The Cellist in Spain
Cellists might be naturally sympathetic to the underdog– how many times do they play a dull background harmony to a violin melody?–but when it comes to celebrating Luigi Boccherini, violinists and violists should be equally enthusiastic. Born in Italy, famous in his day, this virtuoso cellist has a low profile today that seems downright unfair. After all, he composed that more than 500 works, including hundreds of string quartets and quintets. Boccherini’s music carries great joy, grace, and expression, but the man himself saw both happiness and tragedy in life. His early promise as a cellist brought him to Vienna and Paris before he settled in Madrid, Spain, where he served as composer to a brother of King Charles III. But patronage dried up in his final years, and Boccherini lived through the deaths of several of his children and both his wives. At his height, people marked him as equal to Joseph Haydn—his contemporary, friend, and one of the greatest composers of the Classical era—but Boccherini died in poverty, aware that his musical reputation was fading.
Advancing cellists usually learn his B-flat major concerto, and they’re thankful for the two wonderful cello parts in his Opus 13, No. 5, string quintet. In fact, Boccherini wrote ten other cello concertos and 90 other string quintets—a musical form that he invented! Like Corelli and Vivaldi of the earlier Baroque period, Boccherini spread the reputation of Italian music across Europe. Works like his quintets for guitar and strings, though, also bear the style of his adopted country. One quintet ends with a Spanish fandango and castanets; another evokes the night sounds of a street in Madrid.