George Onslow’s Sheltered Music


The two instruments brought together are a pianoforte of 1822 and a cello of 1726 with a copied bow. I am not sure the choice of a pianoforte is the best here. Of course with only a cello next to it and a recording that can be mastered afterward the weakness of the pianoforte is not too visible, but my real objection is that Onslow only used Pleyel pianos, so he definitely used the next generation of keyboards of this type that is a lot more powerful but also flexible. I think it would have been good to use a Pleyel piano of the period actually used — maybe — by Onslow himself to be as close as possible to the sound the composer could hear, which probably was the sound deaf Beethoven imagined when he composed for the pianoforte.

The two instruments nevertheless are well contrasted and they yet seem to be entering a dialogue like repeating some little bits of musical sentences and turning them into variations, short variations to always come back to a leading solo, or quasi-solo of one instrument. This is chamber music of the first half of the 19th century and yet at times there is the power and the nearly fiery energy of some compositions by Berlioz or other French composers of this time; And after all we have to come back to what is chamber music and not the famous Requiem of Hector Berlioz reverberating endlessly in the Madeleine Basilica. So we are not surprised that the slower movements are more intimate, and yet that is chamber music but for social events in the vast dancing halls of the bourgeois and aristocratic mansions, chateaux or even grandiose apartments in Paris ritzy neighborhoods.

Aulteribe Castle

But in those days a concert, even a chamber music concert was a show in which the audience played the major role, I mean the audience wanted to be seen strutting silently on their chairs, not so much heard. It was then all in the hats, the suits, the dresses, the jewels and the parading of all these vanity fair components to impress other people who were not supposed to show they were impressed but to show they were deeply involved and wrapped up in the music and that they could follow the tempo if not the notes. In that society of financiers, bankers, industrialists, and other merchants there might have been now and then someone who had some musical education and even some musical taste.

This music is perfect. Strong enough to keep an audience after a too heavy and alcoholic dinner awake and attentive, and at the same time now and then soft enough to kind of smile with heavenly happiness in this musical plumage, or should I say goose down? This music is not dramatic and is not supposed to be. That’s probably the difference between Onslow and musicians like Berlioz and particularly artists of most other arts after the Empire and the Revolution. No forbidding grandeur is needed and no revolutionary violence is accepted. Imagine the Hernani revolution or battle and the red waistcoat of Théophile Gautier as a real romantic revolution and we know a political revolution, more like a nice coup d’état of one king against another, one branch of the royal family against another will ensue. Nothing of the sort here. Onslow is far away from the north-eastern neighborhoods of Paris that were being carved out by the bankers and other real estate entrepreneurs waiting for and announcing Haussmann some twenty years later. Onslow was in his castle-chateau in Aulteribe, Puy de Dôme. That’s really far away from Paris. And there was no train at the time, not even close by.

So the question is why does this music come back in our century of turmoil and upheaval? Because, and that’s my experience in many classical music festivals, the audience is looking for something that sounds “classical” or “romantic” but not too upsetting and tumultuous. Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré are the extreme points they can go to “en masse,” meaning in a hall that can contain 1,500 people or more to make the show sustainable, though with some but not much subsidizing-money. You can fill the Abbey Church of La Chaise Dieu with Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Berlioz of course, but Onslow is just good enough for the more intimate rooms outside the Abbey Church itself, like the Cziffra auditorium. It does not bring large audiences together because of its quite deserved reputation of being music for salons and reception halls of bourgeois more or less aristocratic houses or mansions. And I am still wondering if this charming music could really be provided with a life that could bring enthusiastic crowds to the concert hall. I don’t think so.

Maude Gratton

It is exactly like landscape painting that is defined in this 19th century in France. It is just a still life of open natural landscape with very few human characters and very little human action and at best some old ruins because it was trendy in France to have even artificial ancient ruins, made by masons and stone cutters. You find none of the tormented skyscapes, landscapes, seascapes of Turner and other English painters of the same period. You do not find any of the Sturm und Drang adoration of nature seen as the stage of the violence of nature, life, and human fate. Werther wrote his love letters in a cemetery in the dusk of coming night, with wind, rain, tempest, storm, and other flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. We only find some of this force, power, and violence in some literature in France though a lot less than in Goethe or Schiller but not in painting. We can find some of this power in some works by Berlioz and maybe a couple more composers but that’s exceptional. Music is for the withdrawing rooms of the bourgeoisie. If you want to have a more recent embodiment of this atmosphere, you can get into Marcel Proust who will put you to sleep with the tea ceremony of his grandmother and her famous madeleines.

Emmanuel Jacques

I must say though that the two performers on this recording do a pretty good job at modernizing and dynamizing this music. There might, after all, be something in Onslow’s music if we accept that music is an entertainment of the peaceful and pacified soul of sinners after confession and communion. A sort of mundane transition from that confession and that communion in some ecstatic state of mind after a good dinner with nice wine, the transition to the world to which tomorrow Monday they have to go back and start exploiting the workers and other laborers again. That explains why the Fabian working class movements are English and Marx is German. In France, we can only have pale imitations like Proudhon and other supporters of the blunt and blank idea that private property is high way robbery. Just read some of the edulcorated “Marxian” catechism of Paul Lafargue to see what the French son-in-law of Marx himself produced.

Aulteribe Castle’s Chapel

If Onslow had gone out of his Aulteribe mansion-chateau-castle he might have discovered the world of knife makers next door in Thiers the way George Sand did. It might have changed his vision of the world. The heart of this exploitative inhumane industry was in a valley called the “gorges of hell” (creux de l’enfer). But be sure the bosses of these factories loved Onslow’s music which was done for them. Luckily in the same period, there was Hector Berlioz and a few others to save the reputation and durability of French music, romantic, classical or whatever.


Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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