Boccherini: Symphony No. 6, La Casa del Diavolo

Like Corelli, Luigi Boccherini found his way to a career as a composer through his virtuoso playing. Boccherini, born in Italy but who eventually spent most of his career on the relative fringes of European cultural society in a small town near the Gredos mountains of Spain, was a cellist; but the position of the cello in his body of work is completely different from Corelli’s attitude to the violin. Boccherini wrote an enormous number of cello sonatas. Forty-three survive, but the number is misleading because most of his works for cello were for his own personal use. He never gave them an opus number, did not include them in his own list of his works, and made no attempt to have them published; it’s possible that the ones that are published were made public without his permission. The difference between his personal cello sonatas and his public compositions is telling: the sonatas are conservative, whereas his public compositions are demanding and modern.

He held himself to a high standard for his public compositions, and had an accordingly high impression of their value. His arrival in Spain brought him first to the court of Madrid, where the Prince who would become Charles IV was in the habit of playing the principal violin parts in new music– not, it can be assumed from the following account, particularly well. During a reading of a new quartet of Boccherini’s, he objected strenuously to a passage in which the first violin plays the same two notes over and over. Boccherini pointed out that the melody was in the second violin and viola parts, and the first violinist should therefore devote his energy in that passage to listening to his fellows. The Prince decreed this to be “gross ignorance” on the part of the composer, to which Boccherini replied, “Before passing such a judgment, one ought at least to be a musician.” The hulking Prince threw the scrawny composer across the room, and was prevented from killing him only by the intervention of his wife. After a similar incident involving the elder Charles– in which the King ordered him to change a part that he disliked and Boccherini instead made the offending passage twice as long– the composer wisely agreed to follow his only remaining royal admirer, Infante Luis, to his little country court.

The same staunch integrity that got him in trouble with self-important royals is on display in the Casa del diavolo symphony. The “devil’s house” symphony could have belaboured the point with dissonances and tritones, famously known as the “Devil’s interval.” But the symphony is more subtle than that, with a third movement that Boccherini either developed on the theme of the infernal ballet from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, or (the composition dates of the two are unclear) perhaps that served to inspire it. The symphony is nevertheless full of high drama; the kind of flight from powerful mischief that– for instance– a spurned composer might make from the power of devilish kings and princes.