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.
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.
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!
We played one of Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s symphonies based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “The Rescuing of Andromeda by Perseus.” There are three more, and here’s part of the one entitled “The Fall of Phaeton.”
And being a big Dittersdorf fan myself, I can’t help but share with you his perhaps most sublime 30 seconds of music, the opening of his String Quartet in D Major.
We also played Boccherini’s Cello Concerto in D Major, G.483. Boccherini was of course a famous cellist and immensely prolific composer, so the number of pieces he composed featuring the cello is huge. Here’s another of his concerti, the Cello Concerto in G major, G.480, with a very different feel, featuring guest director and soloist, Christophe Coin.
Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major might have been the most familiar work on our concert program. It was composed for Josef Weigl, the principal cellist when Haydn began leading the orchestra at Prince Esterhazy’s court. Weigl was also the cellist who premiered Haydn’s string quartets, op. 33, and here’s a movement from Haydn’s String Quartet in B Minor, op. 33, no. 1, featuring the Eybler Quartet, three of whom are members of Tafelmusik.
Perhaps even better known than the C major Concerto is Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major. It was composed for the next principal cellist in Haydn’s orchestra, Anton Kraft. In 1805, Kraft published his own Cello Concerto in C major, op. 4.
By Andrew Eusebio, Marketing and Development Associate
French cellist and guest director, Christophe Coin, makes his Tafelmusik debut with The Eloquent Cello. He took some time between rehearsals to chat with our Marketing Associate, Andrew Eusebio.
After studies with Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Vienna and Jordi Savall in Basel, Christophe Coin quickly established a solo career, and in 1987 formed le Quatuor Mosaïques, a renowned period-instrument quartet whose impressive discography includes works by Haydn, Mozart, Arriaga, Boccherini, Jadin, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. He teaches baroque cello and viola da gamba at his alma maters, the Conservatoire de Paris, and the Schola Cantorum in Basel.
Andrew Eusebio:In your opinion, what is it about the cello that audiences love?
Christophe Coin: I think the cello is maybe one of the most appreciated instruments probably because it is so similar to the human voice. It’s very lyrical and very expressive of all sorts of emotions. Sometimes the violin is a more virtuosic instrument, but it has a rather limited range at the bottom end, and people like to be moved by lower voices.
This fashion is quite new, I think. When I started cello, for example, the cello class in my hometown, in Caen, had few pupils. My teacher there was a fantastic cellist, a fantastic pedagogue, and a student of Pablo Casals. My mother didn’t want me to learn violin—she didn’t like violin—so we went to this man because there was room in the class, and I have never regretted it.
AE:Some of the pieces in the program have a rich history with Tafelmusik, while others have never been performed on our stage. How was the program selected, and what was your process in pairing them together?
CC: I made three propositions to Jeanne [Lamon]. My first proposition was to perform Haydn’s D-Major cello concerto and a concerto by Antonin Kraft, who was the principle cellist in Prince Nikolaus’s orchestra at Esterházy. I believe Hadyn’s D-Major was probably composed for Kraft. This is similar to Sergei Prokofiev or Dmitri Shostakovich composing a piece for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich: a composer working with an idiomatic specialist of the instrument. But, the Kraft concerto would have needed more wind instruments, and we wanted to limit the concert to two oboes and two horns. So I think Jeanne was very happy to do the Boccherini concerto. I suggested this one because I have never played it, so it’s a new opportunity for me—and it’s the only one with an original cadenza by Boccherini in the slow movement. It’s at least one cadenza I don’t have to write or think about!
AE:What is it like to direct an orchestra while playing the cello part, as you’re doing in the Dittersdorf and CPE Bach?
CC: Well, I did it a long time ago when we started a group in Paris called Mosaïques, which had a mixture of different people from different orchestras—people who wanted to learn this repertoire. This was almost 40 years ago, at that time, many people didn’t play Haydn symphonies. This orchestra disappeared and the principal people remained together as a quartet, Quatuor Mosaïques, which is still active after 30 years.
When we started as an orchestra, I was leading from the cello: we never had a conductor. So I’m used to that and I like it. I don’t like to move my arms much if I can avoid it. Sometimes it’s a problem with a group that’s not well connected, but with Tafelmusik, they know each other so well and they are used to playing without a conductor, so I think it’s not a problem. But, in fact, the cello is playing a bass line, a normal bass line.
AE:The Haydn cello concerto has a special connection to many people. What is your personal connection to this masterful piece and why?
CC: You know this piece has been rediscovered quite recently. Well, recently being the 1960s. Before, only the D-Major, which is a much larger concerto, was played. And since the C-Major appeared, the D-Major is not so often played, which is a pity. It’s another level of difficulty—and, the Finale, which is a sort of French tune, something 6/8, is less flashy than the finale of the C-Major. It’s sort of a “wet blanket” Finale. So, people nowadays play the C-Major more.
