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Boccherini Quintet No. 3

Born in Italy, Boccherini moved as a young adult to Madrid where he became a famous cellist and composer in the court of the younger brother of Charles III, the King of Spain. He flourished under royal patronage until the King expressed his disapproval of a passage in one of his compositions and ordered Boccherini to rewrite it. Not only did he not change it, he doubled it and was fired on the spot. Big surprise. He continued to work for the King’s brother, however, picking up other gigs with various royals and aristocrats around Europe, including Friedrich Wilhelm II, the King of Prussia, and Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. Why royals and aristocrats? Because as Willie Sutton the 20th century bank robber allegedly said, “That’s where the money was.” For most of the 18th century, serious musicians and composers depended for their living on the titled upper crust (Haydn) or the church (Bach).

What Boccherini had going for himself was his extraordinary ability to play the cello. By all accounts, he may have been the premier cellist of his century. And as was the case with all court composers, he turned out hundreds of compositions to entertain his patrons. (Haydn wrote 104 symphonies for his employers, the Prince Esterhazy). Just as Haydn perfected the string quartet, Boccherini – 19 years Haydn’s junior – picked up Haydn’s baton and invented the string quintet, adding a second cello – Boccherini’s instrument – to the string quartet. So far as we know, he wrote 141 of them. Augmenting the quartet with a second cello gave it greater sonority as well as an opportunity for him to display his virtuosity to his employers. Later in his career he substituted the double bass for the second cello, adding lower notes to the quintet’s range. This Quintet in D Major is one of those pieces.

Boccherini’s music is quintessentially classical. He wrote it only to entertain and to amuse his rich and famous patrons. Not surprisingly, it is courtly and sophisticated. Musicologists refer to his style as “galante”, which means elegant, cultured, and virtuous. The galante style was popular between 1720 and 1760. It represents a reaction against the polyphonic complexity of the late Baroque era, a return to simplicity and accessibility. Think light charm vs. complex grandeur. Melody and grace were more important than rhythm and thematic development, two of Beethoven’s 19th century hallmarks.

We can discern Boccherini’s intentions from many of the sensuous instructions he wrote on his scores: dolce (sweet), amoroso (lovingly), soave (softly), con grazia (with grace), and dolcissimo (very sweetly). His works were extremely popular and widely published. One contemporary observer said that, “If God wanted to speak to man he would do so through Haydn’s works, but if God wished to listen to music for himself, he would choose Boccherini.” (No one ever said that about Elvis.)

Written by the Honorable Stephen S. Trott