Sunday, October 04, 2015

How not to stand out


Currently riding high in the non-fiction charts is How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed by psychologist, motovational speaker and TV talking head Rob Yeung, a book that has been acclaimed as the definitive guide on how to sell yourself. As the blurb for the book tells us: "we all need to sell ourselves", and this explains why today Klout scores are more important than CVs and success is measured by Facebook 'likes', and why some music journalists never let the facts get in the way of a good tweet. But the insidious need to stand out in music and elsewhere is nothing new, as the story of George Onslow tells us.

George Onslow was born in 1784 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. His father was a wealthy English landowner, and his mother came from a distinguished French family. He showed considerable musical gifts as a child; he first studied piano where he was exposed to the great German keyboard tradition, and then took up the cello as a student in Paris. He started composing in his early twenties, and from 1808 until his death in 1853 Onslow divided his time between his country estates in the Auvergne and Paris; while in Paris he participated in the music season and his music was played in influential salons.He was a prodigious composer and his output included thirty-six string quartets, thirty-four string quintets, ten piano trios, four operas, and four symphonies. During Onslow's lifetime his compositions were acclaimed in Germany and played alongside the Viennese classics, and he was spoken of as "the French Beethoven". But following his death his music quickly fell out of both fashion and favour as a new generation of French composers - Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Franck etc - rose to prominence. The taste-making critics of the nineteenth century - the equivalent of today's digital commentariat - gave Onslow a critical mauling following his death, and the music of 'the German Beethoven' remained unpublished and unplayed until very recently.

In a perceptive essay the French musicologist and Onslow biographer Viviane Niaux has explained why the composer's career followed a boom and bust trajectory. George Onslow clearly hadn't read How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed, because he remained based in provincial Clermont-Ferrand rather moving to fashionable Paris, his aristocratic status challenged the French virtues of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and his Viennese-influenced compositions swum against the tide of emerging French musical nationalism. So, just as still happens today, the merit of Onslow's music was outweighed many times over by non-musical factors. Or, in other words, you don't just need to be a fine musician, you must also know how to sell yourself.

Viviane Niaux's essay is published in the documentation for the first in an outstanding series of recordings of George Onslow's string quartets made by Quatuor Ruggieri. This young and immensely alented quartet is an offshoot from Les Talens Lyriques founded by Christophe Rousset. In an interview discussing the differences between Western and Eastern music, Zubin Mehta explained how in classical music - especially the Viennese school - the bass line is extremely important, because in the Western tradition - unlike in the East - the music is written vertically. As a cellist Onslow wrote superbly for the lower registers, and his skill is emphasised by the Quatuor Ruggieri's use of gut strings - audio sample via this link, video via this link. (The overlooked importance of the bass line is relevant to previous discussions of should classical music turn up the bass, of how 'standard' hall acoustics need to be rethought, of the preference for headphone listening, and - most importantly - the changing sonic expectations of new audiences).

The Quatuor Ruggieri's interpretations of George Onslow's Quartets are being issued by the small and independent French Agogique label. (Two discs are currently available). You only need to listen for a few minutes to appreciate that Onslow's music is scandalously neglected; in addition the performaces are superb, the discs are beautifully presented with excellent documentation, and the sound - particularly in Quartets op. 8 no 1 & 3 and op. 10 no 3 recorded in the Church of Sainte-Pierre, rue Manin, Paris - is demonstration quality. It is quite ridiculous that musicians are judged by their ability to sell themselves rather than their ability to make music. Not only is George Onslow neglected, but I have not seen a single mention of the outstanding advocacy of his music by the Quatuor Ruggieri in the copious online outpourings of the corporate-centric digital commentariat. As has been pointed out here before, classical music's big opportunity is to expand the appetite of its current audience. So, to misquote Carl Nielsen, give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for those who know how to sell themselves.

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