Luigi Boccherini



Many people have heard one particular piece by Luigi Boccherini without being aware of the composer’s name. In the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, it is the Minuet from Boccherini’s String Quintet in E, Op. 11 No. 5 that the crooks pretend to rehearse while plotting their villainy in a lodging house.

That minuet is a good example of Boccherini’s style: tuneful, elegant, graceful. It comes from one of more than a hundred string quintets that the composer wrote for the musical establishment at the court of the Infante in Madrid, where he spent most of his working life.

Boccherini was born in 1743 in Lucca: at the time, the beautiful walled city was the capital of a republic. He made his first public appearance as a cellist at the age of thirteen, after which he went to study in Rome; but his time there was cut short when he and his father, who played the double-bass, were offered appointments at the imperial theatre in Vienna. They stayed there for a year, before – probably – returning to Lucca at the end of 1758. Back in Vienna, Boccherini began to make his reputation as a composer, a set of string trios attracting the attention of Gluck.

Despite his success in the Habsburg capital, Boccherini hankered after a position in his native city. He was eventually appointed ‘player of the violoncello’ to the Council, his duties divided between the theatre and the palatine chapel. He obtained leave to visit Milan in 1765, where he is said to have been responsible for the first public concerts ever given by a string quartet. On the death of his father the next year, he decided to leave Lucca and embark on a concert tour with Filippo Manfredi, one of the violinists in the Milan quartet.

After giving concerts in Lombardy and the south of France, the two men reached Paris early in 1767. Here they were taken under the wing of Baron de Bagge, who invited them to perform at his musical salon. He also introduced Boccherini to Madame Brillon, described by Dr Burney as ‘one of the greatest lady-players on the harpsichord in Europe... regarded here as the best performer on the pianoforte, but just brought to Paris’1, to whom Boccherini dedicated a set of sonatas for keyboard and violin.

In March 1768, Boccherini and Manfredi performed in public under the auspices of the Concert Spirituel. Later that year they travelled to Madrid, apparently urged on by the Spanish ambassador. Manfredi was appointed to the orchestra of Don Luis, the Infante, who was the brother of King Charles III. Boccherini was less fortunate at first; but in 1769 he dedicated a set of quartets to the Infante and was rewarded by being invited to join the latter’s household as performer and composer, at a relatively high salary.

The terms of the appointment stipulated that Boccherini should compose exclusively for Don Luis; and it was for a father and his three sons at the Infante’s court that he composed his string quartets, joining the family for performances of the quintets for which he is best known. Not long after taking up the post he married Clementina Pelicho, by whom he had several children. In 1776 Don Luis himself married, the consequence for Boccherini being that he and his family had to follow the couple to their new home near Ávila.

In 1783, Boccherini received a letter – and a gold box – from Friedrich Wilhelm, the cello-playing nephew of Frederick the Great of Prussia, praising his compositions and expressing interest in receiving copies of new ones. Two years later came a double blow: the deaths of both his wife and his patron. But Boccherini was granted a pension by the Spanish king; and, now free of his exclusive contract with the Infante, he was appointed ‘Composer of Our Chamber’ in 1786 by Friedrich Wilhelm, who succeeded his uncle the same year. (It was to this same sovereign that both Haydn and Mozart were later to dedicate their ‘Prussian’ string quartets.)

Boccherini also benefited from the patronage of the Duchess of Osuna, who made him director of her orchestra. A glimpse of the composer is afforded by William Beckford, the author of the Gothick novel Vathek, who met him at a ball in 1787 at which the guest of honour was the Turkish ambassador. Appalled by the playing of the ambassador’s musicians, Beckford joined in a Spanish dance led by ‘a host of guitars’. Boccherini, appalled in his turn, whispered loudly:

If you dance and they play in this ridiculous manner, I shall never be able to introduce a decent style into our musical world here... Give me the Turkish howlings in preference; they are not so obtrusive and impudent.2

Boccherini had earlier married again, his wife being the daughter of a late friend. Nothing is known of his life between 1787 and 1796; from 1796 to 1799 there are letters to the composer and publisher Ignaz Pleyel in Paris which indicate that Pleyel was taking advantage of Boccherini’s good nature.

