> Interview with Ray Silvertrust


Ray Silvertrust is the current President of the Cobbett Association, based in Riverwoods, Il. (USA). He uses to perform the chamber music of Onslow, he wrote articles about him and published some of his works : he was thus to be interviewed on our website and we are glad to introduce him to the visitors of the George Onslow website.

The George Onslow website :
Could you tell us a little about the Cobbett Association, its origin and its purposes ?

Ray Silvertrust : The Cobbett Association was founded in October of 1990 by an amateur violinist, Robert Maas. The organization was named after W.W. Cobbett who served as editor of what is the most important reference source on chamber music in English and perhaps any language: Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. Published in two volumes in 1929, a third volume appeared in 1963. While the works of famous composers such as Beethoven and Brahms are discussed, most of the work is devoted to the chamber music of lesser-known composers. (Unfortunately, the entry on Onslow is very inaccurate and written by an individual who never played and possibly never heard any of the music he wrote about). Mr. Maas was very interested in lesser-known chamber music and stated that the purpose of The Cobbett Association was to promote and revive deserving chamber music of merit which had been unjustly forgotten or ignored. Unfortunately, Mr. Maas died shortly after founding the Association and was not able to realize his goals. I took over as president after he died and have served in that position for the past 13 years.

In order to achieve its goals, I felt the Association needed to have a publication which could inform readers who were interested in the wider world of chamber music about this subject. Therefore, I created and serve as the editor of The Chamber Music Journal, a quarterly publication devoted to the discussion of lesser-known chamber music. We also review new CDs which feature this kind of music. Our reviews are about the music and not the performers. In many cases there are no other recordings of the music which is often out of print. We also encourage professional musicians to perform such works and try to get such works republished. We also have a copying library of over 1200 works from which we make copies of parts of out-of-print music for our members. We have had articles on composers such as Spohr, Rheinberger, Saint Saens, Fibich, Taneyev, Stenhammar, Arriaga, Cherubini, Schulhoff, Bacewicz, Haas, Resphigi, Rubbra, Ireland, Reicha, Chaminade, Onslow and many others. Between 1997 and 2000 we had a 13 part series of articles on George Onslow's 36 string quartets. I later revised these articles and published a small book The String Quartets of George Onslow (Edition Silvertrust) in 2005.

Membership in The Cobbett Association is open to all. We have both professional and amateurs. There are many well-known chamber ensembles which are members such as the Miami, Shanghai, Chiligirian, Guarneri, Mandelring Quartet and Prima Vista quartets, the Vienna and Philadelphia Piano Trios. Music and university libraries are also members as are some of the best music shops in the world. Membership costs $25 per year for non U.S. residents. Members receive a subscription to The Chamber Music Journal, the right to have parts copied from our library, and can take advantage of our research service wherein we help people locate music. If it is in print, some of the best music shops in the world such as Broekmans en Van Poppel of Amsterdam and Performers Music in Chicago provide special help to our members. They are, in fact, members. Anyone interested in obtaining more information or joining the Association should send me an email.

The G. O. w. : How did you happen to know the composer George Onslow ?

R. S. : I learned of the quartets of George Onslow 25 years ago from friends in the Amateur Chamber Music Players, specifically Dr. Nicholas Cunningham and Professor Albert Novikoff. Professor Novikoff is, in fact, a member of The George Onslow Society in New-York.

The G. O. w. : How did you start finding original material (19th Century editions) ?

R. S. : I obtained original editions from antiquarian dealers in Europe such as Doblinger in Vienna and Dan Fog in Copenhagen and also from private collectors, perhaps the most important being Dr. James Whitby who sold me the first eighteen of Onslow's string quartets.

The G. O. w. : Do you perform yourself in a chamber ensemble ? Are you a professional or an amateur ?

R. S. : I do perform locally in a string quartet and a piano trio. Although I was briefly a professional some 35 years ago, and although I sometimes serve as a substitute in professional groups, I primarily play as an amateur.

