Luigi Boccherini was born into the family of singer and double-bassist Leopoldo Boccherini. Numerous sisters all became ballerinas (his nephew was the renowned choreographer Salvatore Viganò), except one who opted for a singing career. Elder brother Giovanni Gastone was also a ballet dancer. Later he successfully trained for a new occupation as librettist, working with Salieri and writing the text for Haydn’s oratorio ‘The Return of Tobias’. Luigi may have selected a different profession due to a limp. He was the only member of the family prepared to follow in his father’s footsteps, taking lessons in singing and cello playing from an early age.
Luigi Boccherini became well-known as a virtuoso musician when he was still a child. In those days cellists had few opportunities to play as a soloist. Nonetheless Boccherini made his debut at the age of 13 with a concert in his hometown of Lucca, under the patronage of local maestro di capella Giacomo Puccini (a forefather of the great composer). A year later Luigi performed in Vienna and then in a number of Italian cities, in both orchestras and chamber ensembles. For six months he played with his friend the violinist Filippo Manfredi, in a quartet that also included Pietro Nardini and Giuseppe Cambini. They went down in history as the first string quartet to give public concerts.
By 1768 Boccherini was in Paris, and from there the musician set off for Madrid, where he found employment in the orchestra of the Italian opera and soon married the singer Clementina Pelliccia (it is probably no coincidence that the sole surviving opera by Boccherini bears the title ‘Clementina’).
As a performer Boccherini had no direct heirs. There were no famous pupils and no treatises on the art of playing the cello. Only his many compositions for this instrument enable us to assess his accomplishment as a virtuoso.
Boccherini gave concert performances of his own music when still an adolescent, and by the age of thirty he was a highly respected composer who had already written a large number of chamber and concert works for the cello as well as other instruments. He became one of the pioneers of the quartet as a distinct genre (by 1767 his quartets had been published in Paris). Moreover Boccherini is credited with composing the first ever string quintets with two cellos: the Infante Don Luis, with whom the composer took up employment in Madrid, already had a string quartet. When Boccherini added his cello to the quartet they constituted a musical ensemble extraordinary for the time. In total he wrote 141 quintets, most of which feature two cellos.
During the composer’s lifetime his works were performed and published in many European capitals, but primarily in Paris and Vienna. His chamber music, in particular, brought widespread acclaim. Towards the end of his life Boccherini was in a position to enjoy the fruits of fame throughout Europe. After the death of Don Luis in 1785 his patrons were the ducal family of Benavente-Osuna, and subsequently Lucien and Joseph Bonaparte (the latter granted him a pension). Young musicians who admired his work flocked to visit Boccherini – the violinist Pierre Rode among them. However, his last years were troubled. After losing his second wife and four daughters one after the other (only his two sons survived their father) he ended his days in Madrid, gravely ill and alone in a tiny one-room apartment.
After the composer’s death he was forgotten for a while, until the end of the 19th century saw a revival of Boccherini’s music, initially with bold adaptations: Friedrich Grützmacher replaced the slow movement from the Cello Concerto in B flat major with his own composition and ‘arranged’ the remainder, and in all likelihood Henri Casadesus simply attributed his own violin concerto to Boccherini… Opuses compiled by various authors from fragments of the composer’s works or ‘improved’ on his behalf can still be found today in the repertoire of musicians sometimes unaware that this is not the original music.
All the Boccherini works presented in this recording are comparatively late. They were written in the 1780s, when the composer had already lived in Spain for many years after his travels in Europe, and represent Boccherini’s classical, mature style.
The Cello Concerto in D major is distinguished from his other concertos by its rich orchestration. An extended solo by two violins, two oboes and two horns (that is, all instruments except the violas and double basses) call to mind a sinfonia concertante. The parts played by the oboes, who assume a status almost equal to the cello, are particularly important.
The violas and double basses already mentioned appear mainly in the ritornellos. Episodes in which they participate sound almost like music for an ensemble of chamber soloists. One of the finest embellishments of texture in the concerto is the light and unobtrusive counterpoint, a secret understood by composers in the epoch of Classicism.
The slow movement bears the curious notation ‘Andante lentarello’. Apparently the second word, a noun from the adverb ‘slowly’, is used by Boccherini alone and restricted to music of a very serious, noble and profound character. As a rule the composer gave performers the opportunity to improvise cadenzas according to their own taste, but in the second movement of the Concerto in D major he preferred to specify the cadenza. Towards the end of the cadenza Boccherini obliges the cello to reach the highest notes of the coloratura soprano, even a little beyond.
The finale of the concerto opens with a rather boorish theme on the two horns which is then taken up by the entire orchestra in a noisy tutti. This renders all the more unexpected a tender episode with solo oboes, and the gallant cello solo that twice leads to a delightful and languid climax, followed by the soloist’s cadenza.
The Nocturne in G major is written for eight instruments: a flute (or oboe), horn, bassoon, two violins, viola and two cellos. Boccherini tried his hand at ‘night music’ on several occasions and has left us other examples of the genre (something akin to a nocturnal serenade), as well as the acclaimed ‘Night Watch in Madrid’ (otherwise known as Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid). A sense of ethereality and the slightly rarefied night air in the G major Nocturne is reminiscent of Mikhail Glinka’s Souvenir d’une nuit d’été à Madrid, or even Claude Debussy’s La soirée dans Grenade.
