Sailing the oceans with Boccherini

The seashore in Brittany inspired this post. © Charles Thibo
The seashore in Brittany inspired this post. © Charles Thibo

Do you remember the movie “Master and Commander”? HMS Surprise, commanded by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is chasing the French warship “Acheron” around Cape Horn. Being fascinated by sailing ships, I can watch that movie over and over again. When seeing it for the first time, it was a pleasant surprise to see Captain Aubrey and his friend, the biologist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) acting as the ship’s doctor, play the violin and the cello on board while they try to catch up with the French frigate!

And this is how I discovered the Italian classicist composer Luigi Boccherini. At some point in the movie, the captain and the doctor play the third movement of Boccherini’s Quintet Op. 30 No. 6. I like the scene first because of that lovely piece of music and second because of the caustic remarks of the ship’s cook and Aubrey’s steward who clearly have no sense for the beauty of music. They are hereby forgiven!

The producer uses the music to underline the expectation of the ship’s crew that they will get hold of that Bonapartist privateer. And indeed, the liveliness of the music expresses unbound optimism and a certain aloofness of Captain Aubrey, that will reappear at the surprising end of the movie which I will not disclose here in case you haven’t seen the movie yet!

Boccherini however had something totally different in mind when he composed that piece. He lived between 1743 and 1805, was an accomplished cellist and a prolific composer. Like so many others, he totally depended on patrons, mainly princes and kings, that ordered compositions to entertain them. Boccherini initially lived in Vienna and Paris, but settled down in Spain in 1768 and lived there until his death.

The piece that Captain Aubrey and the doctor play in the movie has the title “La musica notturno della strada di Madrid”. No ships, no sea battles! Instead the type of music Boccherini heard in Madrid while he lived there complete with an “Ave Maria” and elements of a tune played when the guards were relieved at night. He composed it between 1778 and 1781, when he was forced to live away from Madrid – obviously from his memory! He had married a woman of lower social standing, and this was not compatible with his status as a composer in the service of the Spanish crown. The court needed some distance and so Boccherini was sent wandering around Spain. He would however find his way back into the good graces of the royal court later!

Boccherini has composed a large number of works and I know only a few of them. Among these I prefer the above mentioned quintet in its full length, the six violin quartets Op. 2, the quintets 2, 4, 6 and 9 for guitar and strings and the two concertos for cello and orchestra G.480 and G.483.

The Quintet Op. 30 No. 6 is available on an excellent recording by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Additionally the recording features a very nice adagio of Albinoni and the famous cycles “Fountains of Rome” and “Pines of Rome” by Respighi.

A recording by Jordi Savall is available on Youtube.

By the way, Russel Crowe did not learn to play the violin for that movie specifically. How could you play a quintet with only two instruments?

© Charles Thibo

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