Saturday 18 November 2017

Classical: Shower of Pearls - gems from an Irish composer

National treasure: St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, was the launch pad for George Osborne
National treasure: St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, was the launch pad for George Osborne
George Alexander Osborne

George Hamilton

This is not the corner to be considering Brexit, and yet I realise if I mention the name George Osborne, that will inevitably come to mind. But the George Osborne here is not the British Chancellor who fell with the defeat of David Cameron's referendum. This George Osborne lives on in his field, and that field is music.

He pops up inevitably when I'm looking for something Irish to play, and he gets the headline spot today because this is his birthday. He may not be as well known as a John Field or a Charles Villiers Stanford, but years of neglect have done nothing to dim the sparkling effervescence of his compositions.

George Alexander Osborne was born in Limerick in 1806. His father was the organist at St Mary's Church of Ireland cathedral. He was also a teacher, and he was the one who got George started on the piano. This wasn't the only musical career to feature Limerick Cathedral as its launch pad. The singer Catherine Hayes, 12 years younger than George, was discovered by the bishop singing in a garden next door to his palace.

He arranged for her to go and stay with George Osborne and his wife, by then living in Paris, and that was the start of a stellar career for Kate Hayes, as she was known, one of the top sopranos in Europe in her day.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Unlike Catherine, George Osborne's departure from Limerick wasn't meant to be the start of a great musical adventure.

He had an aunt in Brussels, and she wasn't well, so his father arranged for the young nephew to go and visit. In Belgium, he got himself a sponsor - a minor local aristocrat who admired his playing.

This helped him get started as a teacher as well. Among his pupils was the Crown Prince of the Netherlands, which had control over Belgium at the time. Osborne even got involved when the revolution that would lead to Belgian independence erupted. He volunteered on the Royalist side, and ended up in prison.

But that didn't last long, and soon he was on his way to Paris, which was just the place for a pianist like him. Liszt was there. Chopin arrived around the same time.

Liszt, the great showman, really impressed Osborne. Chopin, with whom he'd much in common as a foreigner newly arrived in the French capital, became a friend.

Chopin's first concert in Paris was held at the premises of the piano-manufacturer Pleyel, as much a sales pitch for their instruments as an opportunity for the musician and composer to lay out his wares. One of the items on the programme was a piece for six pianos, and George Osborne played one of them.

During his time in Paris, he taught Charles Hallé, the German who'd go on to establish the famous orchestra in Manchester, and he assisted the composer Hector Berlioz who, unusually, did not play the piano himself.

Osborne stayed in Paris for a dozen years before moving to London. There, he carved a career as a top performer. He was also active in the Philharmonic Society and was a director of the Royal Academy of Music. His home was in Regent's Park. He died there, aged 87, in 1893. You'll find a collection of Osborne's pieces on an RTÉ lyric fm CD called Shower of Pearls, which features the pianist Una Hunt, who also provides the perfect example of what liner notes should be.

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