performed by the Venice Quartet, or below by the Takeuchi String Quartet in a surprisingly clear recording
Ridolfo Luigi Boccherini was born on February 19, 1743 in Lucca, Italy, into a musical family. His father was a cellist and bassist, and sent the young Luigi to Rome to study, and in 1757, with the composer barely in his teens, his father took him to Vienna. He also spent time in Spain, and apparently did quite well there. There’s an anecdote on Wikipedia of his being perturbed when King Charles III of Spain was displeased with a passage of Boccherini’s new trio, and ordered it changed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the composer’s response was to double the passage, for which he was fired. He had a number of well-to-do patrons and made quite a name for himself not only as a composer but as a fine cellist, being able to play violin parts on the cello “at pitch”, a skill he apparently learned when the necessity came to fill in for sick violinists last minute.
But like many folks, he was neglected after his death. In the nineteenth century, he became known as “Haydn’s Wife,” owing to the similarities in their styles, didn’t help, but his work is becoming more recognized. He wrote unique string quintets, with two violins, one viola and two cellos, as well as a total of 141 string quartets, these works being championed and recorded by the eponymous Boccherini quartet. He also wrote dozens of sonatas for the violin, the cello, an absurd number of string trios, a dozen piano trios, the 141 string quartets, seemingly almost as many string quintets, a few dozen flute quintets, a dozen cello concertos (and a concertino), and a few dozen symphonies, among much else.
So today… we start almost at the beginning. I can find precious little information about the quartets, which I suppose isn’t surprising with the vast volume of works he composed for various chamber ensembles, numbering literally into the hundreds. But I was able to get in my possession the Venice Quartet’s recordings of some of the quartets (imagine how many discs it would take to get the whole cycle recorded), and this was the earliest of the works in the set, so here we go.
Three movements, totaling around 14-15 minutes. The first, allegro assai, is indeed bouncy and quick, light on its feet. There’s an instant feeling that the composer is beyond comfortable with the quartet. Everything falls into place, and Haydn certainly comes to mind here. It’s bouncy and lively, but also lyrical, the pieces fitting together like clockwork. The exposition is repeated, which isn’t boring in the least, and the development is obviously quite small here, before we reach the recapitulation. While it’s easy to see the piece’s charms, it isn’t just sweet music; there’s plenty of content here, and intricate detail in the writing. The cello takes a more foreground role in a few passages toward the end of the movement, which ends politely.
The second movement adagio is suddenly very melancholy, with plaintive repeated notes, and mourning throughout the quartet. It lightens up slightly, but this slower, more pensive movement is a start contrast to the vivaciousness of the first. The overt minor-key-ness seems to dissipate in passages, but the focal point of this work is a mourning violin, singing a sweetly melancholic line over its echoing brethren. It’s tender, intimate, and heartfelt, with high points of more intense emotion. While the physical scope of the movement isn’t huge, equalling the first movement at about five and a half minutes, this middle movement is able to express quite a lot without getting long-winded or repetitive. It’s succinct and effective.
The finale is a rondeau, a sweetly polite, almost serenade-like movement, the shortest of the work. Its soft opening is matched by some crunchier passages, but it’s overall more mellow than the quick-footed first movement. Viola and cello get their moments to carry their own melodies here and there, and the writing is denser than in the previous movements. The distinct sections each have their own charms and characteristics, and it’s more full-bodied, with more material to present, a really wonderful end to a charming piece.
Overall, there’s a tender sweetness to this work. I can’t say that typifies Boccherini’s work, because I haven’t listened to enough of his work to make such broad statements, but from what I gather of Boccherini’s reputation, he was a master of chamber music such as this; how could you be so devoted to it (literally hundreds of chamber works for trios or quartets or quintets) and not have a real passion for it? I think that comes through.
We’re only observing the earliest of his efforts in the form, but such a large body of work (that seems to have all, or mostly, been recorded, no less) is a compelling if not also overwhelming reason to give this man some more attention. A commenter on the above YouTube video stated (and I’m wildly paraphrasing) that it’s nice to see these unknown or less famous quartets perform these works with such poise because not only does it make a good argument for the composer’s work, but it shows that the history of classical music, its survival even, is not dependent upon a select few with fancy recording contracts and media people, and I’d say a similar sentiment is true for Boccherini. Of course, there’s Haydn and Mozart, but what about Boccherini? Pleyel? Wanhal? Dittersdorf? The last of those has made an appearance on the blog, but the others were all candidates for this spot in the New November series. Haydn is only the most well-known of that period, but what more is there to learn about and enjoy from these other once-famous composers? Take the time to find out. I certainly didn’t say anything insightful about Boccherini’s work here, but I most definitely enjoy the piece. Chip away at his hundred-plus quartets, and be glad we have such history preserved for us to enjoy.
But also stay tuned for much more this month, as we take a decades-long leap forward toward the Romantic era and something quite different, more stuff you might not know you’ll love.