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The Symphonies of a Chamber-Music Composer

The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985

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Denby Richards


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Luigi Boccherini's life bestrode both the baro­que and classical periods. He was born in the Italian town of Lucca on February 19, 1743. At that time, Bach was busily engaged as cantor of St. Thomas' in Leipzig and had another seven productive years to live; Handel's Messiah was performed f"r the first time in London that year, at the original Covent Garden Theatre, its com­poser having another 16 years of life; and

Haydn, who was to take the nickname of "Papa" as father of the symphony, was an 11-year-old choirboy at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Haydn, in fact, outlived Boccherini by four years; but Mozart was born, created his masterpieces, and died du ring Boccherini's life, and Beethoven, who was born when Boccherini was 27, had

taken the symphony to Olympian heights with the Eroica in 1804, the year before Boccherini's death in Madrid at the age of 62. It is a fascinating coincidence that Boccherini's sym­phonies seem to have first appeared about 1770, the year of Beethoven's birth.

Luigi Boccherini was the third son of Leopoldo Boccherini, who seems to have been an ex­cellent player on a bass-stringed instrument, pro­bably the double bass rather than the cello. The boy showed early musical gifts, particularly as a cellist, and after having preliminary lessons from his father was sent to Lucca's maestro di cap­pella, Francesco Vanucci. He was only 13 when he made his first public appearance as a cellist and was soon playing concerti at the various local feast-day events. At the age of 14 he was sent to Rome for some months of study with the maestro di cappella of St. Peter's, Giovanni Bat­tista Costanzi. Rome was then in the forefront of instrumental teaching and playing, thanks to the influence of Arcangelo Corelli and his school.

Towards the end of 1757 Luigi and his father received an invitation to join the orchestra of the court theater in Vienna, then the imperial capital. There the boy also played in court concerts and won considerable praise, not only from the Luc­can ambassador and the court dignitaries, but also from the illustrious composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, who had been engaged by the Viennese authorities to compose some French­-style operas comiques, to provide contrast to the conventional opera seria then in vogue. In Vien­na, too, the Bocherini family gained additional value with the arrival of Luigi's elder brother, Giovan Gastone, and his sisters Maria Ester and Anna Matilde. Giovan was both a poet and a dancer and collaborated with Ranieri da Calzabigi, the librettist of Cluck's Orfeo, later personally providing libretti to Haydn for Il ritor­no di Tobia, in 1775, and Salieri. The two sisters both joined the ballet in Vienna; Maria Ester later married Onorato Vigano (their son Salvatore

gained fame as a choreographer, as well as being ballet master at La Scala in Milan from 1813 to 1821).

Luigi was anxious to secure an appointment in his home town of Lucca and made regular visits home. He always returned to Vienna, however, where his reputation was growing, culminating in the performance of a cello concerto in 1764, the year he was invited to become first cellist in Count Palatine's orchestra in Lucca. It was during this period that Luigi formed a quartet with other members of the orchestra, the violinists Pietro Nardini and Filippo Manfredi and the violist Giuseppe Cambini, giving what are generally assumed to be the first public concerts of chamber music. With Manfredi, who had been one of the most brilliant pupils of the great vir­tuoso Giuseppe Tartini, Luigi went on concert tours to Northern Italy and France, arriving in Paris in 1767.

While in Paris Boccherini and Manfredi were launched into the musical life of the city by Baron Bagge, and in 1768 Luigi played in the popular Concert Spirituel, where his success as a cellist was soon equaled by his popularity as a composer. The first collection of his trios and quartets was published in the French capital,

comprised of a set of six string quartets, publish­ed in April 1767, and then, in July, a set of trios for two violins and cello. However, these works were already established, having been composed in 1761 and 1760 respectively. His appearances with Manfredi also led to publication of some pieces for violin and keyboard. At this time, too, the French publishers brought out the Symphony in D major, ascribed to "Bouqueriny," but this is generally thought to be spurious.

Boccherini's life and career were to change drastically when he and Manfredi left Paris for Madrid, a move which is understood to have resulted from the enthusiasm of the Spanish am­bassador in Paris. In 1769 a set of quartets was published, dedicated to the Spanish Infante, Don Luis, the young brother of Charles Ill. That same year another set bore a private dedication, sug­gesting that by now Boccherini had settled in Madrid and was already receiving patronage from both the court and the aristocracy. The Sinfoni,1 concertante was written for performance during, a series of Lenten concerts in 1770, and in November of that year Boccherini became virtuoso di camera e compositor di musica to the infante. This brought a salary of 30,000 reals and also the exclusive right of his employer to all his works, although the composer was still free to have his music published. This happy state of af­fairs lasted until the death of Don Luis in 1785, and it was during this period of security, and

domesticity following his marriage in 1771, that Boccherini began work on his string quintets and his symphonies.