The G. O. w. : Onslow was also an amateur cellist ; as a cellist yourself, did you notice anything specific in the cello part of his string quartets ?

R. S. : If the string quartets and quintets are anything to go by, I would say that Onslow, although he was an amateur cellist, reached a professional level of execution. That is to say, he could have been professional cellist judging by the technical demands these some works make on the cellist. I say this based on reports that he was able to play the parts he had written for the cello and that he was considered an excellent cellist. I think, as I wrote in my book, that somewhere around the 25th quartet, Onslow discovered the arpeggio as a useful effect and started to use it much the way Schubert used the tremolo in his later works. And these arpeggios are usually given to the cello. The arpeggios themselves are not particularly easy, often in thumb position and requiring considerable finger dexterity. In my opinion, the more difficult of these cannot be sightread but must be practiced. Having said this, most of Onslow's writing for the cello is, as one would expect, lies quite well. And in general, based on my asking dozens of violinists, his writing is what we call "violinistic", i.e. it is not awkward to play. Clearly Onslow was familiar with the violin and its technique because he wrote extremely well for it.

The G. O. w. : How would describe the importance of George Onslow in the modern History of music ?

R. S. : I would say that Onslow's place in music history is extremely important. In my opinion, there is no composer who wrote more first class chamber music that is not in the concert repertoire but which belongs there. For example, while not all of his 36 string quartets are masterpieces or even first rate, none are bad and an amazing amount are first class masterworks. His chamber music with piano is not, as a rule, on the same level as his quartets and quintets. While Onslow, when he is mentioned at all (for example as in Cobbett's Cyclopedia or in Wilhelm Altmann's Handbuch für Streichquartettspieler) is usually singled out for the excellence of his string quintets for two cellos, I think this is because no one other than Boccherini wrote so many. This is not to say that they are not good, but I think that this, in part, led to his quartets not being noticed as much in the 20th century. In my opinion, the quartets are as good or better than the quintets. By the, again in my opinion, I think the three finest quintets are those for 2 violas, i.e. Opp.78, 80 and 82.

The G. O. w. : What do you think of the multiplication of the recordings devoted to the piano works of Onslow and the lack of recordings of the string quartets ?

R. S. : I was suprised to learn there has been what you call a multiplication of recordings of his piano music. I did not know this. In general, the little piano music of his I have heard has been relatively, I am sorry to say, uninspired. On the contrary, I thought that at last we were seeing more and more recordings of his string quartets. 13 of his quartets have been recorded at one time or another, most within the past 5 years.

The G. O. w. : Unfortunately, most of these recordings are no more available. A series of Onslow's quintets has been recorded by baroc players : do you think it is accurate in term of aesthetic ?

R. S. : I don't think it is chronologically accurate to play Onslow's chamber music on baroque instruments. In the first place, by 1800, the pitch of the A had risen and had required all string instruments to be altered in the fingerboard and neck. Different kinds of strings were being introduced as well. I think it is fair to say that Onslow, like Beethoven, would have wanted to hear his music on modern instruments capable of producing a focused and pentrating sound rather than the softer, fuzzier sound of baroque instruments. In this case, I think there is no justification for it. You might as well play Mendelssohn or Schumann on such instruments.

The G. O. w. : Do you know the book by Christiana Nobach published in 1985 by Bärenreiter which is en extensive analysis of Onslow's chamber works ? If so, what is your opinion about it ?

B. J. : I know of Frau Professor Nobach's book. I have not, however, read it but I do know people who have and they tell me that it is very analytical and primarily of interest to musicologists and not players or listeners unlike the book I have written which is primarily aimed at players and listeners.

The G. O. w. : Did you read the complete biography of George Onslow written by Baudime Jam and published in 2003 by Les Éditions du Mélophile ? If so, what is your opinion about it ?