My special connection I would say is that I recorded it, actually before Anner Bylsma recorded it with Tafelmusik, and it was my first recording as a soloist, and my first recording on a historical instrument. That was with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I was 23, and I had a cello made especially for that recording. That was my first experience playing and recording a concerto, so it’s quite important for me, this recording.
AE:That is a special connection. When was the last time you performed it?
CC: Maybe two to three years ago.
AE:Not so long ago, but I’m sure it’s great to play it again.
CC: Yes, it’s nice to play it again, especially with such a good orchestra!
AE:What do you believe to be the next great frontier for period ensembles in terms of repertoire?
CC: I don’t know. Nowadays, some orchestras on period instruments play Debussy and Ravel. With the quartet (Quatuor Mosaïques), we play Bartok’s first and second quartet on gut strings. I think that’s the limit. I mean, until the first World War, gut strings were used, quite generally, in all orchestras, and then it progressively changed. Between the two wars, I think people started to change strings—the violin for the E string because they broke most easily. Maybe the cellists were the last to change. Nowadays, it would be impossible to go to a modern orchestra with gut strings. I think there is no reason not to play twentieth-century repertoire on gut strings.
It’s a little more complicated for the winds, such as the oboe or clarinet, because the keyed instruments changed a lot during the nineteenthcentury and the evolution was complicated. It’s difficult to have twenty different instruments to play the repertoire that spans the nineteenth century. I have heard some Wagner and Mahler with period instruments already. I’m not sure it really brings something completely new. The most important thing for me is the concept you have behind a performance, not so much the instruments themselves.
Maybe it’s also interesting to have modern composers write pieces for period instruments. I know that Tafelmusik has commissioned new pieces. Of course, it’s not so interesting when a composer uses period instruments as a gimmick. But if you really try to understand the technique and the possibility of generating a new sound, I think it’s a challenge for the composer.
Join us for The Eloquent Cello, October 5-9 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.
Dittersdorf Symphony no. 4 in F Major after Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Carl Ditters is one of the few masters of the Viennese classical school who was actually born in Vienna. He was well educated in non-musical subjects and established a solid reputation early on through his violin playing and increasingly popular compositions. He enjoyed the friendship of Gluck and Haydn, and was highly regarded by the Austrian emperor, the Prussian king, and numerous nobles in between. Eventually Ditters himself was ennobled, and after 1773 was referred to as “von Dittersdorf.” His informative and frequently amusing autobiography, dictated on his deathbed, ends on a poignant note, as he reveals his compromised health and poverty (similar to the way Boccherini spent his final days, and so unlike the fame and wealth enjoyed by his friend Haydn). Dittersdorf left a large catalogue of works in all the genres of his day, including opera and oratorio, but his instrumental works are the most performed today, especially those for unusual instruments such as double bass and harp.
Dittersdorf writes that around 1780 “it occurred to me to take some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as subjects for characteristic symphonies.” He wrote twelve of them, and performed them in Vienna as a self-produced event, hoping to raise a significant sum of money. One of his biggest subscribers was Baron van Swieten (also a patron of C.P.E. Bach: see below). Six Metamorphoses symphonies survive in their original form. The fourth is inspired by the myth of Perseus rescuing Andromeda: after killing Medusa, and while flying over Africa, Perseus discovers the Ethiopian princess Andromeda, naked and chained to a rock. Her mother had unwisely boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, or sea nymphs. A furious Poseidon sent a sea monster to wreak havoc along the coastline, and the only way to appease him was to sacrifice Andromeda. Falling in love with her at sight, Perseus kills the monster, frees her from bondage, and subsequently marries her. The opening Adagio is in effect an extended aria for oboe which would not seem out of place in an opera or ballet. The Presto evokes an image of Perseus flying with winged sandals. The Larghetto, in the mournful key of F minor, might depict the suffering of Andromeda. The Finale begins in sturm und drang mode (Perseus defeating the monster), then leads to a graceful minuet signifying the celebration of his triumph and marriage.
Boccherini Cello concerto in D Major
In the history of cello playing, the unique contribution of Luigi Boccherini is universally acknowledged, yet he left no treatise, method, nor notable student. The legacy of his cello playing lies instead in his numerous sonatas and concertos, and in the concertante role—yielding nothing to the violin—that he gave the instrument in his voluminous output of chamber music. Of the thirteen or so known Boccherini cello concertos, only five were published during the composer’s lifetime. The last of these, the Concerto in D Major, G.483, was published in Vienna in 1784. Compared to earlier concertos, the Allegro maestoso demonstrates a richer, more varied orchestration. The opening tutti briefly quotes Gluck’s inferno music from Don Juan, a work Boccherini would have encountered, and likely performed, in Vienna. The Andante lentarello is unique in offering a fully written-out cadenza by the composer.
