I will be writing here about relationship—relationship in general, examined through the lens of a specific but problematic relationship with a man. As such this is but one of a great many attempts on one of the most vexed themes of Western discourse. However, like most authors of such attempts, I claim certain distinguishing features to my work, a viewpoint on the topic that is new enough to warrant fresh attention, a renewal of the reader’s interest. Surely the most peculiar aspect of my work is that my partner in this exemplary and exploratory relationship, Luigi Boccherini, is dead, and furthermore has been dead throughout my entire relationship with him; and that in spite of this fact, I claim us to have had very tender, searching physical contact.
Anyone who performs or who has written about the music of a specific composer can attest to the identification that performers and scholars make with a historical personage. The identification can be a haunting or an irritating experience, containing as it does the potential for possession or invasion; shot through with sorrow, since, in Western Classical music, so often one’s partner is long dead; revelatory, voyeuristic; at its best and sweetest we might call it intimate, implying that it is somehow reciprocal. I will contend two things here: first, that the sense of reciprocity in this process of identification is not entirely wistful or metaphorical, but functions as real relationship; and second, that this relationship is not fantastic, incidental or inessential to musicology. It can and should be a primary source of knowledge about the performed work of art.
In making such a claim I can do no better than show the reader the scene of one of my own trysts with Signor Boccherini, the very sheets and the stains upon them, as it were.
[Download the 1st half of the score in PDF format]
[Download the 2nd half of the score in PDF format]
Because the performer’s relationship to the work of art must have an extensively and systematically explored bodily element, a performing identification with a composer is based on a particular type of knowledge which could be called carnal. The rendering of this knowledge, which by its nature contains an extremely fine grain of detail, into concepts that are usefully transferable to other works, other points of contact with the composer, and eventually to points of contact with other composers altogether, is the chief labor of such an approach. In this article, however, I remain at the granular level of translation from sensation to concept.
Confronted with the text of a piece of music, the performer will engage in a brief preliminary assessment, in order to get a rough sense of the piece’s requirements. The necessity, or at least advisability, of such assessment has been acknowledged for a long time: it corresponds to the intellectio of Classical rhetoric—a mulling-over and consideration of the topic at hand. Lodovico da Viadana, writing in 1607, offers the musician’s version:
|Sarà se non bene, che l’Organista habbia prima data un’occhiata à quel Concerto, che si ha da cantare, perche intendendo la natura di quella musica, farà sempre meglio gli accompagnimenti.1||It will be a good thing if the organist has first looked over the concerto which is to be sung, because in understanding the nature of the music, he will always play a better accompaniment.|
“The nature of the music” can mean quite a few things. There will be some kind of who-what-when, a rough and ready musicology: the composer, Luigi Boccherini, lived in the second half of the eighteenth century; what we have before us is the first half of a first movement of a sonata for cello and “basso,” the latter of which in this case seems to mean an unfigured bass line. Further context may arrive with this information. For instance, Boccherini is generally remembered today as having been the first great virtuoso cellist; he wrote a number (in fact, over thirty) of similar sonatas. He is also generally remembered as a some sort of precursor to the style of Haydn and Mozart; his music has been called “rococo;” by these lights,we might expect some sort of sonata-form procedure,and a certain degree both of virtuosity, and of ornate figuration.
For a prospective performer, “the nature of the music” is also, inescapably, physical. On this level, intellectio is really an anticipatory kinesthesia, a sub-verbal, sub-intellectual assessment of questions like, what do I need to do in order to play this? Where will I put my hands, and how will I move them? The most basic framework of physical terms within which this question operates—the framing of a cellist-body—is fairly easy to articulate. Many—in fact most—physical possibilities are excluded, such as standing up, leg motion of any kind, waving the arms in the air, vocalization, and so on. A certain basic position is mandated—seated on a chair, with the instrument between the legs, its neck to the left of the face, and the bow held in the right hand.
It is in the act of playing the instrument, the engagement of that cellist-body in movement and doing, that articulation and description suddenly become fraught with complexity, involving the consideration and verbalization of things like:
These matters, detailed as they are, are still general. What of the piece at hand, and its specific demands? How will the cellist’s body configure itself according to the solo line of this sonata? And—an integral part of any such account—how may we read these configurations for meaning?
The first thing the performer is likely to notice in a preliminary assessment of this sonata by Boccherini may well come with a little lurch of alarm: the piece begins “out there,” technically speaking, not in the cello’s more ordinary bass or tenor register, but in the soprano range, unfamiliar enough that most cellists will have to find and secure the position for the left hand before beginning to play.2 But from this somewhat precarious starting point comes a measured, steady descent for two measures, and then two more an octave lower. Topically speaking, such descending lines have a connotative range of withdrawal, reserve, defeat, and perhaps melancholy, while the dotted rhythms of bars 2 & 4 connote something of the martial. From this topical mixture alone one might construct a scenario of rapidly subsiding bravado. But then add to this the physical experience of playing this passage, which is a kind of drawing-in toward a center: from its initial extension, the left arm moves steadily in toward the chest, and, psychologically, toward home, the familiar pastures of the tenor and bass ranges. Simultaneously, the right hand holding the bow must move minutely inward, for in order to play with a clear sound in a high register, the bow-hair must be positioned on the strings rather close to the bridge, where there is quite a bit of frictive resistance to the bow; as the pitches descend, the bow can be moved “in,” again toward the body’s center, a half-inch or so, and the strings’ resistance diminishes considerably. For both hands this is an experience of increasing ease and relaxation, and probably relief. The retreat from the screwed-up courage of the opening is, physically speaking, pleasant, welcoming, grateful.
If we combine the physical experience of the passage with its topical/gestural significations, we get a complicated little picture: retreat and subsiding manifest as desirable. Gratification is associated with an inward, centering motion. Meanwhile the persistent dotted rhythms, which become increasingly gruff in sound with the descent in pitch, militate against this esthetic of introversion. (However, they are subtly comforting as well: the execution of the short-long, short-long rhythm involves minute rooting-inward motions of the right hand followed by equally minute releases into the air; this allows a continual adjustment of position and release of tension with each thirty-second/dotted sixteenth pair.)
