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Newly Digitized: George Onslow, quartets

June 26th, 2013

Despite popularity and public acclaim during his lifetime, the wealthy Anglo-French composer George Onslow (1784-1853) may be best known today – when he’s remembered at all – either as the “French Beethoven,” or for the event commemorated by his string quintet op. 38, “De la balle” (“The Bullet”), completed in 1829 during his recovery from a hunting accident.

Georges Onslow / H. Grévedon
Georges Onslow / H. Grévedon
Source: gallica.bnf.fr

To an extent, his sobriquet is clever advertising: an 1830 notice for the quartets and quintets by his publisher Pleyel proclaims Onslow “notre Beethoven français” in the same sentence that it points out to prospective buyers the quality of the paper and engraving, the portrait frontispiece by the artist and lithographer Grévedon, and the published list of subscribers.1 Whoever first coined the phrase, it stuck, despite Onslow’s uneasy engagement with Beethoven’s late style in print and in the chamber music he composed in the 1830s and early 1840s.2

The three sets of parts digitized here, however, date from over a decade earlier in his career, in the mid-1810s and early 1820s, during his first flurry of compositions for string quartet: nos. 1-12 were composed between 1807-1816, and nos. 13-15 in 1822-1823. Note the metronome indications in nos. 12 and 15; Johann Nepomuk Maelzel had patented his version of the device in 1815, and assiduously promoted its use, going so far as to send samples to composers around Europe.3

George Onslow, String quartet no. 12 (op. 10, no. 3), Merritt Room Mus 767.795.323.7

George Onslow, String quartet no. 12 (op. 10, no. 3). Merritt Room Mus 767.795.323.7

With one exception (the quartets nos. 16-18, composed in 1828), Onslow did not return to the form until the 1830s – after his encounter with Beethoven’s late style – when he composed a second sequence of quartets, nos. 19-36. These and others can be viewed in the collections of the Danish National Digital Sheet Music Archive: Georges Onslow (1784-1853): String quartets, quintets and other chamber music.

-Kerry Masteller


1. “Souscription A la Collection complète des Quintetti et Quatuors de George Onslow,” Revue musicale 8 (1830): 282-283, http://archive.org/stream/revuemusicale18308pari#page/282/mode/2up.

2. On Onslow and Beethoven, see Viviane Niaux, “George Onslow: le ‘Beethoven français’?” Les sources du romantisme français : à la croisée des influences italiennes et germaniques (1780-1830) (Venise: Italie, 2009), 1-18, http://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00510733.

3. Maetzel, Johann Nepomuk, letter to Breitkopf & Härtel, 8 April 1817. Quoted in Günther Haupt, “J. R. Mälzels Briefe an Breitkopf & Härtel,” Der Bär: Jahrbuch von Breitkopf & Härtel auf das jahr 1927: 130. http://hollis.harvard.edu/?itemid=|library/m/aleph|006744519 (HOLLIS record).

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