By the time Boccherini had left Paris for Madrid he undoubtedly had become acquainted with the symphony form, in its development from a three-part introductory overture for an opera to music which was independent of the theater, composed for concert performance in its own right. This kind of work was written in Italy by Alessandro Scarlatti and his school, in Vienna, and particularly in Mannheim, where Johann Stamitz was the leader of a group of composers whose work brought the court orchestra to great fame as the ensemble which brought dynamic contrasts, from crescendo to diminuendo, into music performance in an exciting and radical way. It was in Germany and Austria that elements of the old suite, such as the minuet, were drawn into the symphony. In London, Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian, was com­posing symphonies which were to have an early influence on the eight-year-old Mozart, who composed his own first Symphony in the English capital in 1764 with encouragement from J.C. Bach.

Haydn had composed his first Symphony in 1759 when he became part of the household of Count Morzin at Lukavec' at the age of 27, but it was his long period of service and security with the Esterhazy family after 1761 which gave him the unique opportunity to develop the symphony into an important form of musical expression which was to be continued by Mozart and Beethoven. Haydn's near isolation was, however, paralleled by Boccherini's years in Madrid, where he, too, was able to compose in relative peace and to develop his own gifts. In Spain he was ex­pected to provide string quintets, a form which he made uniquely his own, composing more

than a hundred works in the genre, as well as an equal number of string quartets and also other chamber works, many of which were published. It is not surprising that his name should have become associated mainly with these fine chamber pieces, rather than with symphonies, where his output was both smaller and more dif­ficult to propagate.

We often forget that composers of this period regarded themselves as employees of the rich, whose job was to produce enjoyable and stimulating music for their employers and their friends. Posterity was rarely in their minds; even the publication of their music gave them little idea that it was intended to be taken up by

future generations rather than bought for home performance by amateurs. Publishers were often unscrupulous, thinking nothing of "creating'' new works by favorite composers by juxtaposing movements from different works and giving them new numbers. In Boccherini's case this was especially rife with his chamber works, but opus numbers had little or no relevance except to the actual publisher. Needless to say this has led to some confusion, corrected in recent times thanks to the scholarship of the French musicologist Yves Gerard, whose Thematic, Bibliographical, and Critical Catalogue of the Works of Luigi Boc­cherini was published in London in 1969. Boc­cherini's own thematic catalog of his music, which he had begun in 1760, was destroyed dur­ing the Spanish Civil War in 1936, together with a number of his manuscripts. Happily, the catalog had been published in a Picquot edition in 1851 and also by the composer's great­ grandson, Alfredo Boccherini, in 1879. However, the latter was not complete, partly because the composer may have considered the catalog only for those works which he thought worthy of publication. None of his vocal works or the sonatas for the cello is included, nor are several orchestral works, so Gerard's work is quite in­valuable. Boccherini's opus numbers were not always adopted by his publishers, even apart from the regrouping of movements and their subsequent renumbering.

After his death in 1805 Boccherini's works in­evitably fell into decline as the great classical composers from Beethoven's time dominated the music world. For about 150 years poor Boc­cherini was known as the composer of THE Minuet! Apart from the D major Symphony, published in Paris in 1767, already mentioned as spurious, and a symphonic arrangement of the C major String Quintet, op. 10, no. 4 in Boc­cherini's numbering, there are 27 extant sym­phonies, composed between 1771 and 1792. In all probability Boccherini was in Spain for most of this period, although his situation changed financially after the death of Don Luis in 1785: (That year, too, his wife died.) the composer's contract was ended and he had to find money from other sources. In 1786 he was appointed chamber composer to Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, himself a cellist, who was very pleas­ed with Boccherini's music, bringing him 1000 crowns a year for new works. He also received patronage from a well-known Madrid family, the Benavente-Osunas, as well as other individual patrons. In 1787 he married his second wife, Maria del Pilar Joaquina Porreti, the daughter of one of the cellists in the court orchestra. Friedrich Wilhelm became king of Prussia soon after Boccherini's appointment, and although it had been thought that the composer joined the king in Germany, he most probably remained in­ Madrid where he also had a pension of half his original salary from King Charles Ill.

This article by Denby Richards is excerpted from the notes for MHC 239251X/MHS 837251Y:

Boccherini: Seven Symphonies.

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