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Double Bass Quintet no. 15 in C minor 'de la balle' op. 38

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Allegro moderato ed espressivo – Menuetto: Dolore (Presto) – Andante sostenuto: Convalescenza – Finale: Guarigione (Allegro)

If Berlioz considered his own life to be like a grand novel apt for nourishing his own creativity, the same cannot be said for Onslow: there was no shocking work, no scandalous affair, nor any suicide attempt. However, this composer, disposed towards “pure music”, was inspired by an event to produce a which astounded. In July 1829, whilst out hunting Onslow suffered an accident which nearly cost him his life, when he was inadvertently struck by a bullet intended for a wild boar. During the course of his convalescence he came up with a string quintet (which can be played either with two cellos or with a single cello and a double bass) whose first movement he had composed before this drama had occurred. It is only the initial dark and melancholic Allegro which lacks a descriptive title, even if in it one can perhaps hear the initial crack of the ill-fated gunshot. The Menuetto conveys the pain of the wound received by increasing the contrasts in intensity and the tense harmonies, all within a discourse which comes over as being purposefully disjointed. The central Trio draws this instrumental theatre out in a throbbing mood of “fever and delirium”, crossed over by menacing arpeggio motifs. The Andante sostenuto, to be played “con sordini e sempre sotto voce”, on the other hand, is devoid of such contrasting ideas. An extended melodic line gently lulls the patient in his convalescence. The spirited finale once again expresses fever and delirium, but this time from a man who is volubly declaring his return to life by means of an array of different thematic ideas. Without this accident, perhaps Onslow would never have had the audacity to try out the rhythmic and instrumental effects found in this quintet, subtitled “de la balle” (the bullet), one of the few programmatic chamber works from the nineteenth century. This special nature of this piece also led to it becoming Onslow’s most frequently performed work.


publication date : 25/09/23

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