George Onslow

Summary of the book by Baudime Jam (2003)


The Onslows originally came from Shropshire, where they prospered commercially. The first to emerge on the national scene was Richard who in 1566 became Speaker of the House of Commons, thus inaugurating something of a family tradition. In 1641 a descendant, Sir Richard (nicknamed "The Fox" by Cromwell), acquired what became the family seat of Clandon Park, near Guildford. Arthur became the third and "Great" Speaker in 1728. It was his son "Black George", grandfather of the composer, who in 1801, in the course of a long political career, was made first Earl of Onslow. He had a younger son, Edward (1758-1829), who settled in France in somewhat mysterious circumstances. He appears to have had a homosexual affair and in 1781 was exiled to Clemont-Ferrand by his father, with a generous allowance to keep him there. (Clermont was presumably chosen for its remoteness from England.) That seems to have done the trick because he immediately met and fell in love with Marie-Rosalie de Bourdeilles de Couzances, the daughter of a well-born local family. With some difficulty Édouard (as he now called himself) eventually overcame the Catholic Church's objections to marriage with a Protestant and settled happily in Clermont society. He became a Freemason, was soon the father of four sons - George (born 1784), Maurice, Arthur and Auguste - and in 1789 bought the château of Chalendrat, twenty kilometres to the south-east of the town.
That year the Revolution broke out. Although Édouard swore an oath to the new Constitution in 1790 and considered himself a naturalized Frenchman, under the Terror he spent four months in prison as an alien in 1793 - subsequently commuted to house arrest. For a few years he lived quietly but in 1798, accused of involvement in reactionary activities, he was ordered to leave France. Accompanied by a faithful servant and his fifteen-year-old son George, he went briefly to Rotterdam and then to Hamburg. After two years he was allowed to return home, but was not released from surveillance until the beginning of 1803.

George showed an early talent for music, and especially the piano, which he was sent to study in London and then Vienna (1804-6). He also learnt the cello in order to play chamber music, but it always remained his second instrument. Apparently deaf to the music of Mozart, the moment of revelation came when he heard the overture to Stratonice, a now-forgotten opera by Étienne Méhul. According to George's own account, this inspired him to become a composer rather than a mere piano virtuoso. He began his first composition, a quintet, in 1806. Hitherto self-taught as a composer, he now studied under the Czech, Anton Reicha, recently arrived in Paris from Vienna (Berlioz later called Onslow the most famous of Reicha's pupils). And in 1808 he married Delphine de Fontanges, the daughter of a Marquis, by whom he had a son, Arthur (born 1809), and two daughters. (Arthur was to prove childless and the Auvergne branch of the Onslows died with him.)

For the next thirty years Onslow occupied a central place in French musical life, principally as a composer of chamber music (he wrote thirty-six string quartets and thirty-five quintets). Although he first lacked self-confidence, his work was regularly played in concerts alongside that of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven - a degree of recognition matched only by Spohr and Hummel among his contemporaries. He was seen as the sole French inheritor of the classical tradition and mentioned in the same breath as the great masters. Berlioz himself, among many others, thought highly of him : "Since the death of Beethoven, it is he who is the king of instrumental music" (1829) ; and "'Monsieur Onslow is, as we know, one of France's finest musical
glories ; ... it is to his instrumental music that he owes the great renown that he enjoys throughout Europe. He combines exceptional talent as a composer with an equally rare productivity. The number of his trios, quartets and quintets is truly astonishing when one considers that their creator is still in the prime of life and that each of his works has been considered at length and crafted in the minutest detail" (1837).

All in all, he was a musician's musician, quietly and prolifically writing for the salon, at a time when the public plaudits went to the operas of Auber, Hérold and Meyerbeer. Unlike Mozart and Schubert, however, he had the good fortune to hear his works being played - a courteous, popular and sociable man, he was well-known for the Gallic enthusiasm with which he did so. Less successfully, he also wrote four symphonies - long considered mere orchestral quintets - and three operas.

Onslow would normally spend winter in his house in Clermont - apart from six weeks a year in Paris - and summer in his chiteau at Chalendrat. In 1829 he suffered a serious shooting accident. While on a boar hunt on a friend's estate, he was accidentally shot in the cheek, the bullet lodging in his neck. His life was saved, but he remained deaf in one ear . The dramatic incident also resulted in one of his best-known works - "the bullet quintet" ("la balle"). That year he inherited Chalendrat on the death of his father, but the will was contested by two of his brothers. George lost and in 1833 the château was sold out of the family. However, when, five years later, his father-in-law died, he built the Château de Bellerive nearby (in ruins in 1990). At Clermont he promoted concerts for good causes and played his part in civic life ; he never taught, conducted or appeared as a soloist for a living, but - the gentleman farmer - supported himself and his family through the revenue from the estate.

During his lifetime Onslow's chamber music was published and played throughout Europe (and indeed was known in America), but he had a particularly high reputation in Germany, where he was treated almost as a compatriot (he made tours there in 1846 and 1847). In 1838 Schumann considered him and Mendelssohn to be the true successors of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as far as the string quartet was concerned. His symphonies, however, were less successful.

He seems to have visited England frequently and spoke the language perfectly. Although he had his admirers there, the reception of Onslow's work was much more muted - partly because musical life was far less developed than in Germany and elsewhere on the Continent, but also because there was a certain resentment that Onslow had "chosen" France as his country. His music was seen as imitative, insipid and bereft of ideas. Unlike in France, his death, at Clermont in 1853, went almost unnoticed in the English musical press.
Why is Onslow unjustly forgotten? For Baudime jam, the answer lies in the technical difficulty of his scores, the absence of disciples who could have kept his inheritance alive, his provincial isolation, the fact that he was not a professional musician, the unfashionability of chamber music in the France of his time, the absence of any musical continuity in his family, a certain cultural dislocation, despite his attachment to France, and above all, and in summary, his solitude.

Robert Colquhoun
May 2005