence your understanding of George Onslow ?
B. J. : It did very certainly because I feel very related to the performers to whom he entrusted the execution of his works : like them, we travel, we face institutional obstacles, the audience sometimes impose their choices upon us, we meet composers worried of exploiting their talent, we must to manage the logistics governing the organization of any concert, etc. The look we take as actors of the musical life at the life of a composer carries our own experience and the analogies we draw : through Onslow's reactions, the opinions expressed in the press, and the choices made by the musicians of his time, it is not difficult for me not to see the concerns of my contemporaries. I see artists, journalists, producers , composers almost on a daily basis : their aspiration, their anxieties, their successes and their failures remain the same. It is thus very easy to see the difference between a biography written by an "insider", from another one written by somebody living outside the profession. As far as I am concerned, I have the feeling to take sides with George Onslow, as a biographer as well as a performer - one feeding the other.
The G. O. w. : What were the challenges of the documental research ? Was the catalogue of George Onslow's work, which we reproduce on our site with your kind permission, difficult to put together ?
B. J. : I do not know if we can speak of "challenges", although perusing the press in Clermont, London and Germany was a complex venture of some scale. As for the catalogue, it is not so much an achievement because, on one hand, 99 % of Onslow's work are kept at the B.N.F. (National French Library in Paris), thus all you need to do is to show up there and write down the list, and on the other hand, the catalogue featuring in the article of Fétis "Biographie Universelle des Musiciensis" almost comprehensive, with a few exceptions. The few remaining scores are kept at the castle of Aulteribe or are mentioned in the correspondence, also kept in that same castle : besides, they are absolutely less important. Among the onslowian curiosities, I would like to mention a vocal piece (a ballad) entitled "Dante in Paradise" which is not mentionned in any catalogue : this score was dedicated to Ms Louise Benazet, the dauhgter of a parisian impresario to whom Rossini offered in 1835 a book of songs by famous composers as Bellini, Meyerbeer, Cherubini, Paër, Spontini, etc. There is only one exemplar of this book. But this is only a minor fitting composition. In keeping with this anecdotal piece, the major works of Onslow are available and this is one of the numerous paradoxes encountered by anyone willing to devote themselves to the study of Onslow : it is so to speak impossible to get a modern copy of most of his scores, but on the other hand, almost all of them are available in public collections at the disposal of everyone ! One must say that the string chamber music was the George Onslow repertoire par excellence, not the piano, which he played with a moderated talent, and for which he composed only a few minor scores : his only sonata for piano (opus 2) is a youth work which does not bear any comparison even with the excellent Quintets opus 1 which, as soon as published, met a very warm response and forshadowed a glorious series of works.
The G. O. w. : Someone on internet wrote that you published your book yourself ("auto-édition") : is that true ?
B. J. : It is completely false ! Unfortunately, internet is much under-regulated and one has to be cautious toward the huge amount of information which is available through this media, especially when it comes from some private and non-official website. Too many people think that internet is a way to display their rancours and they just use it as a forum, without any legal control : but who cares ? As for the Éditions du Mélophile, which published my biography of George Onslow with the support of the French Ministry of Culture (among others), it is a very real publishing house, based in Vichy **, with its own editorial director (Dominique Jayles), and some very interesting projects. I wrote my book, but I did not publish it : this is not my job. We have to bee careful with the many gossips which abound on internet !
Le site G. O. : The Chamber Music Journal published by the Cobbett Association for Chamber Music Research recently described your book as the "definitive Onslow book" (Volume XVI #1, Spring 2005).
B. J. : A friend of mine, who is a member of this famoux society, told me about this and I was delighted to hear it ! However, research never ends and since the release of my book, I have found so many new materials that a second print should prove that the first was not as "definitive", even if it was intended to be so and, hopefuly, close to be.
The G. O. w. : We must add that you also are the man behind the first complete and critic edition of Onslow's 36 quartets : Serge Collot is the author of its preface, which is not the least support. (cf. our "scores" section). Baudime Jam, we thank you a lot for finding time to answer our questions. We shall have the opportunity to resume our discussion to talk about your "reading" of Onslow with more details, and, in the meantime, Internet users are invited to immerse themselves into your book which is now available from the FNAC network, but also on the internet, notably at Decitre, Amazon.fr and Chapitre.com, before being translated into English and German, but we shall talk about that again later on.
Translated by Natacha Gillardeau
** Les Éditions du Mélophile, 34 Boulevard du Sichon, 03200 Vichy, France. (SIRET : 450 351 267 00015). Weblink on the CRL Auvergne website.