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8.572830 - ONSLOW, G.: Cello Sonatas, Op. 16, Nos. 1-3 (Kliegel, Tichmann)
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Georges Onslow (1784–1853)
Cello Sonatas, Op 16, Nos 1–3


In May 1781 the London press took some pleasure in reporting a new scandal. Edward Onslow, younger son of the first Earl of Onslow, was accused of making a homosexual approach to a certain Phelim Macarty at the new Royal Academy Exhibition. Onslow, who had been elected member of parliament for Aldborough the previous November, through the influence of his mother’s cousin, the Duke of Newcastle, found it necessary to resign his seat, taking the crown appointment of Steward of East Hendred and seeking refuge in France, where they seemingly ordered things differently. The accusations against him were at first denied, but eventually he admitted to his father that his passions had led him to lose control of himself. Born in 1758, Edward Onslow had been schooled at Westminster and at Christ Church, Oxford. His father had at first intended him to become member of parliament for Arundel, but withdrew his support when told that contesting the seat would be expensive. In France Edward Onslow established himself in the Auvergne, became a Roman Catholic and two years later married Marie-Rosalie de Bourdeilles de Brantôme, a rich heiress. In 1789 they acquired the Château Le Chalandrât in the vicinity of Clermont-Ferrand.

Edward Onslow’s first child was Georges, born in 1784, to be followed by further children, two of whom became painters. Georges, who was on the death of his father in 1829 to inherit substantially from his estate, was brought up as befitted his station, his education reflecting his father’s artistic interests and the expected country pursuits. In 1799 and 1800 he accompanied his father into exile and spent time in London, where he was able to develop further his musical interests, studying with the émigré Nicolas-Joseph Hüllmandel, Dussek and Cramer. His interest in music was apparently enhanced in 1801 when he heard Méhul’s Stratonice, a comédie-héroïque that had first been staged in Paris in 1792 by the Comédie-Italienne. His first compositions were followed, after his marriage in 1808, by lessons in Paris with Anton Reicha. He then turned his attention in particular to chamber music with a series of string quintets and string quartets in which he could play the cello and which he could hear in Paris in the winter season in professional performances by leading musicians there such as the violinist Baillot and the Tilmant brothers. His financial position was further secured by inheritance, giving him the freedom to do very much as he wished. He retained connections with England, although problems arose over disputed family matters. He became the second honorary member of the London Philharmonic Society and in France succeeded to Cherubini’s chair at the Académie des Beaux Arts. His health was affected by a shooting accident in 1829, which caused weakness in the sight of his left eye, an incident that he depicted in a string quintet, La Balle, Op 38, the ‘Bullet Quintet’. He wrote four operas, two of which were staged by the Paris Opéra-Comique, but it remains above all for his chamber music that he is remembered, particularly his 34 string quintets, with their flexible scoring, and 35 string quartets, works that appealed both to the professional and amateur markets.

Onslow’s three Sonatas, Op 16, for cello and piano, published also as for viola and piano, among other versions, were completed in 1820 and published the following year in Paris. The edition by Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig brought a very favourable review, suggesting comparisons with Beethoven and praising the equal treatment of both cello and piano. The first movement of Sonata No 1 in F major, is in tripartite classical form and follows usual practice with a repeated exposition. The D minor second movement has a contrasted central D major section, and the final Allegretto provides a charming conclusion to a finely crafted work.

The Sonata No 2 in C minor is dedicated to the cellist Louis-Pierre-Martin Norblin, son of the painter Jean-Pierre Norblin, who had established a reputation for himself in Poland, where his son was born in 1781. Louis-Pierre-Martin Norblin studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where he later taught, and was for some time principal cellist at the Paris Grand Opéra. He played in the Baillot Quartet. The sonata has something of the drama associated with the choice of key, its sonata-form first movement including a more lyrical second subject in E flat major and ending with a brief display of cello arpeggios. The Menuetto begins in C minor, moving to E flat major as the dance begins, and later to C major. The Trio is in A flat, the plucked notes of the cello accompanying hand-crossing in the piano part. The E flat major slow movement brings a song-like cello melody and the sonata ends with something more than an Allegretto, justification for the critical comparison at least to the earlier compositions of Beethoven.

Onslow dedicated Sonata No 3 in A major to Augustin Leonzzo de Leyval, a friend and amateur composer, presumably a member of the land-owning family of that name near Clermont-Ferrand. The first movement has a second subject marked dolce semplice, the thematic material of the repeated exposition suitably developed and duly followed by a recapitulation. The slow movement is relatively short, starting in F major but moving to introduce, attacca subito, a final A minor Agitato. As elsewhere there is a fair division of labour between cellist and pianist and a skilful manipulation of modulation, leading to the necessary A major conclusion. In all three sonatas there is a characteristic use of sequence, a dramatic use of harmonies and an effective use of counterpoint, making these works a valuable contribution to cello and piano repertoire and a pointer to the direction other composers in France were to take.

Keith Anderson

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