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Toccata for piano (George Onslow)

Date

1810

Text

Dedicated to Mlle Bonne d’Alpy, the Toccata for piano in C major, Op. 6 was composed in 1810 and published by Pleyel in 1811. As a representative of a distinctive genre composed in earlier centuries – especially in the Baroque era – but essayed by no composer from Onslow’s own generation, it stands as a remarkable contribution within the composer’s output as well as to the French Romantic piano repertory as a whole. The toccata (from toccare, ‘to touch’), assiduously cultivated by the composer and keyboard player Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), is characterized both by its formal liberty and by its requirements for virtuosity. Notwithstanding its moderately fast tempo – allegro moderato – this short piece demands a great nimbleness on the part of the performer, who is called upon to play virtually-uninterrupted continuous sequences of semiquavers simultaneously with both hands (which Onslow manages with a remarkable sense of equality). An exhilarating feeling derives from this superimposition of continuous movement, enhanced by the importance of the swirling ornamented motifs (heard from the work’s opening bar). Whilst the piece matches the outline found in sonata form, it nonetheless enjoys a striking formal liberty, in particular the absence of a central development section – something unusual in the context of sonata form with a fast tempo – which is counterbalanced by the inclusion of development areas first in the exposition, and then in the recapitalisation. If this work stands out in splendid isolation in the piano terrain of its time – apart from Schumann’s Toccata which perhaps provided the inspiration for Onslow’s work – the Toccatas from Ravel and Debussy would later on generate renewed engagement with the special demands of dexterity of this piece by Onslow, and its distinctive qualities from the eighteenth century.