When Friedrich Wilhelm died, his son refused to renew Boccherini’s position; but the arrival in 1800 of Lucien Bonaparte as France’s ambassador to Spain led to further patronage. Thereafter, the life of Boccherini makes sad reading. Two daughters died in 1802, and a third daughter and his wife in 1804. Boccherini himself died in 1805, survived only by two sons. He was buried in Madrid, but in 1927 his remains were reinterred in the basilica of San Francesco in Lucca.

Boccherini’s output included about thirty symphonies, some of which are really overtures or concertante pieces. Of the works recorded here, Nos 3 and 8 were composed for the Infante Don Luis in 1771, whereas No. 21 was written for Friedrich Wilhelm in 1786.

Symphony No. 3 in D major, G 503, No. 1 of 6 concerti a grande orchestra, Op. 12

1. Grave – Allegro assai
2. Andantino
3. Minué amoroso – Trio – Minué D.C.
4. Presto assai

Symphony No. 3 in D (No. 1 of 6 concerti a grande orchestra, Op. 12; G 503) is scored for oboes, horns, and strings, the violas and cellos divided in places. The oboes are replaced by a flute in the Trio of the third movement, which suggests that at least one member of the Infante’s orchestra played both instruments. After a slow introduction, the Allegro assai is launched with repeated quavers in the bass. The move to the dominant is marked by Boccherini’s trademark syncopations (think of that Ladykillers minuet!). A brief excursion for the oboes is followed by a rising unison arpeggio in the home key, which in turn leads to the recapitulation.

The horns are silent in the next two movements. The Andantino, in D minor, is delicately scored for the oboes and divided strings; the violas and cellos are also featured in the Minué amoroso. On this recording, the flute part is played on the piccolo. The finale is a jolly movement, with mild chromaticism towards the end.

Symphony No. 8 in A major, G 508, No. 6 of 6 concerti a grande orchestra, Op. 12

1. Allegro assai
2. Larghetto
3. Minuetto con molto [sic] – Trio – D.C. il Minuetto
4. Grave – Allegro assai

Scored for flutes, horns, and strings with divided cellos, Symphony No. 8 in A (No. 6 of 6 concerti a grande orchestra, Op. 12; G 508) begins with a call to arms, a reminder of which is heard after the strings have repeatedly played a phrase that marches up and down again like the Grand Old Duke of York. The Larghetto is a wistful the melody taken by the first violins. Stern unisons inform the D minor Trio section of the Minuetto con molto [sic]. The finale begins with a slow introduction that ends surprisingly in a cadence in B major, the dominant of the dominant. With the Allegro assai all is explained, as it consists of an exact repeat of the second part of the first movement, which begins in E major. This repetition of material heard in an earlier movement is another Boccherini trademark.

Symphony No. 21 in C major, G 515, No. 1 of 4 sinfonie a grande orchestra, Op. 37

1. Allegro con moto
2. Menuetto. Con un poco di moto – Trio – D.C. al M.
3. Andante –
4. IV Allegro vivo assai

According to the modern edition by Antonio de Almeida, Symphony No. 21 in C (No. 1 of 4 sinfonie a grande orchestra, Op. 37; G 515), for flute, oboes, bassoons, horns, and strings, is a ‘Concerto a più stromenti obligati’. Certainly there is much solo work. The exuberant Allegro con moto highlights the oboes, bassoons, solo violins, and solo violas, all alternating and combining with the tutti. The Menuetto, which follows, is tonally unpredictable: it is in C major, with a tinge of C minor; whereas the Trio seems to be in C minor but spends most of the time in E flat.

The slow movement is an impassioned duet for oboe and cello. It leads without a break into the finale, the start of which sounds like a key phrase in Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony, which lay far into the future: an unwitting tribute to a composer whom Boccherini much admired.

1 Charles Burney, Dr Burney’s Musical Tours in Europe, Vol. I, p. 27. Ed. Percy A. Scholes. London, Oxford University Press, 1959.

2 Italy; with sketches of Spain and Portugal. By the Author of ‘Vathek’, Vol. II, pp. 332–33. London, Richard Bentley, 1834.

Richard Lawrence (2010)