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  • Graham Abbott

On the Fringe: Luigi Boccherini

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

Something which really gets on my nerve in this business is the notion of the "one hit wonder". So many really fine composers are only remembered these days for a single work, and I find it sad that so much great music lies forgotten as a result of this. (I recently devoted an entire post to this subject. You can read it here.)


As if it's not bad enough that many composers are remembered for only a single composition, what's worse is that so many composers are judged on the basis of a single composition. The composer who is the subject of this program is perhaps a perfect example. Here’s the “one hit”. [listen]


This minuet is just about all most people know of the life and work of Luigi Boccherini; in fact until I started thinking about this program it was just about all I knew of the life and work of Luigi Boccherini. An elegant, innocuous piece which has been used to paint Boccherini into the elegant and innocuous corner of 18th century music. Boccherini was no Mozart or Haydn - no-one was - but I've discovered there's a lot more to him than this pretty tune. In this post I want to share a bit of what I've learned.


Ridolfo Luigi Boccherini was born in the town of Lucca in northern Italy in February 1743. He came from a musical family; his father was a singer and double bass player. Young Luigi (he never used his unusual first name) and his siblings were given every encouragement to develop their artistic talents. Luigi's brother was a dancer and later an opera librettist. His elder sister was a dancer and his younger sister was initially a dancer, but later had a career as a singer.


Bellotto: Piazza San Martino, Lucca (1742)

Luigi himself had his earliest musical education at the hands of his father, and later studied with various church musicians in Lucca. He studied singing and cello and is known to have sung in a number of churches, and in at least one theatre, before his voice broke. At the age of ten he went to Rome to study, but was back in Lucca by the time he was thirteen. In that year - 1756 - he played a cello concerto in Lucca, thus making his initial mark as a solo cellist. Boccherini became known as a cello virtuoso, one of the most famous cellists of his time, in an age when cello virtuosos were rare.


In his teens, Boccherini's musical aspirations in Lucca were supported and encouraged by Giacomo Puccini, who was maestro di capella (Director of Music) at Lucca's main church, S Martino. This Giacomo Puccini was the great great grandfather of the famous Giacomo Puccini who wrote La Bohème and Tosca.


In 1757, aged fourteen, Boccherini began more than ten years of travelling, initially with his father but later on his own. Lucca remained his base but it was clear that the young musician saw his talents taking him further than his provincial home town. These travels took him to Venice, Trieste, Vienna and Florence and he travelled as a cello virtuoso, giving solo concerts and playing in orchestras. Already at this time he was composing and his first significant compositions appeared around 1760. Among them was a set of string quartets which were published as his opus 2 in 1761 when he was 18. (Boccherini’s works are usually known today by “G” numbers, from the catalogue of his complete works published in 1969 by the French musicologist Yves Gérard.) [listen]


In 1764 Boccherini secured a permanent cello playing job in Lucca - four years after he'd initially applied for the position at the Cappella Palatina - but this didn't mean he was getting ready to settle down; far from it. Boccherini's travels continued, taking in Genoa and Nice.


These later travels were undertaken with one of his colleagues from Lucca, the violinist Filippo Manfredi. After Nice they headed on to Paris, a city which would hold an important place in Boccherini's life. Almost all of Boccherini's published works were printed in Paris, even though he himself was not actually based there. Boccherini and Manfredi stayed in Paris for about six months in 1767 and 1768.


During this time Boccherini composed a set of sonatas for keyboard and violin which had wide circulation throughout Europe well into the 19th century. They were published as his opus 5. [listen]


Boccherini and Manfredi had originally intended to go on to London from Paris, but the Spanish ambassador in Paris offered them work in Spain so they ended up heading to Madrid. By the spring of 1768 they were both playing in an opera orchestra in Aranjuez and it was in Spain that Boccherini was to base his career for the rest of his life.


The Aranjuez company toured to a number of different theatres, giving Boccherini the chance to become widely-known and - as we would say today - schmooze. He seems to have been a member of the company until at least 1770; Manfredi was its principal violinist until 1772.