At this point, having made the piece’s first full statement, the performer must return abruptly to the high place in which the piece began—this time, without the beginning’s luxury of “finding” the position outside of musical time. In negotiating this leap, muscle memory will help, but should that memory prove less than perfect, and the 2-1/2-octave jump to the soprano register go awry, Boccherini immediately offers two opportunities to regroup and correct the intonation. The third G-Bb, on which the new phrase begins, must be played by the left thumb and second finger;3 the upper-neighbor thirds, Ab-C, by first and third fingers. Each upper-neighbor third provides a brief moment in which to lift and adjust the position of the initial third. Barring a really gross initial miscalculation, this should permit everything to be all set, by the third beat of bar 5, for the passagework that follows. This starts out fairly brilliant, if formulaic, with its cascading triplets, but begins to droop by bar 7, and by halfway through bar 8, has landed on a dominant drone, which murmurs itself away into a cadence.
Much of this passagework is written so that one can just twiddle around within a position, oriented around the fixed and immobile left thumb. Since thumb-position is a technique used only by cellists and some virtuoso contrabassists, and since it is central to Boccherini’s idiom, a brief reversion to the level of framing the basic cellist-body may be in order here. Thumb-position involves placing the right side of the left thumb at right angles across two strings as a “bar,” or artificial nut: capo-tasto.4 The pitches produced by thumb-stopped strings will always be a perfect fifth apart, since the strings themselves are tuned in fifths. They will also have a tone quality somewhat different from pitches stopped by the other fingers, since it is the side of the thumb that makes contact with the string; joints are considerably less flexible under sideways pressure, and there is less flesh on the side of a digit. Vibrato becomes more difficult. Thumb tone could be described as rather hard and bald. Boccherinian technique generally involves “planting” the thumb in a convenient location for part or all of an extended passage, thus fixing register for that passage’s duration.5 With the thumb planted, the remaining fingers can fill in the pitches of a diatonic or chromatic scale around and within the thumb’s bar-fifth, and can, in the upper reaches, extend to a tenth or even further above the bottom note of the bar.
Because thumb technique orients the left hand around a stopped fifth, it also lends itself to the addition of a drone or pedal point, an addition Boccherini often exploits. Double-stopping and drones are written-out resonators, ways of increasing the harmonious vibrations coming out of the instrument (and disguising the bald tone of the thumb-stopped notes!) but they will only function in this way if the performer is very conscious and deft with the balance of friction and release in the right hand. In terms of sensation, playing two strings at once will offer increased resistance to the right hand and arm; further resistance takes place between muscle groups: the deltoid and biceps, which are responsible for the pronation (inward rotation) that sinks the arm weight into the strings, war subtly with the trapezius and back muscles that are responsible for the lateral motion across them. If the performer gets this balance of resistances right, it will result in a warm, bright, carrying sound, one which is definitely pleasant to work at.
Boccherini invites an exploration of this pleasure through the amount of repetition he gives in which to find that muscular balance. This appears at many levels, from the micro-repetitions of bars 5–6, to the gentle, dreamy, and static musette-music of bars 8 1/2–10 and 18 1/2–22 1/2, to the glorious, monotonous momentum of bars 26 1/2–27 and 29 1/2–30. The repetitions in the pastoral mode are reassuring, physically inviting a greater submission to gravity, less resistance by the back muscles; those toward the end of the movement are urgent, suggesting a crescendo of both sound and muscular activity—all, in their different ways, inciting and encouraging the performer to experience different pathways toward frictive pleasure. However this is not friction toward a climax. Even the tumult of bars 26 1/2–27, and then again 29 1/2–30 issues only in a relatively delicate, lazy descending line and a rather indolent cadence.
There is in fact only one passage in the entire first half of the sonata that is not written in thumb position, and which does not contain these small repetitive encouragements; this is in bars 11 1/2-18. Here the left hand must move up and down the neck of the instrument to follow the line of the melody. This is much more commonplace cellistic technique, one which, through its gestural enactment of the progressive shortening and lengthening of strings, mimes the melodic “shapes” created by the invisible shortening and lengthening of vocal cords. This vocality is further emphasized by the fact that, without the thumb on the strings, it is much easier to use vibrato, with its warmer, more “natural” quality; and by the whole passage taking place in the most grateful, “singing” register of the instrument. Leopold Mozart suggests that both vocal and instrumental vibratos have their origins in nothing less than nature itself.
|Der Tremolo ist eine Auszierung die aus der Natur selbst entspringet, und die nicht nur von guten Instrumentisten, sondern auch von geschickten Sänger, bey einer langen Note zierlich kann angebracht werden. Die natur selbst ist die Lehrmeisterin hiervon. Denn wenn wir eine schlaffe Seyte oder eine Glocke stark anschlagen; so hören wir nach dem Schlage eine gewisse wellenweise Schwebung (ondeggiamento) des angeschlagenen Tones: Und diesen zitterenden Nachklang nennet man Tremolo, oder Tremoleto.6||Vibrato is an ornament that springs from nature herself, and not only a good instrumentalist, but also a skilful singer, can make it an appropriate adornment for a long note. Nature herself is the teacher for this: when we strike a loose string or a bell sharply, we then hear a definite wavelike beating (ondeggiamento) of the tone we have struck, and we call this shuddering aftersound tremolo or tremoleto.|
David Sudnow remarks that a central process in learning an instrument is the acquisition of “a general style of bodily movement . . . of a complexity that in no way can be readily reduced to some existing equation” and which has the signal feature of generalizability to (and from) the rest of the body, rather in the manner of a hologram:
Put a person with a piano-knowing hand above major-scale pedals on the floor of an organ, and the feet learn their ways and the pedal’s spaces faster than the feet of a body without a piano-knowing hand. Put the piano-knowing hand over a child’s-sized toy keyboard, and in a few moments the piano-knowing hand displays perfect familiarity in moving about.
Put a pencil in the knowing hand and watch a scale get played, a melody picked out. That scale and its distances are thoroughly incorporated for the body, an inner acquisition of spaces somehow arrayed all over as an ever-present potential. And when fingers in particular learn piano spaces in particular, much more is in fact being learned about than fingers, this keyboard, these sizes.
