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Cello Sonata No. 6 in A major, G. 4

September 26, 2021: Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Sihao He, cello; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord

Boccherini achieved widespread recognition in his day both as a cellist and as an extremely prolific composer primarily of chamber music. He wrote more than 100 string quintets, close to 100 string quartets, and some 150 other chamber works, including more than thirty cello sonatas. He was and is especially celebrated for his string quintets in the two-violin, viola, two-cello configuration, contributing more to the genre than any other composer in history.

The many gaps in our knowledge of Boccherini’s life and works were widened by the destruction of many of his manuscripts and his own thematic catalog in 1936 in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War—he had spent much of his life as a court composer in Madrid. Furthermore, some information long held to be true has been cast into doubt. During the years 1787 to 1796, for instance, he was assumed to have been in Prussia on the strength of an appointment there and a letter by him from Breslau. Since the letter now appears unauthentic and there is no record of him at the Prussian court, he probably remained in Spain, living on his royal pension and earning a Prussian salary by fulfilling his obligations long distance. He did compose for King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, the same cello-playing king for whom Mozart and Haydn wrote quartets and Beethoven wrote sonatas.

The renown Boccherini enjoyed in his prime is attested to by the remarks of the usually cautious Charles Burney, famed eighteenth-century historian, who rated him “among the greatest masters who have ever written for the violin or violoncello,” placing him second only to Haydn. The taste for Boccherini’s elegant, galant style waned, however, and he died in Madrid in poverty. The latter half of the twentieth century has witnessed a periodic resurgence of interest in his music: Gérard’s thematic catalog was published in 1969, a complete edition was begun in the 1970s, and a manuscript containing eighteen cello sonatas—three hitherto unknown—was discovered in 1982; yet much of his music awaits rediscovery.

The cello sonatas present an interesting set of problems. Was the “solo” part once intended for violin? The probable first edition appeared in that form; most evidence, however, points to the solo part having been written for cello. Was the accompanying part written for cello or bass? Furthermore, since the part is unfigured, should it really be realized at the keyboard? Many such realizations have been made and performances usually include keyboard.

The present Sonata in A major, one of the best known, is called No. 6 because it appeared last in a group of six Boccherini sonatas published in the 1770s in both violin and cello versions. The same grouping of six was retained 100 years later when Alfredo Piatti reedited the sonatas in a cello and piano version for the publisher Ricordi, and in subsequent editions. A second version of the second movement remained unknown as did most of the other cello sonatas. A third movement, Affettuoso, also exists, but is frequently omitted in performance. Additional confusion besets the order of the movements. Most of the manuscripts and printed editions follow the order Adagio, Allegro moderato, Affettuoso, but the manuscript that Gérard used for his thematic catalog of Boccherini’s works reverses the order of the first two movements.

The songful, highly ornamented Adagio outlines the simplest of binary forms in which the first half moves from the tonic key to the dominant and the second returns to the tonic. It is based on one theme, which receives a slight development at the beginning of the second half, but which—in a kind of elegant asymmetry—does not return at the close. The Allegro moderato again takes up binary form, with more suggestion of early sonata form, but demonstrating Boccherini’s characteristic structural flexibility. Such freedom is shown in the “recapitulation,” which contains no return to the first theme (that beginning after the introductory four bars), but rather to subsequent “exposition” material. Interestingly enough the little-known second version of this movement does contain a return of the first theme in the “recapitulation,” adding a certain formal stability but forfeiting some of the charming episodic ideas.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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