The musical texture in Boccherini’s octet literally breathes. There is minimal use of the instruments’ lower registers, and in the first movement of the octet the flute part soars high above those of other instruments. The melodic material is unhurried, certain motifs are repeated twice and the responses between instruments create an effect of open space.
The minor-key central section of the first movement, where the plaintive timbre of the bassoon is particularly evident, provides a sharp and direct contrast. This is passionate music in the spirit of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement. As a result the first movement develops as an almost romantic contraposition of image and emotion, of peaceful nature and the rebellious human soul.
The minuet begins with an ingratiating theme that might better serve its purpose as supplement to some more significant theme. Both the minuet and finale of the octet obediently follow the first movement, like courtiers behind the sovereign. Like the first movement, they are written in the key of G major and comprise minor-key episodes, although the contrast is much softer. Here Boccherini resorted to the art of stringing together the most straightforward and unassuming musical phrases coloured only by varying effects of timbre.
Among Boccherini’s 27 symphonies the number of concertante symphonies (with the participation of several soloists) almost equals that of symphonies ‘for a large orchestra’, and they contrast in every respect.
In the Symphony in C minor ‘for large orchestra’ (1788) Boccherini avoided any semblance of his beloved ‘gallant style’ and drew on the austerity, loftiness and nobility of high Classicism. Except for the second movement, a Pastorale denoted by the mysterious but already familiar title Lentarello, the symphony contains almost no separate solo instruments or ensemble fragments, and orchestral tutti predominate. Only the trio of the minuet is ingeniously orchestrated for wind instruments alone. Interestingly enough, in the second movement the flute traditionally associated with pastoral music is replaced by a solo violin.
No less unusual for this Italian composer characteristically generous with melody is the economic use of musical material. The first movement of the symphony is largely constructed from the elaboration of one motif that returns in the minuet. Such an elaboration ‘in the German manner’ is rare in the work of Boccherini, who preferred to alternate a succession of new themes with virtuoso episodes.
The repetition of the theme from the first movement in the minuet can be explained in two different ways. In 18th-century performances symphonies were often split, with the first three movements played as an overture in a major concert and the fourth movement heard at the end of the evening, taking the role of a finale. Possibly Boccherini decided to ‘round off’ the first three movements by repeating the theme, thereby rendering the finale, a fiery tarantella, more self-sufficient.
However, insistent repetition of the theme suggests a programmatic concept. Only 4 of Luigi Boccherini’s 27 symphonies are in a minor key. The Symphony No. 6 in D minor – unofficially called ‘La Casa del Diavolo’ (‘The House of the Devil’) – demonstrates the same technique as the Symphony in C minor, with repetition of a first
movement theme at the beginning of the third movement. Moreover, the third movement is a free adaptation of Gluck’s celebrated ‘Dance of the Furies’, when in the ballet ‘Don Juan’ the fiends drag away the hero, or in the opera ‘Orfeo’ vainly attempt to terrify the lead character. Diabolic subject matter undoubtedly exists in ‘La Casa del Diavolo’.
Some kind of programme may well be implied in the Symphony in C minor. How else can we explain the appearance of chromatic progressions and terrifying harmonies reminiscent of Mozart in the first movement, and occasionally in the second (at the transition to the minor-key section)?
The unearthly calm of the Pastorale calls to mind the tranquillity of the Elysian Fields in Classical mythology. Was this a popular subject in the 18th century, where demoniacism is juxtaposed with pastoral scenes? This is certainly true of the Orpheus story, but of course there may be other interpretations.
The Symphony in D major is completely different. The title page of the manuscript calls it a ‘Concerto a più strumenti obbligati’ – a sinfonia concertante with solos for two violins, a flute, two oboes, two horns, two violas, two bassoons and, of course, a cello. This motley crew of instruments lends the music a pleasant diversity. As if Boccherini is inviting us to admire his superb musical material without the distractions of a programme external to this music.
It is clear from this symphony that Boccherini was a gifted lyricist and melodist. The minuet begins with a delightful theme, probably one of the composer’s most profound and moving melodies. The third movement (Andantino) is strangely reminiscent of Schubert, while the finale in the style of a folk melody invites comparison with the finale of the Nocturne in G major.
The symphony was commissioned by the cello-playing King Friedrich Wilhelm II, for whom Haydn and Mozart wrote their ‘Prussian’ quartets. Boccherini’s first encounter with the king in 1783 led to an immediate increase in the stipend he received in Spain. Clearly there was a danger the composer might be lured to Berlin, although he probably never visited the Prussian capital and his contact was limited to correspondence. On 21 January 1786 Boccherini was appointed chamber music composer at the court of Friedrich Wilhelm, with an obligation to send twelve new works annually. The composer carried out his commission until the king’s death in 1797. Composing for the Prussian monarch was obviously more pleasurable than having to play quartets with another dilettante – the new Spanish king Charles IV.
The only copy of the score was preserved in Berlin’s Royal Library. After the Second World War the symphony was presumed lost. In fact the manuscript had been brought to the USSR with other trophy music scores. After being preserved for many years in the Manuscript Department of the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture, it was finally identified and restored to life.
Anna Bulycheva, translated by Patricia Donegan