Best Bet is the Minuet
You can’t say I haven’t tried. Nor have I given up.
I was reminded of that with this week’s 275th birthday anniversary of composer Luigi Boccherini on February 19th. Yes, go ahead and say it – or at least think it: “Isn’t he the one who wrote the famous minuet?” Yes, he is. But like so many composers who are known for just one work, Boccherini seems unjustly neglected - except for the minuet.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a charming piece, worthy of being one of classical music’s great “hits.” It’s a part of his String Quintet in E major, which Boccherini designated as opus 11, no. 5, though it was published as opus 13, no. 5. I mention that because it’s been a source of confusion for what otherwise is a simple melody that you can’t mistake for any other. It’s also listed as G. 275 in the 1969 cataloging by the French musicologist Yves Gérard. You almost always see the “G” numbers assigned to Boccherini’s works these days.
According to cellist Kenneth Slowik, the popularity of Boccherini’s string quintets began to surge in the early 19th century, decades after the composer’s death in 1805. And around 1874, the minuet began to “go viral” in a more traditional way. The piece appeared in published arrangements for piano, mandolins, accordion, saxophone and a cappella choir with a Latin text added. In our time Bobby McFerrin’s arrangement and performance for voice and orchestra is worthy of a mention.
The minuet acquired an added boost of notoriety back in 1955 when it was used in Alexander Mackendrick’s film The Lady Killers. In the story, a quintet of crooks masquerades as classical musicians and is heard practicing the famous minuet inside their room – with the help of a record player. The quintet consists of Peter Sellers, Alec Guiness, Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker and Danny Green.
At the Internet Movie Data Base we’re reminded that the quintet of “players” in the film consists of a string quartet (2 violinists, violist and cellist) with an additional violist. Some string quintets, such as those by Mozart, do feature an additional viola. Boccherini, who was a cellist, wrote the famous quintet – though not all of his string quintets - for a string quartet and an additional cellist. That should have been a tip-off in the film. But everybody plays along, so to speak.
I have tried different approaches to making Boccherini more than a minuet. For one thing, I’ve introduced listeners to other minuets by Boccherini. One of those comes from his Symphony in D major, opus 12, no. 1 (G. 503). It’s a charming minuet, which Boccherini called “Minué amoroso” – a loving minuet. But I’m guessing that minuet hasn’t yet made its way into listeners’ hearts.
A worthy contender for the top spot in popularity is Boccherini’s “fandango,” which is the finale of his Guitar Quintet in D major, G. 448. The quintet has come to be known as the “Fandango” Quintet. It’s an exciting piece that slowly builds in intensity – like Maurice Ravel’s Bolero (which originally was titled Fandango). It certainly is a crowd pleaser. The addition of castanets in performances of the finale makes it even more irresistible. The “Fandango” Quintet is one of a number of Boccherini’s arrangements for guitar and strings of music he wrote originally for string quintet.
Years ago I noticed that the opening and closing of Boccherini’s little Symphony in D major, opus 21, no. 4 (G. 496) has a tune that resembles that of the nursery rhyme: The Itsy Bitsy Spider. I have suggested calling it that. But years ago I had someone inform me that it’s The Eency-Weency Spider – or at least that’s the way some folks have learned it. Given that complication, it might not be easy to associate the friendly title with the symphony.
Boccherini was a contemporary of Franz Joseph Haydn. And it’s clear that Haydn’s legacy overshadows that of his younger contemporary. For one thing, Haydn has the titles: “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet.” Somehow “Composer of ‘The Minuet’“ doesn’t really stack up. But Boccherini wrote over 100 string quartets of his own, as well as over 100 string quintets and more than 100 other chamber works. And although Haydn’s 2 cello concertos have always gotten a lot of attention, Boccherini wrote 10 cello concertos. They’re not exactly obscure, just not played as often as those by Haydn.
Whenever I think of the 2 composers, I’m reminded of a quote by one of their contemporaries, namely the French violinist Jean-Baptiste Cartier. Kenneth Slowik referred to it in his notes about the Boccherini quintets. Cartier said that if the Almighty wished to speak through music, it would be the music of Haydn. But if the Almighty chose to listen to music, it would be Boccherini’s.
Maybe it’s not a matter of finding just the right piece to topple the minuet from the top of the list, but to get to know all the other works that place the minuet among many memorable pieces. Something tells me that even if a previously unknown blockbuster of a piece or performance turns up, nobody is going to forget the minuet.