Sunday, February 19, 2006

Boccherini


Composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini was born on this day in 1743 in Lucca, Italy.

The son of a professional double bass player, the genial, sentimental Boccherini studied in Rome as a youth and returned to his native Lucca as a virtuoso cellist. He made his first major impression as a teen composer traveling around Europe with his father and the violinist Filippo Manfredi, playing well-received concerts of Boccherini's two-part sonatas and reaching Paris in 1768. There the ambassador from Spain invited Boccherini to become a chamber composer in the court of the Infante Luis, the brother of Charles III, in Madrid.

Despite the ambassador's promises, Boccherini's 1770 reception in Madrid was not as grand as the receptions he had been receiving around Europe; nonetheless, Boccherini admired the fact that several members of the royal court were accomplished string musicians and he settled gratefully under Luis' patronage, adopting Madrid as his home -- a city on the far fringes of the European music scene. As the big fish in a small pond, Boccherini wrote a number of lyrical string quintets set in a variety of moods, including the quintet in E, op. 11, which contains his famous "Minuet" -- the kind of playful yet weightily constructed Late Baroque chamber music which would garner him the teasing moniker of "Mrs. Haydn." Also famous is his "Night Music of Madrid," the string quintet in C, op. 30, which humorously approximates the sounds of a summer's evening walk through the streets of Madrid, including a riotously unstable performance by a group of blind buskers and the march of a military band.

Quintets were, to say the least, an unusual medium (quartets were the norm), but for Boccherini they were probably dictated by the fact that Luis also had a noted string quartet, the Font family, in his retinue, and the quintet form gave Boccherini the opportunity to display his own virtuosity without offending the least facile Font by leaving him out of the group.

The Infante and his wife died in 1785, but by that time he had caught the ear of the cello-playing Frederick William II of Prussia, who invited Boccherini to become his court composer. (It is believed that Boccherini fulfilled that role from over 1,500 miles away in Madrid rather than joining the court in Berlin, which if true makes him a striking pre-Internet example of long distance employment.) Frederick William died in 1797, however, leaving Boccherini in the wilderness without a patron. He stayed in his Madrid outpost, living on a meager pension from the estate of the Infante and earning a few extra pesetas from his compositions, including a few written at the request of the French ambassador in Spain, Lucien Bonaparte.

In all, Boccherini produced 137 string quintets, 91 string quartets, over 50 string trios (over 350 chamber works in all), 30 symphonies, a dozen cello concertos and an opera, although many of his works were lost or destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. He survived the death of his wife and daughters and died on May 28, 1805 in Madrid, Spain at the age of 62, in poverty and relative obscurity.

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