A music-making body is being fashioned.7
This ability of this body to generalize an activity from one situation or body part to another, its marvelous self-analogizing propensity, can be experienced by the string player nowhere so intimately as in the physical analogies of tone production for voice. To be launched upon a melody, airborne among the expressive and muscular demands of making it happen, can only be adequately described by reference to the experience of singing. And as in singing, every “voice” so produced will have its own stamp; a mature string player develops a tone that is identifiably her or his own, as flexibly characteristic as the sounds that issue from the same player’s larynx. This is not wholly dependent upon the particular instrument being played, nor to the apparent type of body playing it: small players sometimes have a huge, robust tone, large, muscular players a small and delicate one.
Boccherini’s exploration of cellistic bel canto delivers to us the most interesting part of the sonata so far. From bar 13 1/2 there is an abrupt turn into the minor mode, with a number of its topical attendants: pathos, in the form of descending chromatics (bar 14) and an augmented second (bar 15); anxiety or unrest, conveyed by the small syncopations (bars 16-17). A fixed-thumb position cannot be made to work here; the consequent obligation to execute these devices in a quasi-vocal style gives them an especially immediate quality.
In this piece, flatted harmonies or melodic inflections have a strong relationship with the tendency toward repetitiveness and fixity that has characterized previous passages. Repetition is a process of centering, of focussing gesture. As with any form of balancing or centering, the object is to use fewer muscles, and none that are unnecessary; the process tends toward an ideal active stillness, in what might be described as a physical drawing-in. The left hand can participate in the process of drawing-in or centering by moving toward the heart; and in the cello’s alto and soprano registers where so much of this piece is played, this will be a motion “down” the fingerboard (which is to say, upward against gravity, which produces lower pitch.) Downward chromatic motion is, in this gestural sense, an enhanced version of repetitive centering.
Pathetic connotations to flatting a pitch are scarcely peculiar to Boccherini, of course; what is so characteristic is the way in which those associations are physically welded, as it were, to one of the most fundamental acts of playing the instrument at all. These drawings-in are always toward a center, not only of efficiency and balance, but of melancholy, a reading which confirms itself again and again in exploring this sonata, and indeed in all its kindred works. It is not an exaggeration to say that for Boccherini as he manifests himself to us in the sonatas for cello and basso, being centered and secure upon the instrument—even in an allegro—meant evoking pathos or sentimental reflection.
To recapitulate and summarize these combinations of physical experience with topos and affect: a daring beginning proves to be the beginning of a registral and physical retreat; in bar 5, potential discomfort (the large leap) is mitigated by some musically simple but technically sophisticated repetitions; something showy follows that is not at all difficult to play. In the drone passages, both reflective (bars 9–10 and 18 1/2–22 1/2) and cumulative (26 1/2–27, 30 1/2–31) there are invitations to explore pleasure in the sliding and resistance of muscle fibers, and the instrumental resonances that go into developing tone; and this pleasure is an unusual one: it doesn’t tend toward climax or go anywhere. In the passage from 11 1/2 to 18 1/2, the minor-mode affects of pathos, melancholy and anxiety are set apart and emphasized through their vocal qualities, evoking that understanding of the voice promoted by Rousseau, as the ideal marker of selfhood.8 a feeling being.”)]
In a live performance (and to quite an extent in a recorded one) not only will the performer feel things such as those I have described, but the listener-observer will feel them too, or at least feel that the performer feels them, through the subtle and unavoidable physical identification that comes with proximity and close attention to another human being. Such matters communicate themselves, entirely without the benefit of a verbal exegesis, and are thus a proper, if always only contingent, part of the performed work of art. None of these interpretive associations can ever be really free, due to Western culture’s powerfully normative, powerfully tacit understandings of embodiment. Much of the verifiability and transferability of this carnal approach to musicology must rest upon unpacking and discussing those norms.
The first norm to meet our scrutiny must be the one that says, in a very reasonable voice, you cannot have a physically reciprocal relationship with someone no longer living.
Yet I do claim it as reciprocal. My role constitutes itself as follows: as living performer of Boccherini’s sonata, a work which he wrote for himself to play, I am aware of acting the connection between parts of someone who cannot be here in the flesh. I have become, not just his hands, but his binding agent, the continuity, the consciousness; it is only a step over from the work of maintaining my own person as some kind of unitary thing, the necessary daily fiction of establishing and keeping a hold on identity: different perhaps in urgency and accuracy, but not, I think, in kind. As this composer’s agent in performance, I do in this wise become him, in much the same manner as I become myself. My experience of becoming him is grounded in and expressed through the medium of the tactile.
As for Boccherini’s role: I turn to Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de Musique, the entry on Execution; this book was published in Paris in 1768, the same year that Boccherini visited there. Rousseau is addressing the composer- performer of vocal music; this is the inimitable 1779 translation of William Waring.
|Commencez donc par bien connoître le caractére du chant que vous avez à rendre, son rapport au sens des paroles, la distinction de ses phrases, l’Accent qu’il a par lui-même, celui qu’il suppose dans la voix de l’Exécutant, l’energie que le Compositeur a donnée au Poëte, & celle que vous pouvez donnez à votre tour au Compositeur.Alor livrez vos organes à toute la chaleur que ces considérations vous auront inspirée; faites ce que vous feriez si vous étiez à la fois le Poëte, le Compositeur, l’Acteur & le Chanteur . . .9||Begin then by a complete knowledge of the character of the air which you are going to render, of its connection with the sense of the words, the distinction of its phrases, the accent which it has peculiar to itself, that which is supposed in the voice of the executant, the energy which the composer has given to the poet, and those [energies] which in turn you also can give the composer. Then relax your organs to all the fire which their considerations may have inspired you with; do the same as you would, were you at the same time poet, composer, actor and singer.|
The suggested trajectory of attention is from an educated listening inward, through a grasp of conventions toward a level of experience neither conventional nor well understood, and here introduced by that extraordinary phrase: “that which is supposed in the voice of the executant.” What can this mean but the composer’s reliance on knowledge of, or assumptions about, the performer?—who can only make the acquaintance of this ghostly version of themselves “supposed” in the work through a careful evaluation of what it is like to execute it. As I have suggested above, this is not primarily an auditory matter, but a kind of assessment, initially visual and then increasingly kinesthetic, which evolves in detail and precision through the course of learning to play a piece. Rousseau is telling me to follow this transformation of listening suggested by the Italian sentire, with its double meaning of “listen” and “feel.” He explicitly invokes the feel—and the Italian language wisely refuses to differentiate between physical and emotional feel—of performing. Through this I will come to know what the composer supposed me to be.
