“The Australian String Quartet’s committed performance restores this long-neglected gem to Australia’s musical history.”
Ever heard of Charles Edward Horsley? Me either, or at least until this recording of his 1862 string quartet in C major came to my attention. Horsley came from a musical family — his father William Horsley was a noted composer of that beloved form of the nineteenth century, the glee; his grandfather a composer, theorist, and writer on music — and his talents were recognised sufficiently for him to be sent to Kassel and Leipzig to study with Moritz Hauptmann and Mendelssohn, who was a friend of the family.
His later career was mainly spent as an organist and he functioned in that capacity while in Australia from 1861, acting as the organist of Christ Church, South Yarra, in Melbourne. Horsley’s name features in a list of composers of the early nineteenth century in Britain such as Walmisley and Sterndale Bennett that I can’t say I know at all well — certainly they rank, at least in my consciousness, some distance below composers like Samuel Sebastian Wesley, already something of a minority taste, whose careers followed a trajectory similar to Horsley’s but who have, at least on occasion, been remembered in concert performances, recordings, and Anglican and Methodist hymnals.
In its general outlines, Horsley’s career was no different to those of many other musicians of his age who grew up in church music circles and often went to study in Germany, frequently under the patronage (in the most general sense) of Mendelssohn. Horsley’s oblivion might be a result of the fact that his music is just weaker than that of some of his contemporaries (like Sterndale Bennett), but it’s hard to make that assessment on the basis of what seems to be his weak representation in recordings or printed sources. Among the few print sources I could find of his music was an interesting work with historical (or perhaps merely antiquarian) interest, fragments of his cantata Euterpe, used to inaugurate the Melbourne Town Hall, and redolent of a composer like Spohr.
While I imagine the Australian String Quartet’s recording of Horsley’s string quartet was motivated by a bit of unabashed nationalism and the desire to explore the foundations of European music-making in Australia — Horsley’s is claimed as the first string quartet written in Australia — it’s not as if a weak work were being revived just for the purpose of filling a hole in Australian musical history. Writing on Horsley routinely points out his compositional debts to Mendelssohn, and the influence of the German composer is absolutely manifest in this work; the work is in that sense one of the High German Romanticism that gripped Britain at the time and would have been well appreciated by the cognoscenti of the colonies.
A scan of the works-list of Horsley shows a composer at least well practised in chamber and symphonic music but Nicholas Temperley, who wrote the Grove article on Horsley says that the ‘symphony, overtures, and chamber music were written with great pains, and show an adequate ability to sustain the larger forms; but they are contrived and without genuine ability’. This assessment may be true for the other works, but I’m not sure it’s at all right about the C major quartet other than underlining its commitment to Mendelssohn (it’s very like Mendelssohn). This is a fascinating work based on a cyclic structure, with careful attention paid in particular to characteristic part-writing for all members of the ensemble — there is no question here of mere filler parts for the viola or bass-line accompaniments for the cello. If Horsley’s voice emerges independently from Mendelssohn, it is in the commitment to this kind of individuality, an individuality that does exist in Mendelssohn but is rarely as dominant for as long as it is here, making Horsley at times a kind of proto-Brahms.
Navigating the kind of flitting texture represented by Mendelssohn’s A midsummer night’s dream (dominant in the first movement) and the more heavy-set earnestness of a Brahms (dominant in the second and fourth movements), and with the two moods occasionally in juxtaposition, would test an ensemble, but the Australian String Quartet gives the kind of performance that really champions a work like this. Horsley wrote quite a bit of chamber music and there are composers in his ambit who also specialised to some extent in chamber music forms. I’d be interested to know what else there is, especially if the music is in hands as capable as these.
[Note: You can hear excerpts of this string quartet via the website address at the top of this article.]