Quartet in C, Op. 2, No. 6

October 27, 2019: Quartetto di Cremona

Boccherini achieved widespread recognition in his day both as a virtuoso 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. The renown that Boccherini enjoyed in his prime is attested to by the remarks of the typically 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.

In 1756 young Luigi made his concerto debut in his native Lucca, and the following year he likely accompanied his bass-playing father and his older siblings on engagements in Venice and Trieste. The following year Luigi gave a successful solo performance in Vienna, and he and his father were soon hired for subsequent full-season orchestral engagements there, returning for the 1760–61 and 1763–64 seasons. Though he continued to give performances in Vienna and in various Italian cities, times were such that a musician could not earn a living as a solo cellist alone, which is why he took various orchestra jobs and began composing at a great rate.

This, then, is the backdrop for Boccherini’s first chamber works, composed in 1761—the six String Trios, op. 1, and six String Quartets, op. 2. After his father died in 1766, Boccherini embarked on a concert tour with violinist Filippo Manfredi, traveling first to Paris, where the Trios and Quartets were published in 1767 (with the opus numbers reversed) and where most of Boccherini’s works would continue to be published. They soon left for Madrid and environs, which through royal patronage became Boccherini’s base for the remainder of his life. In 1770 he added to his other duties the position of “court chamber composer” to the King of Prussia, an arrangement through which he sent twelve works a year but never actually visited or lived there. The last years of Boccherini’s life brought loss of family members, illness, and dwindling financial resources, though reports of him dying in poverty are likely exaggerated.

The Opus 2 Quartets brim with elegant Italianate melodic lines and perhaps a few Viennese traits but predate any Parisian influence. The works are notable for the cello’s equality with the other instruments and Boccherini’s frequent use of its tenor register—natural features for a cellist-composer. The C major Quartet, op. 2, no. 6, like the others in the set, contains three movements: a fast first movement, a slow middle movement, and—in this case, like Nos. 3 and 4—a closing minuet.

Boccherini launches the spirited first movement with a forthright chord, a sprightly upward gesture, and a gradual sequential descent, all over pulsing repeated notes that lend forward propulsion. Both the second theme, led off by paired second violin and high cello, and the exposition’s closing theme maintain the elegant figures and pulsating drive. The second half begins like the first, but Boccherini soon introduces the minor mode and more sinuous lines before the merriness returns, not with the opening theme but with the second and closing themes.

The brief slow movement contains a wealth of ideas—melancholy imitative entries, chromaticism, gentle wide leaps, paired triplets, a lovely passage for second violin and cello, descending gestures answered by emphatic chords, and a flowing cello passage. The concluding section, which begins like a development section, drifts into quiet contemplation with the cello in a haunting prominent role.

The closing minuet swings along extrovertedly, relying on loud-soft contrasts. After a more introverted trio section, the cheerful minuet returns to round off the movement.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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