This is a vivid experience, full of poignance. As I practice sentire in Boccherini’s music, I become aware of a poignance of presence, the unmistakable sensation of someone here—and not only here, but inhabiting my body. It is a commonplace in any kind of physical education that intensive involvement with certain bodily configurations will change one’s habits, change one’s choices, change the very way things feel. Here, as I educate myself about the highly physically characterized work of this composer, these changes occur in the image, or rather the feel, of someone else. They delineate him with an uncanny and entirely un-visual clarity, and it is this vivid experience, I maintain, that constitutes the reciprocity of this relationship.
And what of the subjectivity of this putative relationship? Despite my carefully generic locutions about the experiences of “the performer,” plainly that performer is myself; the detailed assessments of possible physical experience in playing this piece of music derive directly from what I felt as I learned to play it. It may appear that I have chosen only fingerings and bowings that reinforce my interpretive points; that every such point I have made is thoroughly arguable as to its generalizability, its usefulness, and that what appears above is not musicology, not history, but an exercise in narcissistic free-association by a particularly verbose performer.
To take only one example, is it not possible to construe the opening of this sonata as a triumphal, rather than a retreating, trajectory? Doesn’t the descent into the lowest register bring with it connotations of increasing masculinity and authority, supported by the attendant increase in resonance, and thus volume, from the instrument? And doesn’t the gradual progress of the performer’s left hand from soprano to bass registers inflect this with an additional rigidity, involving as it does a motion upward, against gravity, which actually requires more muscular contraction in the upper arm as the phrase continues? The answer, of course, is yes. It’s a rather nice reading of the passage, in fact. The prerogative I have taken of interpreting it in another light, which would go unquestioned in performance, must needs find some further support to qualify as scholarship.
I claim this support from two sources. The first is fundamental to the epistemology of a carnal musicology, and is well summed up by Janet Schmalfeldt: “Many have stressed that the richness and complexity of the masterpiece preclude the so-called “definitive” performance or “best” analysis. But it is that very unlimited wealth of genius that invites us forever to make analyses, to perform works already recorded, and then to perform them again.”10 In this view, performance and analysis are but two different faces of interpretation, an act which is both art and science. If we accept this, the whole simplistic (and ultimately rather boring) notion of authoritativeness auto-digests, leaving us with its compost: that complex layering and interpenetration of interpretations that builds up around any work of art, and, culturally speaking, constitutes the nourishment it must have in order to survive.
My second source of support is more specific to the composer at hand. In brief, a broader acquaintance with the execution of Boccherini’s music confirms a marked tendency to gravitate toward ease and comfort—there is something positively gentlemanly about the way he refuses to sacrifice the performer’s ease to virtuosic excitement—toward introversion, toward melancholy, and, in and through all of these, toward an unorthodox kind of goalless pleasure: he emerges as an appealing and most interesting character. Explorations of his music’s placement within its cultural milieu lend consistent support to executional readings, while suggesting further terms for and conceptions of the Boccherinian character.
The most obvious evidence of that placement is in contemporary critical assessments of Boccherini’s music. Coquéau, a Parisian pamphleteer, tells us in 1779:
|Exécutez la Sonate 5e de l’Œuvre V de Boccherini, vous y sentirez tous les mouvemens d’une femme qui demande & qui emploie tour à tour la douceur & le reproche. On a presque envie d’y mettre des paroles; cent fois exécutée, elle offre toujours le même sens & la même image. Il en est de même du largo de la troisième Sonata du même Œuvre, qui exprime singulièrement l’atteinte d’une douleur sombre & profonde . . .11||Play the fifth Sonata of Boccherini’s Op. 5, and you will hear all the movements of a demanding woman who alternately asks for and employs sweetness and reproach. One has almost the inclination to put words to it; played a hundred times, still it offers up the same sense and the same image. It is the same with the Largo of the third sonata of the same opus, which expresses most singularly the impact of a somber and profound grief . . .|
While Thomas Twining wrote in 1783 to his great friend, and fellow amateur chamber-musician, Charles Burney:
Haydn, I think, is much oftener charming than Boccherini. Yet when Boccherini is at his best, there is a force of serious expression, a pathos, that is not so much Haydn’s fort, I think. I never see a smile upon Boccherini’s face; he is all earnestness, & Tragedy.11
And Johann Baptist Schaul wrote in 1809 of Boccherini’s chamber music:
|Jede Stimme stellt, so zu sagen, ein Person einer Familie vor, deren Glieder sich wechselseitig ihre Geheimnisse, ihren Kummer mit einer solchen Herzlichkeit, Theilnahme und Wärme anvertrauen, daß sich jeder Zuhörer in die Zeiten der Unschuld und Rechtschaffenheit versetzt glaubt.12||Every part represents, so to speak, a person in a family, the members of which mutually impart their secrets and their sorrows, with such affection, compassion and warmth, that every listener will believe himself transported to the times of innocence and righteousness.|
The violinist Pierre Baillot, who wrote unusually eloquently, expounds in his 1804 Méthode de violoncelle as follows:
|Mais c’est dans l’Adagio que le Violoncelle a le plus de moyens pour émouvoir: rien ne surpasse le charme qui l’accompagne dans le musique de ce grand maître; s’il le fait chanter seul, c’est avec un sensibilité si profonde, une simplicité si noble, qu’on oublié l’art et l’imitation, et que, pénétré d’un sentiment religieux, on s’imagine entendre une voix céleste, tant elle a une expression étrangère à tout ce qui blesse le coeur; l’on dirait plutôt qu’elle cherche à consoler; s’il fait parler à la fois les cinq instruments, c’est avec une harmonie pleine et auguste qui invite au recueillement, qui jette l’imagination dans une douce rêverie, ou qui la fixe sur des tableaux enchanteurs . . . il prend une teinte sombre et mélancolique, il va droit au coeur par des moyens si doux, que les larmes coulent sans qu’on s’en aperçoive; s’il attriste, c’est pour mieux toucher; s’il semble ôter à l’âme toute sa force, c’est pour la réconcilier avec elle-même, pour apaiser le tumulte des passions, y faire succéder un calme délicieux, transporter dans un monde meilleur, et faire goûter les plaisirs de l’âge d’or. (. . . )13||But it is in [Boccherini’s] Adagio that the violoncello has the greatest means of moving us: nothing surpasses the charm which accompanies it in the music of this great master; if he makes it sing alone, it is with a sensibility so profound, a simplicity so noble, that one forgets all art and imitation, and, penetrated by a religious sentiment, one imagines one hears a celestial voice, one whose expression is a stranger to all that wounds the heart; one could say rather that she seeks to console; if all five instruments are made to speak at the same time, it is with a full, august harmony which invites one to recollection, which casts the imagination into a sweet reverie, or which fixes it upon enchanted tableaux . . . [his music] takes on a somber and melancholy tint, it goes directly to the heart by means so sweet, that tears fall without our being aware of it; if he saddens, it is to touch us the more; if he seems to strip the soul of all its strength, it is to reconcile it with itself, to appease the tumult of passions, and to make a delicious calm follow; to transport us into a better world, there to taste the pleasures of the golden age . . .|
But perhaps the most vivid characterization-through-works of this melancholy, introverted, sensible Boccherini is by Giuseppe Cambini, in his violin method of 1803. Cambini (who claimed to have known Boccherini personally) quotes the opening phrase of Boccherini’s quartet in c minor, op.2 #1, and suggests a quasi-operatic text for it.
