The Kennedy Center

Guitar Quintet No. 4 in D major "Fandango"

About the Work

 Boccherini Composer: Boccherini
© Richard Rodda

Luigi Boccherini was the foremost Italian composer of instrumental music during the late 18th century. The son of a cellist, he learned his father's instrument early and well, and made his public debut in his native Lucca at the age of thirteen. The following year, 1757, he and his father took up appointments in the orchestra of the court theater in Vienna, where Luigi's reputation as a performer began to be matched by that of his compositions, as indicated by their widespread contemporary distribution in manuscript copies. In April 1764, he returned to Lucca as composer and cellist at the church of St. Maria Corteorlandini. At the end of 1766, Boccherini embarked on a concert tour with a hometown friend, violinist Filippo Manfredi, which ended in Paris several months later; they remained there at least until the summer of 1768. Boccherini's playing and compositions were much admired in the French capital, and many of his works, mostly chamber music for strings, were printed by local publishing houses. His appearances at the Concert Spirituel in 1768 were apparently the inspiration for him to compose a number of concertos for cello, four of which were printed in 1770-1771.

In 1768, Boccherini moved to Madrid at the urging of the Spanish ambassador to Paris. The following year he composed and dedicated to Don Luis, the Spanish Infante, younger brother of King Charles III, a set of quartets, and was rewarded with an appointment beginning in November 1770 to serve the Infante as virtuoso di camera ["chamber virtuoso"] e compositor de musica. The next fifteen years were a time of security and steady activity for Boccherini: he married in 1771; he had the support of his employer, for whose musical establishment he wrote hundreds of string quintets and other chamber works; and his reputation was spread throughout Europe by the publication of many of his compositions in Paris. This happy period came to an end in 1785, when both Boccherini's wife and Don Luis died. Two years earlier, through the Prussian ambassador, Boccherini had met Prince (later King) Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, himself a cellist and an avid lover of music. The Prince had expressed a desire to have some new works provided to him by Boccherini, but his contract with Don Luis prohibited him from composing for anyone else. With the Infante's death, however, Boccherini was free to accept new employment, and he was appointed chamber music composer to Friedrich Wilhelm on January 21, 1786.

The records of Boccherini's activities for the decade following 1786 are scarce, but he seems to have remained in Madrid, where he filled Friedrich's commissions as well as those from several Portuguese, Spanish and French patrons. Following Friedrich's death in 1796, and the refusal of his successor to continue Boccherini's employment, Boccherini's income became undependable. Apparently because of his gentle nature, he was regularly cheated by his publishers, despite their sizable profits from the sale of his music, which remained popular in Paris, London and elsewhere. Occasional commissions came his way, as did a small pension granted to him by Don Luis, but the pianist and composer Sophie Gail reported finding him in financial distress during her visit to Madrid in 1803. His condition had been exacerbated by the deaths the preceding year of two daughters; his second wife and another daughter passed away in 1804. Boccherini died in Madrid on May 28, 1805, from respiratory failure; in 1927, his remains were returned to Lucca.

During the late 1790s, Boccherini arranged about a dozen of his existing string quintets for the combination of guitar and string quartet, mostly on commission from the Spanish nobleman Marquis de Benavente. (Eight are extant.) Louis Picquot, an early biographer of the composer, explained: "The Marquis excelled on the guitar, an instrument dear to all good Spaniards. He asked Boccherini to provide a guitar part for his own use in those compositions which he liked, in exchange for one hundred francs for each quartet, quintet or symphony. Several other rich amateurs acted in a similar manner, which prompted Boccherini not to compose, as many believed, but to arrange with a guitar part a rather large number of chosen pieces from among his works." In 1798, Boccherini cobbled the Guitar Quintet No. 4 in D major (G[érard] 448) from the first two movements of his Quintet, Op. 12, No. 6 and the Grave and Fandango from the Quintet, Op. 40, No. 2, composed in 1788. The Quintet opens with an ingratiating Pastorale of gently swaying rhythms and vernal mood. The guitar assumes an accompanimental role in the buoyant Allegro maestoso while the cello (Boccherini's instrument) is featured in high-register flourishes. A stately Grave assai serves as the introduction to the brilliant closing Fandango, a folk dance in moderately fast triple meter built upon alternating tonic and dominant chords that originated in Spain in the early 18th century. The Fandango was traditionally performed by couples with castanets accompanied by guitars, and here Boccherini distilled the essence of the dance in both the musical content and in calling for a sistrum (a rattle of ancient origin whose jangling sound resembles that of a modern tambourine) and castanets.