Unless you are intending to enter the EuroMillions draw, or perhaps have an important appointment, September 24th may not appear to be a particularly noteworthy date. However, at the People’s Museum, hanging on the wall next to the Museum of Childhood Ireland exhibition, there is a portrait which makes September 24th a somewhat more interesting proposition. Drawn by acclaimed Limerick artist Thomas Ryan, (who very sadly passed away in Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown this past Wednesday), a portrait of George Alexander Osborne lies nestled among such other historical Limerick figures as Catherine Hayes and Joseph O’Mara (opera singers), Kate O’Brien (author) and Sylvester O’Halloran (surgeon). Although you may not at first recognise the name, let’s discover together a little about this uniquely talented Limerick man and why it is that on September 24th, he is worthy of commemoration.
In 1806, on September 24th, in Nicholas Street, near to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick, a musical enigma called George Alexander Osborne was born. He was the son of the cathedral organist (also called George) and it was at his fathers feet that he learned the rudimentary piano skills which would catapult him to international fame and renown. (1) Demonstrating an adeptness and flair for the piano, George honed his skills by long solitary hours of practice and self-teaching and eventually found himself substituting for his father on occasion upon the magnificent organ of St. Mary’s Cathedral.
He also demonstrated the ability of music to cross obstinate and destructive boundaries as he became the organist in the Roman Catholic cathedral of St. John the Baptist. (2) Despite his musical prowess it seemed as though the world was destined never to hear his music as he entered studies for ministry in the Church of Ireland. However, his true God-given calling was not to ordained ministry but to share his musical gifts with the world. Therefore, he abandoned his studies and began to focus on honing his piano skills. An illness which beset his aunt in Belgium proved paradoxically fortunate for the young Osborne who was dispatched by his father to Brussels to care for her. While there, his piano playing caught the eye of a minor local aristocrat who decided to sponsor Osborne. (3) This sponsorship proved extremely fortuitous for Osborne as it enabled him to begin teaching. 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. (4)
Upon his release he travelled to Paris, and it was here, to use a colloquialism, that his stock truly rose. It was in Paris that he taught Charles Hallé, the German who would go on to establish the famous orchestra in Manchester, and it was also here that he befriended such musical luminaries as Frédéric Chopin and Hector Berlioz. By now, Osborne was widely respected not only for his playing, especially his interpretations of Bach, but also for his ability to give advice on writing music and people like Berlioz often sought him out to quiz him about how to write for the piano. (5) By this stage, Osborne was held in such esteem that the great Chopin invited him to play at his first concert in Paris, which 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, from Nicholas Street in Limerick, played one of them. (6) However, despite, and perhaps because of their great friendship and mutual respect, Osborne was not afraid to tell Chopin a few home truths! When Chopin toured England in 1848 he begged his friend not to hear him in Manchester, as he feared his playing would disappoint. Instead, Osborne hid near the back and encouraged a positive audience response by cheering and applauding; he conceded, however, that Chopin’s playing had been too delicate, and admitted to feeling sorry for him. (7)
By the time of his death on 17th November 1893 in London, Osborne had composed 83 original piano works, 178 transcriptions and fantasias for piano solo, 24 piano duos, 44 vocal works and 55 chamber music pieces, while further unpublished works including two operas and orchestral overtures have now been lost. (8) With this loss of his music in mind, we are indeed indebted to the pianist Una Hunt who has once more made Osborne’s music popular and available to the world again.
Therefore, today, on his birthday, September 24th, we remember George Alexander Osborne, who came from Nicholas Street, played the organ in St. Mary’s and St. John’s Cathedrals, taught piano to the Crown Prince of Holland, fought in a revolution, played at Chopin’s debut concert in Paris and encouraged him to be more than he thought possible, despite a seemingly harsh critique. A packed life! So, if you are a lover of music, drop in to us today and we’d be delighted to show you his portrait and perhaps even play you a bar or two of his most famous composition ‘La pluie des perles’ or “A Shower of Pearls” and who knows, perhaps if we are lucky, you may be able to imitate George Osborne and amaze us with your own piano playing skill in the Blue Room. We look forward to seeing you as we remember a true Limerick hero, George Alexander Osborne.
Thanks to team member Ger Fitzgerald for researching and writing this piece.