(bClermont-Ferrand, 27 July 1784; d Clermont-Ferrand, 3 Oct 1853). French composer of English descent. His father Edward Onslow came to France in 1781, and two years later married Marie-Rosalie de Bourdeilles de Brantôme. The eldest of four sons, George probably studied the piano in England with J.N. Hüllmandel while still very young. From January 1799 to July 1800 he studied the piano with J.L. Dussek in Hamburg, and then seems to have completed his musical education in England with J.B. Cramer. He recognized his musical vocation in 1801 when he heard the overture to Méhul's Stratonice. A gifted amateur, he wrote his first works (opp.1–4) before 1807; they were published by Pleyel. He married Delphine de Fontanges in July 1808. In the same year he asked Reicha, who had just arrived in Paris, to teach him composition. After these lessons he wrote string trios, quartets and quintets, and took up the cello so that he could play chamber music with his friends. He divided his time between the provinces and the capital, spending the winter months in Paris, where he could have his latest works played, particularly at the quartet performances held by Baillot, the Dancla brothers and Tilmant. During the summer of 1829 he had a near-fatal accident when out hunting. While convalescing, he composed the last three movements of a quintet he had begun before the accident. This quintet, op.38, known as ‘De la balle’, remained the composer's mascot. In 1830 Onslow became the second honorary member of the London Philharmonic Society. In general, he maintained close and friendly relations with the English musical world, particularly with John Ella, George F. Anderson and Dussek's nephew Pio Cianchettini. In 1834 he was elected president of the Athénée Musical. He succeeded Cherubini at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1842, and his career became established in these years. He was a founder member of the Association des Artistes Musiciens (1843) and was invited to the Aachen music festival in 1846. Inspired by this visit, he offered the committee of the Niederrheinisches Musikfest his Symphony no.4. It was accepted, and the composer was invited to conduct it at Cologne the next year. This journey must have been his last outside France. In 1852 he was affected by rheumatic pains and failing sight in the left eye, and gave up composing for ever.
Onslow's wealth made him musically independent, freeing him from material constraints and allowing him to devote himself to chamber music without concerning himself with the tastes of the French public. However, he felt a true passion for operatic composition; the existence of an opera (Les deux oncles) in autograph manuscript dating from 1806 shows that he had tried his hand at this genre at the same time as composing his very first quintets. This interest in opera is also evident in the composer's correspondence. Although his three operatic works L'alcade de la vega, Le colporteur and Guise were given as comic operas at the time, it is clear that they approached the grand opera genre, which explains the notably cool reception they received from the critics, who thought it inappropriate to stage such dramatic works at the Opéra-Comique. Onslow's operatic language shows a certain monotony in its style. The vocal line is seldom independent of the orchestral accompaniment, and the composer resorts to over-repetitive devices (vocal duets developing in 3rds, scales, chromatic lines, homorhythmic choruses etc.). The large intervals, difficult sequences and excessive chromatism are fairly demanding on the voice. Onslow's instrumental music developed in relatively clear-cut periods. From 1807 to 1832 there is a clear predilection for piano works and string quintets.
Although the majority of his works for solo piano are youthful productions of no real interest, the duos and trios contain pre-Romantic features similar to those found in Hummel, and are of incontestable quality, if formally rather rigid. They are unusual in France at this time for the equal importance assigned to each instrument. Onslow's string quartets and quintets come at the peak of his compositional career. His youthful quartets (opp.8, 9 and 10) are notable for great flexibility of writing, exceptional rhythmic and melodic charm, and great vitality. They are clear successors to the quatuor brillant and the Classical tradition. Between 1817 and 1831 Onslow composed very little for quartet, but in 1832 he returned to form with new and sudden verve. This was probably linked with his discovery of Beethoven's late quartets, which shocked and fascinated him. He composed the most significant of all his quartets (opp.46-56) within three years. With all four instruments now essential to the discourse, these works show great emotional intensity, opening up the way to new harmonic and rhythmic daring, and they contain movements of striking beauty. Finally, from 1835 to 1846, the year when he stopped composing quartets, Onslow moved away from melodic writing to concentrate on more complex thematic structures. This cost him some lack of understanding on the part of the critics, who missed the style and melodic charm of the early works.
The string quintets were composed for an interesting diversity of ensembles. The first, dating from 1806 to 1825 (opp.1 to 25) were written for two violins, viola and two cellos (a viola part being provided to replace the first cello if necessary). After hearing the double-bass player Dragonetti in London, Onslow replaced the second cello with a double bass (opp.32 to 35). With op.37 and its successors he favoured two cellos again, but all the quintets were published with two extra parts, allowing them to be played in any of these combinations. Like the quartets, these quintets bear witness to the richness of Onslow's musical development, which departs from Classicism and embraces a style of composition in which a surprising anticipation of the language of Brahms is apparent. Some of these quintets must undeniably be placed among the great masterpieces of 19th-century chamber music. The end of the composer's life saw him returning to the piano within larger chamber ensembles (the quintets op.76, the sextet op.77b and the septet op.79), probably because of a fashion for large ensembles at the time. These last works, evidence of a delayed pre-Romanticism, do not compare with their predecessors.
Onslow's work was particularly successful in Germany and Austria throughout the first half of the 19th century, as the many editions of his works show. Kistner and Breitkopf & Härtel, in particular, competed for the privilege of publishing Onslow in the German-speaking countries. This passion for a composer compared in turn to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn progressively died down towards the middle of the century. He was less famous in France. His chamber works, although regularly played in musicians' salons, were described as erudite and serious and did not become popular with the general public.
Sonata (c), op.2 (1807); Air écossais varié, E, op.5 (1811); Thème anglais varié, A, op.28 (c1811); Toccata, C, op.6 (1811); Charmante Gabrièle, E, op.12 (1817); Introduction, variations et finale sur ‘Aussitôt que la lumière’, g, op.13 (c1817); 6 pièces, E, A, A, b, E, E (c1848); Fantasie sur ‘'ange gardien’ (c1849)
MGG1 (B. Schwarz)
J.d'Ortigue: ‘Biographie musicale: G. Onslow’, Revue de Paris, lvi (1833), 148–63
F.Stoepel: ‘Georges Onslow: esquisse biographique’, Gazette musicale de Paris, no.19 (1834), 149 only
G.Murat: Notice sur Georges Onslow (Clermont-Ferrand, 1853)