Onslow, George (1784-1853) (DNB00)

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ONSLOW, GEORGE or GEORGES (1784–1853), musical composer, born on 27 July 1784 at Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne, was the son of Edward Onslow (youngest son of the Earl of Onslow), and of his wife, Mlle. Bourdeilles de Brantôme, a lady of great beauty. In early life Onslow was taught music as part of the ‘polite education of a gentleman of quality.’ On being sent to England to be educated, he studied under Hullmandel and Dussek, and, after the latter left England, under J. B. Cramer. Onslow subsequently returned to Auvergne, taking with him his pianoforte, the first instrument of the kind to be heard in the Puy-de-Dôme. At this period of his career his main idea seems to have been the attainment of great mechanical dexterity. He, however, turned his attention to composition on hearing extracts from Mozart's operas in the concert-room, and proceeded to Vienna to perfect his musical education. There he remained two years. But it was when he heard at Paris Méhul's overture to ‘Stratonice’ that (as he himself said) ‘I experienced so violent an emotion that I felt myself penetrated suddenly by sentiments which till that moment were quite unknown to me. … From that day I saw music in a different light’ (cf. Gazette Musicale de Paris, October 1853). At twenty-two years of age he began composition by taking as a model a trio of Mozart's, and he wrote a number of works on similar lines which were published later. In these he showed talents which he was advised by a friend, De Murat (afterwards Préfet du Nord), to cultivate under a competent teacher. This he found in Reicha, a pupil of Haydn, then just arrived in Paris (1808). In order to play classical chamber-music he also learnt the violoncello. Though living almost entirely at Clermont, he frequently visited Paris, and during one of these visits three string quintets by him were performed at Pleyel's house, and published in 1807. Two pianoforte sonatas and a set of quartets followed, and increased his reputation.

At the suggestion of his friends, Onslow attempted dramatic composition, the fruits of which were the operas: 1. ‘L'Alcalde de la Vega,’ in three acts, produced at the Théâtre Feydeau, 10 Aug. 1824. 2. ‘Le Colporteur,’ also in three acts, at the same theatre, 22 Nov. 1827 (cf. Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, 1825, x. 349). 3. ‘Le Duc de Guise,’ 8 Sept. 1837. None of these achieved more than a succès d'estime, the overture of the second work alone surviving for any length of time. In 1832 Onslow was elected one of the first honorary members of the Philharmonic Society in London, for which he wrote a symphony. In 1829, while boar-hunting near Nevers, Onslow sat down to make a note of a musical idea, when he was struck by a spent ball that lacerated his ear, and left him partly deaf for the remainder of his life. The musical idea he subsequently developed into the once famous quintet, No. 15, each movement of which is named after some phase in his illness. Thus the first when minor is called ‘La douleur,’ when major ‘La fièvre et le délire;’ the andante ‘La convalescence,’ and the finale ‘La guérison.’ On 10 April 1831 his first symphony—an arrangement of an earlier quintet—was played at a Conservatoire concert in Paris, and with some success; eight other symphonies of his were subsequently given at the same concerts. In 1838 he came into a large fortune by the death of the Marquis de Fontages, whose only daughter he had married. In November 1842 he defeated Adolphe Adam by nineteen votes to seventeen for the chair in the Institut rendered vacant by the death of Cherubini (cf. Athenæum, 26 Nov. 1842, p. 1016). Onslow visited Paris for the last time in 1852. He died suddenly, after a walk at daybreak, on 3 Oct. 1853, at Clermont.

His compositions, the number of which is enormous, include: (1) Symphonies, op. 41, 42; (2) thirty-four quintets; (3) thirty-six quartets; (4) six trios for pianoforte, violin, and violoncello; (5) a number of duets for violin and pianoforte; (6) a sextet (op. 30); (7) a septet (op. 79); (8) a nonet (op. 77); (9) sonatas for pianoforte alone, and for pianoforte and another instrument, besides the dramatic and other works mentioned in the text. The earlier quintets (which are by far his best compositions) were written with two violoncello parts, some of which were arranged subsequently, with one violoncello and one double-bass part. Onslow's works, one or two of which are heard even now occasionally, reveal skill, natural talent, and refinement; but he was devoid of the power of self-criticism, and consequently wrote and published too much. His large private means and high social position enabled him to publish all his works, and to secure their performance. But he has been well, if somewhat severely, characterised by a French writer as ‘a composer who passed the half of his life in searching for a [true] musical sense.’

[Georges Onslow: Esquisse par Auguste Gathy; Notice historique sur la vie et les travaux de Georges Onslow, par F. Halévy, ‘lue dans la séance de l'Académie des Beaux-Arts de l'Institut de France du 6 octobre 1855,’ a somewhat verbose work, reprinted in his Souvenirs et Portraits, Paris, 1861; Le Ménestrel, Paris, 1863–4, p. 113, by D'Ortigue; Scudo's Critique et littérature musicales (s.v. ‘de la Symphonie et de la Musique imitative,’ p. 279 et seq.), Paris, 1850; Schumann in ‘Musik und Musiker,’ vol. i. briefly criticises Onslow's A major symphony; Riehl's Musikalische Charakterköpfe, Stuttgart, 1857; Athenæum, 1853, p. 1233; Biographie Universelle (Michaud), Paris, 1843–66; Nouvelle Biographie Générale, Paris, 1852, &c.; Larousse's Dict. Universel du xixe Siècle, Paris, 1874, xi.; Fétis's Biog. Universelle des Musiciens.]

R. H. L.