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ClassicsOnline Home » BOCCHERINI: String Quartets, Opp. 32 and 39
By Roger-Claude Travers
The Italian cellist and composer Luigi Boccherini was born in Lucca in 1743, the son of a double-bass player. His family was distinguished not only in music but also boasted poets and dancers among its members. His elder brother Giovanni Gastone, born in 1742, was both dancer and poet, the author of the text of Haydns Il ritorno di Tobia and of the libretti of some earlier stage works of the Vienna court composer, Antonio Salieri. He later became official poet of the Coliseo de los Caños del Peral in Madrid, a theatre to the concerts in which Boccherini had contributed music. His sister Maria Ester was a dancer and married Onorato Viganò, a distinguished dancer and choreographer. Her son, Salvatore Viganò, who studied composition with Boccherini, occupies a position of considerable importance in the history of ballet.
By the age of thirteen Boccherini was appearing in concerts as a cellist. In 1757 he went with his father and older brother and sister to Venice and Trieste and the following year he appeared with his father in Vienna, where they were both invited to join the orchestra of the Théâtre-Allemand, returning to Vienna for two further seasons in 1760-1761 and 1763-1764. In the intervening periods he appeared in Lucca and in Florence. In 1764 Boccherini succeeded in achieving appointment as a cellist in the Cappella Palatina in Lucca and undertook engagements in Padua and Cremona, among other places. In 1766 he joined with his fellow-townsman, the violinist Manfredi, leader of the Cappella Palatina, the latters teacher Nardini and the composer and viola-player Cambini in serious study and performance of the quartets of Haydn and of Boccherinis own early quartets, and after the death of his father in August of that year he went with Manfredi to Genoa, where he seems to have composed at least one of his two oratorios for the Oratorians. In the autumn of 1767 he set out from Genoa with Manfredi, with the intention of travelling to London, staying first in Nice and then for some six months in Paris, where they won considerable success. Here Boccherinis first set of six string quartets was published, and sets of string trios. In France Boccherini and Manfredi won considerable success and Boccherini himself also continued his work as a composer, in addition to his performances as a virtuoso. In 1768 the pair left for Spain, appearing first at court with an Italian opera company. Establishing himself in Madrid, Boccherini was appointed composer and virtuoso di camera to the Infante Don Luis, younger brother of King Carlos III, after a cooler reception from the King and the Prince of the Asturias, his heir. Part of the following period he spent in Madrid and part at the Palace of Las Arenas in the province of Avila, where the Infante retired after a morganatic marriage. Members of the Font family were employed by the Prince as a string quartet, for which Boccherini wrote quartets and with whom he performed his own string quintets. He renewed his association with Francisco Font in later years. After the death of Don Luis in 1785, Boccherini, who had spent some fifteen years in his service, received a pension from the king and the promise of a position in the Real Capilla that was not fulfilled. He found employment, however, with the Benavente-Osuna family in Madrid, directing the orchestra of the Countess-Duchess and providing music for her salon. Here he was one of a distinguished international company that included his friend, the painter Goya. At the same time he was appointed court composer to Friedrich Wilhelm, nephew of Frederick the Great, who succeeded his uncle as King of Prussia in 1787. In this latter position he provided the cello-playing king with new compositions under the same kind of exclusive arrangement as that which he had earlier enjoyed with Don Luis. There is, however, no evidence that Boccherini ever spent any time in Prussia. After the death of King Carlos III in 1788, the new king, Carlos IV, established a chamber ensemble and in 1795 a chamber orchestra, in neither of which Boccherini was involved. With the unexpected death of Friedrich Wilhelm II in 1797 Boccherinis employment there came to an end, when his request for a continuation of his position and a pension was refused, while the Banavente-Osuna family moved to Paris in 1799. Boccherini received support from Lucien Bonaparte, the French ambassador, and remained busy to the end of his life, although visitors reported that he lived in all the appearance of poverty, now without any substantial patronage after Lucien Bonapartes return to Paris and saddened by the death of his second wife and his remaining daughters. He died in Madrid on 28th May 1805.
Boccherinis style is completely characteristic of the period in which he lived, the period, that is, of Haydn, rather than that of Mozart or Beethoven. He enjoyed a reputation for his facility as a composer, leaving some 460 or so compositions. A great deal of his music is designed to exploit the technical resources of the cello, in concertos, sonatas, and, particularly, in chamber music for various numbers of instruments, including a remarkable series of works for string quintet with two cellos, the first of which is given a concertante part.
Boccherini wrote his String Quartet in A major, listed in his own catalogue as opera grande and Opus 39, in 1787. It was first published in Paris by Pleyel in 1798 as Opus 39, No.8, and had obviously pleased Friedrich Wilhelm II, who wrote on his original copy of the work the word bene. The first movement opens with a pleasing first subject, sotto voce e con smorfia (quietly and with simplicity), although the transition introduces dynamic contrast and rapid passage-work for the first violin. The development leads to a recapitulation that avoids a direct return to the opening material until the close of the movement. There is a graceful Minuet and gentle Trio, followed by a D minor slow movement, opened by the first violin in a sombre mood of tragic intensity. This is broken by the cheerful rondo, which brings some interesting triple and quadruple stopping for the cello, particularly in an intervening episode of contrasting tonality.
The six quartets written in 1780 and listed by Boccherini as Opus 32 and opera grande were published in Vienna by Artaria in about 1782 as Opus 33, and published, as most of Boccherinis work was, in Paris, where it appeared in 1785. The String Quartet in E flat major, Opus 32, No.1, opens with a graceful movement, characteristically marked Allegretto lentarello e affettuoso, and, as so often, making use of short repeated figures. It was, indeed, this last feature of Boccherinis work that had initially caused a breach with the Prince of Asturias and the rejection of Boccherini by the Spanish court. The Prince had taken exception, it seems, to a repeated figure, do-si, in the first violin part that he was playing. His condemnation of the work as rubbish was met by the composer with the response that it was only musical ignorance that brought no recognition of the novel effects of the harmonies that accompanied the repetition. The tripartite sonata-form first movement is followed by a Minuet of particular charm, with a Trio of contrasted key. The C minor slow movement introduces an element of dramatic tension, dispelled at once in the final Allegro vivace assai.
The second of the set, the String Quartet in E minor, Opus 32, No.2, starts with a movement marked Largo sostenuto, replete with the darker mood suggested by the choice of key, modified in secondary material, with the necessary change of key. Boccherini combines the slow movement with the E major Minuet, which is followed, even at its repetition, by a minor key Larghetto. The quartet ends with an E major rondo which provides contrast in its episodes, one in the manner of a musette and another with greater demands on the cello.
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BOCCHERINI: String Quartets, Opp. 32 and 39