The Charm and Innovation of Boccherini

By Allen Whear, violoncello

On October 3 & 6 a chamber group of Tafelmusik musicians will perform Quintessential Boccherini as part of our Close Encounters series. We asked Tafelmusik cellist Allen Whear to share his thoughts on the appeal of Boccherini and the importance of the composer’s work for the cello.

The French violinist Cartier once wrote, “If God wished to speak to man through music, he would choose Haydn. If He wanted to listen to the music himself, he would choose Boccherini.”

Boccherini isn’t as popular as Haydn or Mozart, but those who know his music well are passionate about it. I’d say he is the most sensuous composer of the eighteenth century. He exploited the colours and textures of string instruments like no other, lavishing his music with gentler expression marks such as soave, dolcissimo, amoroso. But this doesn’t mean that his music lacks backbone—he strikes a balance between charm and innovation.

Allen Whear paying homage to Boccherini
Allen Whear paying homage to Boccherini

A virtuoso cellist himself, Boccherini’s writing is unfailingly natural for the instrument. He even created an art form, the quintet for two cellos, so that he could perform along with a resident string quartet in Spain, and he treated each of the parts equally. His technical achievements on the cello, as evidenced in his writing, surpass all his contemporaries, but he never seems to have been about showing himself off, but rather creating memorable sounds and effects. You will sometimes see the cello playing higher than the violin, something that never happens in traditional string quartets.

Quintessential Boccherini will include three quintets of strongly contrasting character:  The Quintet in D Major is florid, elegant, and often humorous, the Quintet in G Minor is dark and passionate, and the famous Fandango has a slow-burning, sexy buildup, the likes of which one finds these days in the work of famous tango composer Astor Piazzola.

Children in Madrid (photo by Allen Whear)

Consider the fact that Ravel’s Bolero was originally titled Fandango. The fandango may have had its roots in the New World, imported to Europe by way of the Iberian peninsula. Traditionally a sensual couple’s dance in triple meter and related to flamenco, the fandango reached a peak of popularity in Spain in the eighteenth century, but was also known in other parts of Europe and the Americas. Harmonically, it is simpler than the Folia (one of Europe’s oldest and most-used musical themes), with a bass that mostly alternates between tonic and dominant and a characteristic descent at the end of phrases (in D Minor: D-C-B-flat-A). It may take two to tango, but it takes five to fandango!

Quintessential Boccherini takes place October 3 at Holy Trinity Church and October 6 at Temerty Theatre in the TELUS Centre. Click here for details and to buy tickets.

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