R. S. : I did not read the complete biography of George Onslow published in 2003 by Baudime Jam. My French is very poor and I need to have a dictionary by my side to read such a book for almost every sentence. This, of course, is quite tedious. But I have read some parts which were of especial interest and my daughter, who is fluent in French, translated other parts for me, so perhaps I have read in toto 1/5th of the 560 pages. There is no doubt that it is a very important book. There has been nothing like it before now. Although I must mention that Dr. Richard Franks researched Onslow for 10 years and in 1981 wrote an excellent doctoral thesis in 2 volumes on him entitled George Onslow, A Study of His Life, Family and Works. Unfortunately, this 1013 page work was never published although it is possible to obtain copies of it. I have one.

The G. O. w. : In France, the Prima Vista quartet created the "Soirées Onslow" (currently the only festival devoted to Onslow) as well as the "Journée Onslow" (an annual event featuring concert, lecture and exhibition) : this ensemble tours in France, in Europe and soon in the USA, performing the Onslow's string quartets using the complete and critic edition published by Les Éditions du Mélophile. In Germany, the Mandelring quartet did some very fine recording of a selection of Onslow's string quartets. Do you think it is important that a music publisher be associated with performing artists ?

R. S. : I think that the work that the Prima Vista Quartet and the Mandelring Quartet are doing is extremely important and I want to support it any way I can. I think it is very important for music publishers to be associated with performing artists. I myself have formed a small publishing company, Edition Silvertrust, where we publish the music of composer's such as Onslow. In fact, we have recently reprinted two of his quartets: No.19, Op.46 No.1 and No.22, Op.47. These are from an earlier Kistner edition. And we have just entirely reset String Quartet No.30, Op.56. Readers can learn more about these works and also listen to sound bites of them at our website. But there is no question that there are benefits from an association with performers. Publishers can learn what works appear to do well and performers can help popularize a work and create a demand for the parts.

The G. O. w. : As an editor, are you aware that many quartets of Onslow were published with exstensive changes, elading sometimes to a complete new movement ? Is it worth publishing both versions ?

R. S. : I think it is extremely interesting that Onslow revised some of his quartets and that they appeared in different versions. I think the Mélophile edition of Volume 3 is very interesting indeed, especially from a scholarly standpoint, and also of use to players because they can decide which version they think might be more effective. Onslow was not always a good judge of this. An example is String Quartet No.4, Op.8 No.1. In the opening slow Introduzione, the early version, in my opinion, which appears in the Pleyel and Cocks editions with the cello going high on its A string is far more dramatic and effective than the later edition which appears in Breitkopf and Hartel and in which he cut out these measures. But, of course, some may not agree with me. I think if someone is going to print what might be called the definitive edition of his quartets, they should include all versions for the sake of completeness even though this is more expensive. For me as an editor, I am not trying to produce the definitive edition and I would chose what I as a player have found to be more effective with an audience.

The G. O. w. : Did you pay a visit to the George Onslow website (the English version) ? What is your opinion about internet as a mean to share the knowledge ?

R. S. : I have visited the George Onslow website many times - both the English and the French versions. It is really superb and getting better all the time. My compliments! And we at Edition Silvertrust have link to your site on our website. I think the internet is becoming the most important way of disseminating information. In the past, people went to the libraries to consult reference books such as encyclopedias, dictionaries and so forth, but nowadays, people go online and use a search engine such as Google. I think the internet will be the 21st century reference source.

The G. O. w. : You wrote a series of articles about the quartets of Onslow : please, tell us a little about the way your own instrumental experience enriches your musicologic analysis.

R. S. : With regard to my own experience, I do not write about any work unless I have played it and preferably performed it. (I am a regular contributor to The Chamber Music Journal). In the case of the Onslow quartets, I played each one at least 5 times and with different groups when I could. I performed 25 of the quartets in concert. (local concerts). This took me nearly 5 years to do, but then 36 quartets is a lot of quartets. So often, we find articles written about music by someone who has perhaps only heard a recording and has never played the work. In my opinion, such stuff is of questionable value and as far as players are concerned, of no value. This is why I think it is imperative to play the works.

The G. O. w. : Thank you very much Mr Silvertrust.