Quoi! vous savez /que je suis innocent, vous me voyez malheur/eux! et vous ne daignez /pas me consoler!
What! You know that I am innocent, you see me as unhappy! And you will not deign to console me!)14
To return to the sonata: if the section we have considered so far suggests Boccherini’s character to us through its physical and experiential enactments, how does it continue to build upon this process?
Special caution is required here. Twentieth-century ears, even highly educated ones, will have been raised on a diet of Viennese conventions in late-eighteenth-century music; the template of first-movement sonata-form, laid out in elegant practice by Haydn and Mozart, theorized in loving detail by German critics of the first part of the nineteenth century, and taught as a kind of Gospel ever since, has a hold over modern expectations that should not be underestimated. One of its side-effects has been a certain deafness to earlier or non-Viennese models, resulting at worst in their interpretation as incomplete or clumsy attempts at the “real thing”—an inevitable result of elevating a certain stylistic moment as Classic.
Boccherini is one of a number of eighteenth-century composers whose instrumental music suggests other pathways to coherence; Viennese sonata-form makes a sadly Procrustean bed for the piece under consideration here. However, it is safe enough to locate expectation within more broadly defined parameters: by this halfway point in the movement, our outlook as listeners (or as the kind of sublimated or deferred listeners that readers of musicological description perforce become) will differ from what it was at the outset: by this point, we no longer confront the piece with the implicit question, “What do you have to show me?” since that “what” has now, presumably, and according to the paradigms of first-movement form, been shown. Interest and engagement will henceforth center around the progress of that “what” through some kind of vicissitudes, and expectation will focus on an eventual return to or reconciliation with its initial aspect.
In contrast to the listener, the prospective performer keeps asking, unmodified, the questions of their initial perusal in every part of the piece, thus continuing to engage with the second half of a sonata-form in its expository capacity. Is such an exposition, entirely made up of physical exigencies, even susceptible of development? Do narrative structures of expectation operate on a kinesthetic level?
Some intersections and distinctions between a listening and a performing engagement with a work are demonstrated in the opening bars of the second half of the sonata. Listening-wise, the appearance of the opening theme in the dominant serves as a kind of rubric to announce or emphasize the beginning of a new section—presumably a section of vicissitudes; it is melodically familiar, and while the register and harmony are new for this tune, both have been very well established in the preceding eight bars. Its very familiarity may encourage us to “take it as read,” directing our attention toward what is to come.
[Download the 2nd half of the score in PDF format]
Executionally, the descending trajectory of the tune, its small repetitions and pitch-confirmations rounding off into quasi-martial dotted rhythms, are likewise familiar; but to the hand, there is much more that is familiar than that is new about the register in which they appear, for it is the same register and the same position in which the preceding fourteen and a half bars have taken place–the thumb has been planted across the Bb-F fifth ever since bar 18 1/2. Such familiarity is in danger of breeding contempt, or at least hand-strain: maintaining a fixed-thumb position for extended periods is not particularly comfortable, and by this point, not only attention but considerable desire is likely to be focussed on getting somewhere else. The longed-for exit from the fixed-thumb position takes place gradually in the course of the phrase’s descent (a characteristic piece of Boccherinian technical courtesy, its gradualness allowing for the possibility of accumulated muscle rigidity or cramping)—thumb position is moved stepwise downward in the second half of bar 33, and finally abandoned altogether in the last eighth, in time for the martial gestures of bar 34.
At the end of bar 34 both listener and performer will be chiefly focussed on the question, “Where now?” But the desire motivating that question in each party is quite different, as bars 35 and 36 make clear. To the listener, the abrupt return to the original tonic, and in a familiar register, may constitute a disappointment: this is scarcely new!—or a puzzlement: is this some sort of ironic, premature recapitulation? But for the performer, it is both relief and pleasure in that relief: how thoughtful of the composer to continue the phrase in a known place, in a known manner, giving a few seconds of additional time for the still-aching muscles of the left hand and arm to recover themselves! Thus for the performer the first novelty offered, the first quantity to be developed, is a new level and extent of comfort or comfortingness. Novelties, developments—vicissitudes, in a word, as we encounter them in this piece—will tend to be of this elusive type. It is characteristic of Boccherini to forgo the ritual address of discomfort, or distress, or pain, both physical and psychological, that so typically attend the middle section of a sonata.
Meanwhile the ear’s eagerness for newness, intensified by having been checked, seems to be acknowledged in the omission of the double-stops, with their braking effect, at the end of the phrase (second beat of bar 36,) and in the arpeggio that sweeps upward out of the closing gestures–and runs, gesturally speaking, straight off a cliff. Bar 37 is unprecedentedly static, a dominant hanging suspended over its own third for an endless-seeming half a bar, resolving leisurely in the second half, and marked piano to boot. What has happened to the sense of momentum? The hand, especially the right hand, is even more summarily arrested; a much slower bow speed than hitherto found in the entire piece will be necessary to sustain this double stop for an entire bar (while the manuscript does not show a slur over the top line, the whole-note Eb indicates that the bar must be played with a single bow stroke.) Too much energy in that rising arpeggio in bar 36, and it will be difficult to make the transition to the larger muscles that control a slow bow. The arpeggio must decrescendo and perhaps slow down slightly, measure and collect itself, at precisely the moment when the ear is primed to desire the opposite. This is indeed development of a sort; to the extent that it is accomplished through execution, it proceeds in a clear and characteristic direction. It has taken a scant five bars for the same scenario to play itself out twice: at precisely that part of the piece where an appetite for newness might be keenest, momentum is checked, boldness restrained, desire firmly re-directed inward. As a consequence of this, the ear takes in the modulation to c minor that closes in bar 38, and the new tune that begins in 39, in a much-chastened spirit. Clearly, in the context of this sonata, we are not to expect some sort of pioneering foray away from the introversions of the first half of the piece, but rather an intensification of them.