C.P.E. Bach Symphony for strings in B Minor
The Dutch diplomat and amateur musician Baron Gottfried van Swieten is remembered for his role in introducing the music of J.S. Bach to Mozart, as well as his contributions to Haydn’s Creation. While serving as ambassador in Berlin, he became enamoured with the symphonies of C.P.E. Bach, and commissioned a set of six symphonies for strings, which appeared in 1773. Bach’s writing is “outside the box” of the Viennese symphonic tradition, and his unique language is highly expressive, occasionally quirky, and always entertaining. His writing for the upper strings in the Symphony in B Minor is typically brilliant and powerful while not being specially idiomatic; unlike the other composers on this program, this Bach never mastered a string instrument!
Haydn Cello Concerto in C Major
In 1761, Joseph Haydn was appointed Vice-Capellmeister to the court of Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. This was the beginning of a three-decades long relationship with the Esterházy dynasty. Although nominally ranked under the aging Capellmeister Gregor Werner, Haydn was put in charge of the orchestra from the start, directly engaged in hiring musicians to expand and improve the small resident orchestra, which it is thought he led from the second violin desk. His compositions from this early stage, such as concertos and symphonies with extended solos, demonstrate great confidence in the abilities of the individual musicians, and must have flattered and ingratiated his new colleagues. These included virtuosos such as concertmaster Luigi Tomasini and cellist Joseph Weigl. The latter was appointed just a few weeks after Haydn, and the two became close friends: Haydn stood as godfather to two of Weigl’s children. The cellist’s playing most certainly inspired Haydn’s Concerto in C Major. No record survives of a first performance of the work, but the first movement’s principal theme is recorded in Haydn’s Entwurf-Katalogue (sketch catalogue) from the time.
For 200 years, this sleeping beauty disappeared, until it was found in an anonymous manuscript in Prague in 1962, an event hailed by musicologist H.C. Robbins-Landon as “the greatest musicological discovery since the Second World War.” The entry in Haydn’s catalogue, plus the evident high quality of the work, made authentication swift, and the modern premiere took place in May of that year by Milos Sadlo in Prague. Since then its reputation has grown to one of the finest cello concertos of the eighteenth century, and indeed one of the best concertos for any instrument from this early classical period. Resting in amber, so to speak, throughout the nineteenth century, it avoided the mutilations and romanticized editing endured by Haydn’s later Concerto in D Major (as published by Gevaert) and Boccherini’s famous Concerto in B-flat Major (as published by Grützmacher).
A courtly atmosphere is established in the stately Moderato. The Adagio exploits the cello’s singing qualities, and Haydn uses a trick favored by Boccherini: the solo melody emerges from a quietly sustained note, making a sort of “secret entrance.” The Finale abounds in Haydn’s energetic humor and unrestrained virtuosity, making full use of advanced techniques, such as thumb-position, and exploiting the full range of the cello. The Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma once likened the tension in the solo cello’s opening note to a “cat watching a mouse hole.”
Every once in a while, there is a piece of music that has a specific connection to something in one’s life. That is the case for me and the Haydn C-Major Cello Concerto. Our younger daughter, Madeleine, went through a period of a few weeks shortly after she was born during which she would wake at 1:00 am in great distress. She wasn’t hungry or suffering from colic, nor did diapers need changing. She simply needed to cry. She’d had a difficult birth, and my theory was that she somehow needed to work that out, and this was her chosen hour. The rest of the day and night she was quite happy.
Unfortunately this period coincided with a Tafelmusik tour — I was at home with my newborn and her five-year-old sister, but my husband Ivars [Tafelmusik Choir Director Ivars Taurins, formerly violist in the orchestra] was in Germany with the orchestra. Needless to say, those 1:00 am wake-up calls quickly became as distressing for me as for my daughters. To the rescue came a guardian angel in the form of my mother, the girls’ much-loved Nana. A firm believer in the power of the rocking chair, she took over the middle-of-the-night shifts, firmly holding and rocking Madeleine. She determined that music might help, and I’m not sure why, but she turned to Tafelmusik’s recording of the Haydn cello concertos, with Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma.
Perhaps it was simply on top of the CD pile, as it had just been released some months before. Perhaps she was drawn to it because she had enjoyed the company and conversation of Anner on tours (mom had come along as nanny when our older daughter was a baby and toddler, and a couple of the European tours featured Anner as soloist). In any case, it worked. The C-Major Concerto is the first piece on the recording, and something about it calmed baby Madeleine, so we played it every night. I came to think of it as her midnight story, and at that tender age, what better than music to tell a tale, assuring her (and us) that all is well. Haydn is a masterful storyteller, as is Anner (both in life and in music) – and it all fit.
I haven’t heard the concerto since that time, now 25 years ago, and I’m looking forward to hearing Christophe Coin play it at our October concerts. Madeleine is living in New York City, otherwise I’d bring her along. Perhaps I’ll send her the recording. She would probably find it oddly soothing, and wouldn’t know quite why.
Christophe Coin performs Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto at The Eloquent Cello October 5-9 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Tickets are available here.