George Onslow wrote his autobiography in the third person. Baller.
  • George Onslow wrote his autobiography in the third person. Baller.
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Beethoven and Schubert admired him. Mendelssohn and Schumann thought his string quartets were as good as those by Mozart and Beethoven. Schubert fashioned his cello sonatas after this composer’s cello sonatas.

He was George Onslow and almost nobody has heard of him since before World War I.

I found his Symphony No. 4 and gave it a listen. The opening movement is all that I could hope for from a mid-19th-century master. The rest of the symphony? Not so much.

Video:

George Onslow: Sonata for Cello in F Major

I turned to one of his string quartets bearing the Schumann mark of approval. Then I listened to another. Then I pulled up one of his sonatas for cello and piano. Piece after piece of Onslow’s chamber music confirmed that we have a neglected master here.

All of these forgotten masters are casualties of the first world war. Some, such as George Butterworth, were literal casualties of the war.

World War I shattered the promises of the Enlightenment upon which the majority of 19th-century Romantic music, art, and literature were based. (European music, art, and literature, that is.) It also erased the residue of the medieval concepts of honor and chivalry. Next time you are tempted to complain that chivalry is dead, realize that it is indeed dead — that it was murdered a million times over in the trenches of Europe.

It is the idealism of the Enlightenment that continues to attract us to 19th-century music. There is a true belief in the progression of the human spirit guided by the muses of music, literature, and the physical arts.

Let me boil this down.

European culture before WWI: “We’re awesome.”

European culture after WWI: “We suck.”

Onslow belongs to the “We’re awesome” group. His music appeals to those of us who still think the human spirit is something worth celebrating.

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Comments

Psycholizard May 10, 2018 @ 4:14 p.m.

Most historians date the end of the Enlightenment to the shock of the French Revolution and the wars that followed. Onslow, who was three in 1789 when that Revolution started, does belong to that "Classical" enlightenment sound, judged by that excellent excerpt. That style had been superseded long before the First World War by Composers we now call Romantic like Wagner, Liszt, and Chopin. Several generations later, composers like Mahler and Shostakovich pioneered a radically different style well before 1914. I can't see the Great War as fatal to Onslow's memory. his style seemed quaint long before then. It's not remarkable that composers should be forgotten,very few are remembered.

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