In the next six bars the left hand is given an enjoyable respite from fixed positions of any kind, and allowed to crawl around the neck of the instrument in its best register, in much the same manner as in bars 11 1/2–18 in the exposition. To the ear, there is no obvious thematic resemblance between these passages, but to the hand the resemblance is very strong; this type of writing is scarce enough in this piece to feel really distinctive when it arrives, enough so that we might speak of it as an executionally constituted theme. Its thematic character is further borne out by the tendency in both passages to generate pleasure through the moving-inward gestures involved in executing descending melodies and chromatic flatting: in the earlier passage this was most clearly shown in the shift to the minor mode that began in bar 13 1/2, while in this development episode, trajectories of descent can be traced through bars 39–40, and again in 41–42. Harmonically, too, a “moving-inward,” or at least homeward, has been achieved by the time we arrive at the cadence in bar 44, which makes a firm statement on the original dominant, thereby sending a strong formal signal. We are primed to hear—something. Might it be a return.
Perhaps the question ought to be, a return of what? The passage that begins in bar 45 begins in a fixed-thumb position, with the thumb positioned on the same bar-fifth as the one used at the beginning of the piece, Eb–Bb above middle C (a fact somewhat obscured by the use of “old tenor clef” at the beginning, and soprano clef here.) The exigencies of finding this position, and Boccherini’s compositional gyrations around those exigencies, described above, will be pretty strongly ensconced in the player’s muscle memory, especially if the first-half repeat has been taken. Kinesthetically, positionally, this does indeed feel very much like a return; the “out-thereness” of this high position may even have been supplanted by a sensation of familiarity, if not precisely comfort, peculiar to this piece. In the executional sense suggested above, this position, merely as a position, could be said to constitute a theme, an interpretation supported by the fact that the left hand does not move from it again until the final two chords of the movement: once this return has been accomplished, it is decisively maintained. In this sense, bar 45 is very much a recapitulation.
Meanwhile, the audible features of the passage mitigate against the kinetic sense of return in a way that is psychologically astute. Too unanimous a recapitulation at this point, in the context of a piece that is so characterized by myriad little pullings-in, repetitions, and confirmations, and things would shut down altogether; the sonata would die of premature closure. And so Boccherini destabilizes the harmonic return by the use of a G, and not an Eb, in the bass, while with the positional recapitulation we hear a brand-new melody, the new features of which are in themselves telling. This is the first and only time in the entire piece that the soprano register is used with no hint of retreat; bars 45–46 and 47–48 constitute a beautifully balanced antecedent-consequent pair, and bars 49–51 sail out unabashedly cantabile over a newly rich and flowing accompaniment texture. The whole passage receives the only explicit expressive marking of the whole sonata: dolce. Affectually, it is not only sweet but serene; again it is in a combination of kinesthetic and auditory readings that the most interesting meanings emerge. This most emphatic enactment of recapitulation (to the Eb-Bb bar-fifth) distinguishes delicately between the acts of returning and of retreating, for it brings to the ear a brief, calm vision of new horizons: the haven of Arcadia, Baillot’s “celestial voice . . . that . . . seeks to console; (. . . ) delicious calm [that] transport[s] us into a better world, there to taste the pleasures of the golden age . . .” That this comes at exactly the point where, physically, the experience is of a cessation of newness, is integral to its meaning: paradise is located at home, where we have already been.
The inevitable instability and temporariness of earthly paradise receives a subtle enactment, for disintegration comes precisely at the moment that the ear detects a melodic reminiscence, in bar 52: what should return here but the most anxious, unstable gestures of the whole piece? Being thus recalled to “reality” is here presented as an uneasy sensation, to hand and to ear: the minute syncopations are not gratifying to execute, obviating as they do any possibility of the centering and settling of the right hand that takes place in emphasizing a beat, nor does the ear have a happy time making melodic sense of the apparent whole-tone scale produced through chromatic alterations in the first part of bar 52 .
Only in the second half of bar 54 does this nine bars of fruitful disparity between auditional expectation and executional sensation come to an end, when the piece’s second theme arrives in the proper and expected tonic, its bagpipe-like, fixed-thumb stability making a fitting resolution to the perturbation of the preceding section, as well as an earthier reminiscence of the pastoral ideal briefly attained in bars 45–51. From here to the end of the movement, repetitive flourishes and accumulations of resonance proceed along exactly the same lines as they did in the first half, from bars 18 1/2–32. Boccherini gives no further acknowledgment to the probability that the performer is in some discomfort here, due to the long tenure (ten bars by bar 54, with fifteen more to go) of a high-tessitura fixed-thumb position–unless such acknowledgment can be read into the fact that this closing material both sounds and feels rather facile, spinning forth and blithely repeating cadential formulae, and being gratefully written to sound considerably more difficult than it is.
