Three composers who though they wrote in many forms are particularly remembered for their chamber music. First up is George Onslow (1784-1853). He was born to an English father and a French mother. His grandfather was the first Earl of Onslow. Born to wealth he never lacked for money and was able to self-subsidize his career. His interest in music came early. His first compositions were published at his own expense. Realizing that he needed further training he studied composition under Anton Reicha in Paris when he was 24.
His reputation grew during the 1820s. He was elected the second Honorary Fellow of the Philharmonic Society of London (Mendelssohn was the first). Chopin and Liszt played his Grand Sonata for four hands Op. 22 at their debut joint performance in Paris. While he wrote operas and symphonies, chamber music is the foundation on which his modern reputation rests. He wrote 36 string quartets, 34 string quintets, and 10 piano trios as well as numerous other works for piano and strings. Schumann thought his quartets approached those of Beethoven. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1837.
After his death, his reputation declined to almost total oblivion. Beginning in the late 20th century and continuing to today numerous recordings of his music have proliferated. His compositions are very artfully constructed, interesting, and lively. A comparison to Beethoven is not helpful. His music does not reach that exalted a level, but it certainly merits attention. He was a classicist who was unmoved by Beethoven’s late work. In fact, he was completely dismissive of it. Here is a complete performance of Onslow’s Op.47 String Quartet No.22 In C Major. It’s a fine work that capture’s the listener’s attention and which deserves more than one hearing.
Robert Volkmann (1815-83) was born in Lommatzch Germany. He showed musical ability at an early age. He studied under several teachers. Towards the end of his student days he met Robert Schumann who encouraged him to continue in the profession. After a stint as a vocal coach in Prague, he permanently relocated to Budapest in 1841.
He taught piano and did odd musical jobs in the Hungarian capital, even serving as the choirmaster and organist at a Reform Synagogue. He also was a correspondent for the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung. He composed to little notice until in 1852 when his Piano Trio in B-flat minor caught the attention of Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow who performed it frequently throughout Europe.
The publisher Gustav Heckenast in 1857 bought the rights to publish all Volkmann’s works in exchange for a regular income regardless of sales. Thus, Volkmann was able to fully dedicate himself to composition, until Heckenast closed down his Budapest publishing house in the early 1870s. From1875 until his death, he was professor of harmony and counterpoint at Budapest’s National Academy of Music, where Liszt was the director.
The trio (linked above) starts with a lovely largo. Its middle movement, ritornello, is thematically linked to the initial movement. It is beautifully constructed and is very impressive. The final movement, marked allegro con brio, starts without a pause between it and the preceding section. It’s almost as long as the first two movements combined. It too expands on the material introduced in the first movement. The whole work deserves comparison with Brahms with whom Volkmann was on very friendly terms.
In addition to this trio, Volkmann wrote an earlier one, he also composed numerous works for solo piano, piano four hands, two pianos, piano and solo string instruments, six string quartets, two symphonies, and many choral and vocal pieces. The neglect of his work over the century following his death is gradually being reversed.
Josef Foerster (1859-1951) was far more than a composer of chamber music. His output is vast, including six operas and five symphonies. His chamber music includes five string quartets. He was born in Prague and died in one of its suburbs. His father, who had the same name, taught at the Prague Conservatory. One of senior’s pupils was Franz Lehar. The younger Foerster also studied at the local music school. He was also interested in literature and was both a writer and critic of distinction. He married the fine soprano Berta Lautererová and followed her to Hamburg and then Vienna. He taught and was a critic in both cities. In 1918 he returned to Prague just as the Czechoslovak Republic was founded. Thereafter he taught at the conservatory and composed almost until his death. His opus numbers exceed 180.
He was a contemporary of Leoš Janáček, though his musical language is a little more conservative. His style remained that of late romanticism. His String Quartet no. 4 in F op. 182 was written when he was 85. It’s an hibernal piece that looks back to a lost time and place. The viola solo that starts the work sets the tone for the entire piece.
These three composers will never be known by more than a handful of music devotees. Nevertheless, their music is worth some attention when the appetite for the familiar is sated.