In 1768 Boccherini met Giacomo Casanova in Valencia and Casanova recorded the meeting in his autobiography. Even at this stage of his career Boccherini was famous enough for Casanova to have described him as "celebrated". The following year the opera orchestra performed the first of Boccherini's symphonies with prominent solo parts, a sinfonia concertante, and Boccherini would have undoubtedly played the solo cello part himself. [listen]


Longhi: Giacomo Casanova

Boccherini's life must have been extremely busy right from the start of his time in Spain. Quite apart from playing as a member of the opera orchestra in Aranjuez, he was almost certainly performing privately in many houses of the nobility, in addition to turning out a steady stream of compositions. He mostly wrote chamber music - trios and quartets at this stage; the famous quintets were to come later - and he nearly always wrote such works in groups of six, designed for publication. Boccherini kept a detailed catalogue of his chamber works, listing them by opus number, but he seems to have cared less about his orchestral works and even less about his few vocal works. The intimacy of chamber music was clearly his first love, and his most lucrative source of income as a composer.


A portrait of Boccherini by Pompeo Battoni is now part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. It dates from the mid- to late-1760s.


Battoni: Luigi Boccherini playing the Cello (1760s)

1770 was an important year for Boccherini. Around this time he married Clementina Pellicia, a soprano in the opera company for which he worked. Over the next few years they had six children together but sadly only two of the children outlived their father.


On the professional front, Boccherini had a set of cello concertos published in Paris in 1770 and these are among the works which have brought him lasting fame. They were written for himself to perform and they attest to his extraordinary technique as a cellist. It is regrettable that Boccherini didn't write a technical book on cello playing; it would have been an invaluable insight into his method. The cello works - and in particular these concertos - are the best indications we have as to the sort of playing which made him famous across Europe. [listen]


The major professional step up the ladder which Boccherini experienced in 1770 was his entrance into the service of Prince Don Luis of Spain in Aranjuez on the very high salary of 14,000 reals (raised to 18,000 two years later). In this post - as "chamber composer and virtuoso" - Boccherini's compositional output blossomed almost immediately. He wrote orchestral symphonies and a great deal of chamber music, almost always in sets of six. It was at this time that Boccherini started writing in the form for which he is probably best remembered today, the string quintet with two cellos.


Mengs: Prince Don Luis de Bourbon of Spain (1769)

String quintets in the 18th century (such as Mozart's) were usually scored for two violins, two violas and one cello. Boccherini more or less invented - or at least made popular - the quintet for two violins, one viola and two cellos (the combination Schubert used in his famous C major string quintet). In all likelihood the reason Boccherini started to write for this combination was that Don Luis had a resident string quartet; when Boccherini added himself he had the quintet with two cellos, and it's interesting that in the majority of his string quintets for this combination the first cello part is much more virtuosic than the second.


The famous minuet which we heard at the start of the program - Boccherini's "one hit" - comes from one his earliest quintets. Another of the quintets from the start of his time in the service of Don Luis has the nickname of L'uccelliera (known in English as "The Aviary" or "The Bird Sanctuary") and is one of the very rare occasions on which Boccherini allowed himself to be programmatic in his music. [listen]


Famous he may have been, but in Don Luis's service Boccherini was somewhat away from the mainstream of European musical life. He sought to remedy this by establishing and maintaining contacts with publishers and composers across Europe. He also established contact with Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia (son of Frederick the Great), who was a keen cellist, and sent the Prince a number of compositions. This put Boccherini potentially in conflict with Don Luis, as his contract stated that while employed by Don Luis he could not compose for another patron. Perhaps in an effort to make sure he didn't leave to enter the service of the Prussian Prince, Don Luis improved Boccherini's salary again in 1784.


Graff: Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia

In 1785 Don Luis died. Boccherini petitioned King Carlos III for support and was granted an annual pension of 12,000 reals and the offer of the next available place in the royal musical establishment. Boccherini was granted this position some time within the next year or so. Closer to home there was sadness; Boccherini's wife Clementina died in 1785.


In 1786, now free from his contract to Don Luis, Boccherini formally entered the service of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia as chamber composer, but interestingly he didn't move to Berlin. He was only required to send the Prince 12 compositions a year, and this continued after the Prince became King Friedrich Wilhelm II later the same year. Boccherini seems never to have gone to Prussia in person (despite the claims of some biographers) and he lived in Las Arenas (near Madrid) for the rest of his life.