This sonata is but one of more than thirty such works, which hold a special pride of place in Boccherini’s oeuvre by virtue of their beauty, originality and distinctive technical demands, and through their centrality to an understanding of him as a composer. They are central in the sense that they are probably mostly early works, and of a formative nature: Boccherini was performing in public by the age of fourteen, and his main stock in trade as a youthful concert artist seems to have been sonatas of his own composition.15 Luigi Boccherini [was paid] for playing a Violoncello Concerto which he played the day after the First Psalm, and played again to oblige me at Mass and Vespers . . .” [“A dì 4 di Agosto 1756 Messa, e Vespro in Musica al Monastero di San Domenico per la Festa di detto Santo [. . .] Luigi Boccherini, per fare un Concerto di Violoncello che Lo fece il giorno dopo il Primo Salmo e suonò ancora per favorir me, a Messa e Vespro. . .”] Giacomo Puccini, Libro delle Musiche Annue ed Avventizie fatte da me Giacomo Puccini M.ro di Capp.la della Seren.s Repubblica di Lucca . . .dal Anno 1748, 3 vols. MSS, in the Archivio Stato di Lucca. Quoted in Gabriella Biagi-Ravenni “Calzabigi e dintorni: Boccherini, Angiolini, la Toscana e Vienna”, in F. Marri, ed., La figura e l’opera di Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. (Florence: Olschki, 1989).] Certainly they are in a personal vein—one so entirely personal, in fact, that their composer did not include any of the pieces in the catalog of his own works that he made retroactive to 1760. (The Boccherini scholar Christian Speck has suggested 1772, when Boccherini was 29, as a possible composition date for the Eb Major sonata; this would make it one of his last essays in this genre.)16
For the purposes of a carnal musicology, Boccherini’s sonatas are central because of how clearly they evoke the physiognomy of the personal, and through the evidence they offer of the influence of physical action and sensation upon artistic production. “[A]n earlier process has been internalized into the finished forms of the figures . . . His figures act out his creative process in the shape they have taken; and this displaced performance of the self feeds an idiosyncratic vitality into his depictions . . . “17
This characterization of the paintings of the elder Tiepolo (an elderly resident of Madrid when the 25-year-old Boccherini arrived there in 1768) seems uncommonly apt to Boccherini, even as it begs important questions.
In the case of Boccherini’s music, that “displaced performance of the self” displaces itself directly onto or into the living performer, to whom there is a vivid experience of that imposition or insertion available through attention to physical sensation. Vivid it may be, but it is also momentary, leaving much about Boccherini’s process still opaque, particularly as it pertains to the issue of how one idea arises from another, of how continuity and contrast are achieved. If the themes in this sonata-movement are conceived through a process of physicalistic association and migration or transmutation of gesture, how was that process initiated and sustained? Did Boccherini just imagine playing, a kind of cellistic subvocalization informing his decisions? Did he write seated at a desk, the cello across the room, his process one of a more-or-less deliberate reflection on and re-processing of earlier cellistic forays? Or did he improvise, experiment, fool around on his cello while seated next to a writing desk, and when something fine came to his fingers, quickly grasp a pen and write it down? Each approach would be likely to produce different results, especially in the way one theme or gesture moves into another.
There is evidence of both these levels of composerly engagement with the act of playing in this sonata. The first, a kind of macro-level, corresponds to the process of dispositio described by musical rhetoricians—the positioning and transpositioning of themes into certain places in a movement, a conscious, desk-seated process of deliberation and design—the design, in this case, strongly suggested by certain conventions of first-movement form. The second level is of more interest to us; it is the level of inventio, a micro-level, having to do with why themes are the way they are, and how and why other themes emerge from them. Because this process was, for this composer, so kinesthetic, it was also most probably not conscious. Its recreation involves fixing our imagination and our surmise upon what were at best elusive states, fugitive acts, and it is of its essence that its most characteristic, idiosyncratic manifestations occur in what are, formally speaking, subsidiary passages. One imagines, for instance, how a passage like bars 5 and 6 of this sonata might have rushed into the composer’s fingers (first upon the instrument, later translating that touch through a quill pen) as the suitable, the comfortable thing to do in just such a place. The little repetitions, the lightly descending scales sound and feel like those grateful turns of the hand that instrumentalists typically do unthinkingly as part of warming up: habits, little gestural ingrainments. That this passage is not memorable melodically, and never recurs (except in the taking of the repeat,) is of its physicalistic essence: it consists of noodling. As such, it is entirely defined by its function: to settle the hand to some of the main business of the piece.
The sonata’s opening bars are much more difficult of execution and, one surmises, of genesis: such gestures do not rush to the fingers for their comfort or their obviousness, but would have to emerge from some kind of dialogue between kinesthetic inventio and deliberate reflection upon the requirements of distinctiveness and a clear character in a good opening theme. One can postulate that, seated at the cello under the mandate of creating a good theme, and responding gesturally to the implicit need for boldness, Boccherini reached high and far down the neck of the instrument; but once the act of playing began, a physical enactment of his nature–a nature neither bold nor fond of difficulty, but consoling, compassionate, and melancholic—took over, and drew from that initial flamboyance an artful but unmistakeable trajectory of retreat. One can further postulate from such a scenario as this a certain tension between Boccherini’s innate character and conventional exigencies of form, affect and presentation.
There is occasional similarity here between the carnal description of music that I am proposing, and an account of a dance or set of rhetorical gestures, to the extent that themes sometimes become pictures of themselves, their particular characters read through a series of visual associations with physical gesture, such as “moving the arms in toward the torso connotes withdrawal.” This invites our consideration of a third level of compositional process: besides unconscious invention and conscious deliberation, the composer-performer contends with the self-consciousness attendant upon the near-inevitability of being seen. (Organists are the only soloists regularly exempt from this aspect of performance.) In terms of compositional process, the visual images created by the physical gestures of playing will tend to be by-products, and not sources, of aural and kinesthetic impulses—such is surely true of the withdrawal-gesture outlined above—but it is important to distinguish between their functional secondariness in the creative process, and their very considerable problematization in latter-day understandings of instrumental music. Our disdain of theatricalization and visualization in instrumental performance runs quite deep, a legacy of the German idealism that was developing during Boccherini’s very day, and of the powerful notion of absolute music that emerged from it; more even than physical sensation, the notion of visual effect as intrinsic to the work of instrumental music is likely to seem excessive, even repellent. Yet the fact remains that any experienced performer develops considerable awareness of what they look like in performance, even if only in order to restrain themselves from gestural excess and simulate transparency. A performance- and body-oriented musicology is positively obliged to account for the visible, especially in the case of composers like Boccherini, who due to his generation and his ethnicity was only minimally under such restraints as we have invented.
