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Luigi Boccherini and his Cello Concerti

Ridolfo Luigi Boccherini (February 19, 1743 – May 28, 1805) was an Italian classical era composer and cellist whose music retained a courtly and galante style while he matured somewhat apart from the major European musical centers. Boccherini was born in Lucca, Italy, into a musical family. At a young age he was sent by his father, a cellist and double bass player, to study in Rome. In 1757 they both went to Vienna where they were employed by the court as musicians in the Burgtheater. In 1761 Boccherini went to Madrid, where he was employed by Infante Luis Antonio of Spain, younger brother of King Charles III. There he flourished under royal patronage, until one day when the King expressed his disapproval at a passage in a new trio, and ordered Boccherini to change it. The composer, no doubt irritated with this intrusion into his art, doubled the passage instead, leading to his immediate dismissal. Then he accompanied Don Luis to Arenas de San Pedro, a little town at the Gredos mountains; there and in the closest town of Candeleda, Boccherini wrote many of his most brilliant works.

Much of Boccherini’s chamber music follows models established by Joseph Haydn. However, Boccherini is often credited with improving Haydn’s model of the string quartet by bringing the cello to prominence, whereas Haydn had frequently relegated it to an accompaniment role. Some other sources for Boccherini’s style are found in the works of a famous Italian cellist, Giovanni Battista Cirri, who was born before Boccherini and before Haydn, and in the Spanish popular music. A virtuoso cellist of high caliber, Boccherini often played violin repertoire on the cello, at pitch, a skill he developed by substituting for ailing violinists while touring. This supreme command of the instrument brought him much praise from his contemporaries, notably Pierre Baillot, Pierre Rode, and Bernhard Romberg, and is evident in the cello parts of his compositions (particularly in the quintets for two cellos, treated often as cello concertos with string quartet accompaniment).

Boccherini wrote a large amount of chamber music, including over one hundred string quintets for two violins, viola and two cellos, a type which he pioneered, in contrast with the then common scoring for two violins, two violas and one cello, a dozen guitar quintets, not all of which have survived, nearly a hundred string quartets, and a number of string trios and sonatas including at least 19 for the cello. His orchestral music includes around 30 symphonies and 12 virtuoso cello concertos. Among his late patrons was the French consul Lucien Bonaparte, as well as King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, himself an amateur cellist, flautist, and avid supporter of the arts. Boccherini fell on hard times following the deaths of his Spanish patron, two wives, and two daughters, and he died almost in poverty in Madrid in 1805, being survived by two sons. He was buried in the Pontifical Basilica of St. Michael until 1927, when his remains were repatriated to the Church of San Francesco of his native Lucca.

Boccherini’s works have been catalogued by the French musicologist Yves Gérard (born 1932) in the Gérard catalog, published in London (1969), hence the “G” numbers applied to his output. Boccherini’s style is characterized by the typical Rococo charm, lightness, and optimism, and exhibits much melodic and rhythmic invention, coupled with frequent influences from the guitar tradition of his adopted country, Spain. Boccherini is most widely known for one particular minuet for strings from his String Quintet in E, Op. 11, No. 5 (G 275), which was popularized through its use in the film The Ladykillers. and the Cello Concerto in B flat major (G 482). The latter work was long known in the heavily altered version by German cellist and prolific arranger Friedrich Grützmach. His famous “Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid” (String Quintet in C Major, Op. 30 No. 6, G324), became popular through its use in films such as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

The following works by Boccherini are found in my collection:

Cello Concerto No. 1 in CM, G. 477.
Cello Concerto No. 2 in DM, G. 479.
Cello Concerto No. 3 in GM, G. 480.
Cello Concerto No. 4 in CM, G. 481.
Cello Concerto No. 5 in EbM, G. 474.
Cello Concerto No. 6 in AM, G. 475.
Cello Concerto No. 7 in DM, G. 476.
Cello Concerto No. 8 in DM, G. 478.
Symphony No. 21 in CM, G. 515, Op. 37, No. 1.
Symphony No. 23 in dm, G. 517, Op. 37, No. 3.
Symphony No. 24 in AM, G. 518, Op. 37, No. 4.
Symphony No. 26 in DM, G. 520, Op. 42.

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