Mengs: Carlos III of Spain

The majority of the works Boccherini sent to his patron in Berlin were string quintets of the two-cello variety, understandable when one considers Friedrich Wilhelm was a cellist. These works show Boccherini capable of writing music which is simply beautiful and elegant while at the same time being inventive and reflecting a truly individual mind. [listen]


At the same time as Boccherini was employed by the royal establishment in Madrid and (via long distance) the Prussian court in Berlin, he also entered into a contract with the music-loving Duchess-Countess of Benavente and Duchess of Osuna, Maria Josefa Alfonsa Pimentel. For 1,000 reals per month, Boccherini became her private composer and orchestra director, and it was at the Duchess's palace that Bocchierini's only surviving opera was performed. This was La Clementina, written in the popular Spanish form of music theatre known as the zarzuela. It's one of the few vocal works by Boccherini to have survived. [listen]


Goya: Maria Josefa Alfonsa Pimentel, Duchess-Countess of Benavente and Duchess of Osuna

In 1787 Boccherini remarried. This time his wife was Maria del Pilar Joaquina Porretti, daughter of the former first cellist at the King's musical establishment in Madrid. The following year, 1788, King Carlos III died and the new King, Carlos IV, was not only a music lover but played the violin himself. Boccherini maintained professional connections with the court and is said have played regularly with the king's salaried musicians.


Goya: Carlos IV of Spain

His connections with Paris continued as well, with his music still published there and still being regularly performed by leading musicians.


Apart from a massive amount of chamber music, Boccherini continued to write symphonies in the 1780s. These works - like nearly every European composer's symphonies in the 1780s - show the influence of Haydn, whose symphonies were being published throughout Europe at the time. Boccherini greatly admired Haydn and they occasionally corresponded. The symphonies Boccherini wrote in 1786 (later published as his opus 37) show Haydn's influence but also Boccherini's sheer panache. [listen]


By the 1790s Boccherini was himself famous across Europe, equally as a composer and as a cellist. Sadly, his later years were not happy ones. In 1796 one of his daughters died, aged 25, and on the professional front his connections with Parisian publishing houses - largely unaffected by the Revolution - now came unstuck through the shoddy treatment he received from publishers, among them Ignaz Pleyel.


The patronage of the music-loving Duchess Benavente-Osuna came to end by the late 1790s, but a commission from another Spanish noble led to the creation of a series of chamber works involving guitar. These guitar quintets are all arrangements of earlier works, but for some reason they are better known today than the original versions. [listen]


In these last years Boccherini turned more to vocal music, but sadly a second opera, written for Turin, is now lost, as is a Mass setting. In 1800 he revised a setting of the Stabat mater which he had originally composed in 1781 and in either version, this is a work which deserves to be better known. The 1781 setting is for soprano and strings, whereas the 1800 version is revised to provide vocal parts for two sopranos and tenor. This link takes you to a beautiful recording of the original version. [listen]


Among Boccherini's final works is a set of piano quintets which are dedicated to the French nation. These were written in 1799 and are glorious. [listen]


The following year he found a new patron, namely Lucien Bonaparte, the French ambassador in Madrid. Most puzzling of all is the Christmas cantata Boccherini wrote for Tsar Aleksandr I of Russia in 1802. How Boccherini came in contact with the Russian court is a mystery, and the work itself, sadly, is lost.


In 1802 Boccherini suffered the first of many personal blows with the deaths of two of his daughters. Two years later, in 1804, another of his daughters and also his second wife died. It was in this same year that he gave up composition and by all reports was a beaten man in difficult financial constraints. Luigi Bocchierini died of peritoneal tuberculosis on 28 May 1805 and was buried in Madrid. He was 62. Among the inventory of Boccherini's personal effects - which he himself drew up - are listed not one but two Stradivari cellos.


In 1927 Boccherini's remains were exhumed and taken to his home town of Lucca and were buried in the basilica of S Francesco.


Luigi Boccherini left to the world a huge amount of beautifully crafted music: some 27 symphonies, more than 100 string quintets, almost 100 string quartets and more than 100 other chamber works. In addition there are his vocal works: operas, sacred works, oratorios, cantatas and concert arias. There's much more to him than the celebrated minuet from an early quintet, as I hope this program has demonstrated. And thankfully an increasing amount of his music is available in recordings, so there's plenty around to explore.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2011.

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