There is one place in the movement under discussion where the visual element is particularly striking, and goes some distance toward explaining a passage that is simultaneously aurally static and physically very awkward: this is in bars 23 1/2 through 26 1/2, and again in the commensurate place in the second half, bars 59 1/2 through 62 1/2. The arpeggiation pattern set up in 23 1/2 (the ensuing shorthand notation implies that it should continue throughout the passage) is not a simple one. Simple arpeggiation across strings alternates upward and downward motion, as in the third beat of bar 23, allowing the right arm to move fluidly and continuously away from and back toward the torso. But on each half of the fourth beat of this bar, the arpeggios move only from high to low, and not the other direction, obliging the performer to make two different, rapid grabbing or stabbing motions outward, in order to “catch” a downbow, and then an upbow, arpeggio from the top.18 This alternation of simple and complex patterns is marginally more interesting to the ear than would be twelve solid beats of sawing away at a simple tonic-and-dominant arpeggiation; but it finds its best justification in the fact that it is really arresting visually, containing alarmingly flashy gestures. Twice on each second and fourth beat in these passages, the tip of the bow—if it is bow such as Boccherini used, it has a sharp, swan-like head–moves through the air like an epée.
Watch Video of flashy-arpeggios
The act of describing and interpreting this bouquet of phenomena called a sonata is a complex and equivocal one, perceptually, epistemologically, linguistically. The metamorphosis of sentir into sentire recommended by Rousseau, its continuation into interactions with auditional expectation and visual spectacle, means that I can never be sure whether the experience I am describing is primarily heard, or primarily felt, or primarily seen. The question must and should arise as to how far it is meaningful to subscribe to the notion of their separability in the first place.
It is certainly appropriate that such ambivalent language should be used to propose the habits and features of this man with whom I have arrived at so peculiar an intimacy, a man who cannot be here to confirm or deny my accuracy. Because of the huge privilege I enjoy in this situation—that of being alive—I feel obliged to reassert here that at no time do I wish my descriptions to imply that Boccherini’s creative choices were made for him by his habits or his character, however powerful or ingrained these things might seem to have been. I have been using this sonata movement for the traces it offers of how choice may have been encountered, considered, and engaged.
It is not that his designs are in any strong sense medium-determined. He had chosen and developed this inventive medium after years of experiment with options…Yet clearly in these inventions there is an element of pen-and-wash thinking, of reflecting through the wrist…Such forms are at least medium-reinforced.19
Of course there are differences. Boccherini, unlike Tiepolo, was a young (in some cases, a very young) man in writing his sonatas; in them one cannot rightly credit him with the mature artist’s “years of experiment,” so much as a healthy and versatile faculty of experimental intuition. I am currently at work on a book that will trace some of his processes in the years of experiment that were to come, and the evolution and attenuation of his “cello-and-bow thinking” into other compositional media.
- Lodovico Viadana, preface, Cento concerti ecclesiastici (1607; Mantova: Istituto Carlo d’Arco per la Storia di Mantova, 1964.) ↩
- For the latter-day cellist, accustomed to reading treble clef at pitch, the lurch of alarm will be unnecessarily intense: it was Boccherini’s custom, as it was the custom in most solo-cello music of his day, to read this clef down an octave. ↩
- All numbering of fingers refers to string-playing (thumb, index=1, middle=2, ring=3, pinky=4) and not keyboard-playing custom. ↩
- Along with his countryman Francischello, Boccherini has an informal reputation among cellists as the inventor of thumb-position on the cello. This is not strictly true; there is plentiful evidence in the works of Boccherini’s Parisian contemporaries, Jansson, Bréval, and especially the Duports, that the use of the left thumb in the upper register was already a familiar technique. What is true is that Boccherini exploited, expanded and emphasized thumb-position to an exceptional degree. It is very much his signature. ↩
- Typically, Boccherini will signal both the beginning and end of a thumb-position passage with a clef change, and he often uses a different clef for each different placement of the thumb. The elegance of this system of implying (without ever dictating) the most convenient or appropriate execution, and the sense it gives, on the page as well as to the ear, of a substantial cast of characters, each with its own voice, is lost in every modern edition I have encountered: all avoid the rich variety of clefs an eighteenth-century cellist was assumed to be able to read. These included, in addition to treble, bass, and tenor clefs, the “old tenor clef” (treble-clef-down-an-octave,) all the C-clefs other than tenor (soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto,) and the rather daunting Boccherinian invention of tenor-clef-up-an-octave, to my knowledge unique. ↩
- Leopold Mozart, Gründliche Violinschule (Augsburg: J. J. Lotter, 1787; Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1966). All translations are my own. ↩
- David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand: The Organization of Improvised Conduct (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993) 153. ↩
- This equation of voice and selfhood, so central to the late Enlightenment, is most famously explored and articulated in the Essay On The Origin Of Languages of 1754. Rousseau’s most concise statement of it appears in Ch. XVI: “La voix annonce un être sensible” (The voice announces [the presence of ↩
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dictionnaire de musique (Paris: chez la veuve Duchesne, 1768). William Waring’s translation has been reprinted by Da capo press. ↩
- Janet Schmalfeldt, “On the Relationship of Analysis to Performance: Beethoven’s Bagatelles op. 126, nos. 2 and 5” Journal of Music Theory29.1 (1985): 18. ↩
- Alvaro Ribeiro, ed., The Letters of Charles Burney. 1751-1784. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991). ↩
- Johann Baptist Schaul. Briefe über den Geschmack in der Musik(Carlsruhe, 1809) 10. ↩
- Pierre-Marie Baillot, François de Sales, Levasseur, C. M. Catel, and Baudiot, Méthode de Violoncelle et de Basse d’Accompagnement . . .adoptée par le conservatoire impérial de musique (Paris: Janet & Cotelle, c. 1804). ↩
- Giuseppe Maria Cambini, Nouvelle méthode théorique et pratique pour le violon (Paris: Naderman, c. 1803; Geneva: Minkoff, 1972). ↩
- Luigi “had given a ‘cello solo during the office of the Palatine chapel and had also also played at Mass and Vespers on the same day” in August 1756 (Rothschild, 4) “On the 4th of August 1756 Mass and Vespers set to music at the Monastery of San Domenico, for the feast of that saint [. . . ↩
- Yves Gérard, Thematic, Bibliographical, and Critical Catalogue of the Works of Luigi Boccherini (London: Oxford University Press, 1969). The “Chronological Table of Compositions” begins on p. 671. ↩
- Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall, Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 51. ↩
- Visually speaking, downbows move out from the center of the body, upbows in toward it. ↩
- Alpers and Baxandall, 53. ↩