Onslow, George. (1784–1853)

Autograph Letter Signed to Narcisse Girard

ALS of the French composer, best known for his chamber music. Clermont [-Ferrand] (Puy de Dôme), August 25, 1837. 3 pp. Bifolium; address and postmarks to final page. "I have recently received the information from Mr. Cerfberr that Chollet's health has been restored completely and he would occupy himself with my work. I have asked the directors to allow me to be present at the final rehearsals, but as a certain number is indispensable so that the piece goes in an acceptable way, I would be very much obliged to you, Sir, to let me know after the second if Chollet's voice is back indeed and at what time you believe is necessary that I go to Paris so that I will be present at the last two rehearsals. I have important business here that I cannot and will not run away from unnecessarily and I suspect in this circumstance a complacency to which you have acquainted me. Therefore, dear Sir, would you please keep me posted of what is going on with respect to me and to write me only after two rehearsals. I am ready to set out under the one condition that I will not squander precious time in Paris." 8 x 5.25 inches (20 x 13 cm).

This letter discusses the first production of Onslow's last opera, Le Due de Guise ou les États de Blois (1837), in which the tenor Jean-Baptiste Chollet (1798-1892) took the leading role. The opera had its premiere at the Opéra-comique in Paris on September 8, 1837. In 1829, Onslow had moved back to his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand and rarely visited Paris thereafter. "Mr. Cerfberr" is probably the officer and politician Max-Théodore Cerfberr (1792-1876).

Schumann held the chamber music of George Onslow in high esteem, believing that only Onslow and Mendelssohn approached Beethoven's mastery of the quartet form and it is indeed hard to believe that a composer whose chamber music also Mendelssohn and Berlioz ranked with that of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn could fall into obscurity. Perhaps no composer, more than Onslow, illustrates the fickleness of fame.

Onslow was born and lived his entire life in France, the son of an English father and French mother. His 36 string quartets and 34 string quintets were, during his own lifetime and up to the end of the 19th century, held in the highest regard, particularly in Germany, Austria and England where he was regularly placed in the front rank of composers. At a time when the string quartet was dominant, and challenging notions of stringed instruments as being merely lyrical in character, his quintets are striking for their contrasts of warm expressiveness and great dramatic intensity. His work was admired by both Beethoven and Schubert, the latter modeling his own 2 cello quintet (D.956) on those of Onslow and not, as is so often claimed, on those of Boccherini. Publishers such as Breitkopf & Härtel and Kistner were among many which competed to bring out his works. Such was Onslow’s reputation that he was elected to succeed Cherubini as Director of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts, based on the excellence of his chamber music and this, in an “Opera Mad France”, which had little regard for chamber music. However, after the First World War, his music, along with that of so many other fine composers, fell into oblivion and up until 1984, the bicentennial of his birth, he remained virtually unknown. Since then, his music, to the delight of players and listeners alike, is slowly being rediscovered, played and recorded. Onslow’s writing was unique in that he was successfully able to merge the drama of the opera into the chamber music idiom perfected by the Vienna masters. (21735)

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