Luigi Boccherini – creating a lasting impression

Posted on September 10, 2013

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Searching for musical notes written down outside Haydn’s, Mozart’s and Beethoven’s study rooms I stumbled into some truly delightful pearls of creation. Prior to this moment in my life, hearing the name of Boccherini would have put a broad smile on my face, reminding me about some of my first contacts with music as a child watching The Muppet Show. He is widely known for this Celebrated Minuet (in the key of A major) from his String Quintet in E major, Op. 11 No 5, which appears in the media wherever there is a need to mock the aristocratic high society, or just “high culture” in general. I have included here one of my favourite sketches by the Muppet band called Electric Mayhem (I wanted to include them somewhere in my blog anyway):

Those with special interest in the cello would be familiar with his cello concertos, especially the Cello Concerto in B flat major (No. 9, G.482), which was later re-published in a markedly altered form by Friedrich Grützmacher, nineteenth century German cellist. However, if one played closer attention to Boccherini’s music, they would be rewarded with the joy of discovering some very original pieces of stunning beauty, which remind me of early twentieth century composers such as Ravel or Debussy. So please fasten your seatbelt, and listen to the following Fandango:

Luigi Boccherini: Fandango (1798). Quintet for two violins, violoncello, guitar and castanets n. 4 in D major (G. 448). Le Concert de Nations / Jordi Savall (conductor)

Luigi Rodolfo Boccherini (1743-1805) was an Italian born cellist and composer. His town of origin was Lucca, Tuscany, where his father was a well-accomplished double-bass player, the first cellist to play solo concertos on double bass. So the young Luigi couldn’t escape musical education. As a child, his father taught him music, and later he continued to study with Abbé Vanucci, the director of the local cathedral. He turned out to be talented, and after he exhausted local possibilities, he studied in Rome for a year, with the great cellist Giovanni Battista Costanzi. This was a passport to his first job at the Imperial Theatre Orchestra in Vienna, where they played together with his father. From Vienna they moved to Milan, a city with vibrant musical life, where life served him the first tragic blow (as a start of a long series) – his father died in 1766. By this time Boccherini was a well-regarded musician, who was invited to tour in Italy, France and Spain. As a composer, he specialised mainly in chamber music (string duets, quartets, quintets, cello concertos, piano quintets) but he was also composing symphonies (30 in total), music for the harpsichord, sacred music (a mass and Stabat Mater) and a Zarzuella (La Clementina). He created more than 600 works, categorised by Yves Gérard in the twentieth century.

After 1969 he spent much of his life in Spain, where he was particularly successful. Between 1769 and 1785 he was working for the King of Spain’ brother, Luis Antonio. The Spanish culture also left a distinctive influence on his musical style, he was much inspired by the songs and dances of Spain, which he introduced in his music. From 1785 he was the court composer of Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia in Berlin, until his return to Madrid in 1797. Boccherini’s personal life was plagued by loss and sorrow – he was married twice and had eight children from his two wives, none of them survived him. His second wife and last living daughter died a few days apart in an epidemic in 1802, sending the composer into a depressive state and frailty until his death three years later.

Boccherini: Piano Quintet Op.57 No. 1 G.413 in A Major (1799). Riccardo Caramella, piano and the Zagreb String Quartet

Boccherini’s music is grounded in a Baroque – Rococo background, after studying the works of Palestrina and Corelli as a youngster.  He became one of the greatest cello masters and innovators in the history, being able to use the cello in a versatile fashion, even to substitute for other instruments if necessary, such as the viola or the violin. He also developed an interest in the guitar (composed 12 guitar quintets), which has not been part of the standard classical orchestra.

The progressive music of Haydn and other exponents of the galant style later heavily influenced him. Boccherini had a great ability to develop sophisticated and beautifully balanced melodic lines and an unparalleled inventiveness in creating rich musical textures by vibrant rhythms and an amazing variety of instrumental tone colour. Listening to his music one can also perceive reflections of the many losses he suffered, where the light-hearted and elegant classical melodies are impregnated with a sense of melancholy.

In comparison with Haydn, Boccherini was less interested in achieving dramatic development in his compositions, which became the hallmark of the late classical style. This, perhaps, contributed to his works being taken back from the front window of musical life for more than a century. He was much criticised for the repetitiveness and the decorative nature of his music. However, as later turned out, mainly in the twentieth century, repetition can be a powerful artistic tool, essential in bringing the listener into a certain “state of mind” where they would be more receptive to beauty. Fortunately, with the rise of modern musicology, his music was re-discovered in the twentieth century by a wider group of musicians.

In my view Boccherini could be best described as an “eighteenth century impressionist”, who created musical landscapes that were meant to please the listeners and communicate moods and momentary sensations. And even after the great romantic, modern, postmodern and post-postmodern era, I would argue (yes, I do think so and strongly support the idea 😉 ) that art has a role in pleasing the senses. To illustrate this argument I have chosen his composition entitled “La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid” (Op. 30, No 6, G. 324), where he immortalised the feeling, the buzz of the nightlife in the city, with its characteristic dances and city sounds.

Boccherini: La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid: Op. 30 no. 6 (1780). Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall (conductor)

References:

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2013) Luigi Boccherini [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/70874/Luigi-Boccherini Accessed 7th September 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Luigi Boccherini [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boccherini [Accessed 8th September 2013]

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Posted in: Part 4