Cellist Anner Bylsma Rhapsodizes Luigi Boccherini, Whose Chamber Works Are Ripe for Rediscovery
By David M. Brin
Anner Bylsma has been at the forefront of the Baroque revival. His recitals have an air of freshness and spontaneity, and his performances of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, in concert and on the Pro Arte label, have excited critics and audiences with their expressiveness and individuality. He has not confined himself to the Baroque period, but has also championed 19th- and 20th-century music. His recording of Servais solo cello pieces and Boccherini quintets with the Smithsonian Chamber Players will be available this spring—and it was about the latter, an unusual and innovative 18th-century cellist and composer, that I most wanted to hear Bylsma’s thoughts.
I caught up with him during a busy concert tour of the Western US. He gave a solo recital and master class at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. The small group at the class was soon infected with this enthusiasm for the cello, for Bach, and for an exacting approach to the performance of music. Bylsma urged students to learn their pieces by heart, not only because it looks much better to see a cellist playing without a music stand blocking the view, but because “learning by heart is a training. . . . When you are playing by heart, at home, preferably in the dark, and you make a mistake, don’t get scared. It means that here the logic of the composer is not your logic. You should consciously go over that place. A long time before you play the note you have missed, a whole bar or so, you have to see it coming. After you have learned it, you weld this place to the next bar.”
Later he commented, “The cello is not a thing out there. The cello is in your mind. You try to make the music flow in your hands like you hear it in your mind. Use your imagination before you play a note—know more about it than just the pitch.”
He allowed students to try his baroque bow, of snakewood and ivory, to compare for themselves the differences between it and a modern bow. A student commented that the accent was “fatter” with the baroque bow. Bylsma agreed. “The accent is sharper with the modern bow, there is more bite, because of the metal ring,” which is absent on the baroque bow. “Playing with a modern bow is like driving a big American car. With a baroque bow, it’s a bumpier ride—and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
He discussed the difference between modern and baroque cellos, particularly the difference in tone quality between steel rings and the slacker gut strings in old tuning. With a touch of humor, he commented, “You can go to the shop and buy an A string, but you cannot buy an A flat string.”
Now that the performance of Baroque music on instruments true to the period has gained wide acceptance with critics and audiences, so performers, Bylsma among them, have turned their attention to the next generation of composers. Luigi Boccherini is prominent among them, though not unique in having suffered the fate of having only his name, but not his music, become well known.
Born in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy, in 1743, Boccherini spent most of his creative life in Spain. His patron was Don Luis, the brother of the king. From 1770 until 1785, Boccherini wrote an enormous amount of chamber music, mainly string quartets and string quintets, to be performed at Don Luis’ court. Boccherini also enjoyed the patronage of Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia, an amateur cellist for whom Mozart wrote his last quartets and Beethoven his Op. 5 cello sonatas. A virtuoso cellist, Boccherini’s compositions often employ techniques that challenge even an accomplished performer’s ability.
You will soon be going to Washington, D.C. to record Boccherini quintets at the Smithsonian Institution. Boccherini’s output is enormous—he wrote over 100 quintets, nearly 100 quartets, and over 100 other pieces of chamber music. Where does a musician who is not very familiar with Boccherini start? How do you weed out the good from the bad?
With Boccherini it is all good. To give you an idea of just how good, I will tell you what one of his contemporaries said. This is from Jean Baptiste Cartier, a French violinist and composer. “If the Lord God wanted to communicate with mankind, he would use a symphony by Haydn. But if he wanted to listen to music for himself, no doubt he would choose the music of the great Boccherini.”
But which piece by Boccherini would he choose?
Any of them. They are all great. There is no bad Boccherini, just as there is no bad Bach. Boccherini, like Beethoven, is always himself.
There is much attention to detail in Boccherini’s music and not as much attention to broad structure. What problems does this present for the performer?
Boccherini, to me, is the first impressionist. He is not so concerned with form. Boccherini is a mood, a color. Look at how many ways he had of expressing a quiet tone in his music—not just p or pp but dolce, mezzo voce, espressivo, affettuoso, sotto voce.
And the markings “ponticello” and “con sordino,” which one sees in his music, are these editorial, or were they Boccherini’s indications?
They are Boccherini’s. They did not originate with him but were already part of 18th-century music.
Boccherini apparently liked chamber music almost to the exclusion of other forms.
When Boccherini arrived in Madrid, he found there the Font family quartet, a string quartet composed of a father and three of his sons. They all had Stradivari instruments. Boccherini joined them for quintets. People who heard this ensemble said it was the most incredible chamber music they ever heard.
And was he the leader of the group?
Yes. There are always problems in a string quartet. You become, in a way, more intimate than with your own wife. Boccherini wrote the quintets with a virtuoso cello part because he was the leader of the group and if the cello is just going um-pah-pah, he can’t tell the first violinist what to do. But if he is doing hard work himself, then he can say what he wants. In fact, the quintets are perfectly balanced with five obligato voices.
One of his contemporaries described Boccherini as “Haydn’s Wife.” What influence did Haydn have on Boccherini?
Boccherini greatly admired the music of Haydn. He always had it sent to him in Madrid. Some of his pieces start with a few bars of Haydn. But then it becomes Boccherini. Boccherini’s music is not deep, with great modulations like Haydn’s. Boccherini never shows his intelligence. His first string quartets precede Haydn’s by a few years, so there may be a mutual influence.
Did he influence later composers?
I think the part writing in Schubert, for instance, in the two-cello quintet, shows Boccherini’s influence. And also the string writing of Beethoven, particularly the string trios, but also the string quartets.
Why did the music of Boccherini fall into disfavor?
Because Boccherini doesn’t work on modern instruments. I am not a zealot in this matter, but Boccherini suffers more than any other composer when played on modern instruments. Before 1800, there was a change. The instruments were remade more for singing , and the modern steel strings want to sing, to keep going, to sound. Above all, they are loud. Loudness is a sickness, I think. People go deaf from playing in orchestras. And I personally find the sound of steel strings very old-fashioned, like the sound of the Glenn Miller Band. But on gut strings, with original instruments, Boccherini sounds marvelous. The perfect balance of the voices comes through. Piatigorsky loved the music of Boccherini, and tried to revive it, but it didn’t work on modern instruments. Pina Carmirelli [first violinist of the Quintetto Boccherini] is a great lady and a wonderful violinist. But despite her efforts, the name of Boccherini has not again become a household word, as it was in his own time.
Steel strings have changed the way many of us hear music, haven’t they?
It seems sometimes that the use of steel strings, precisely because they sound so good, has diminished our ear for tone colors. The term “Tonkünstler,” German for “sound artist,” used to be commonly used for a performer, for someone who did wonderful things with tone. The term has fallen out of fashion, I think partly because of the uninteresting sound of steel strings. The idea of charming people with tone has also become old-fashioned, but really it is such a blessing for everybody when someone has charm and is able to elevate the production of tone to an art.
Can you tell me about your cello?
It was made in Venice, by Matteo Gofriller, in the 1690s. For years, when people looked at my cello, the first thing they saw was that it had a modern neck. The problem was, we couldn’t decide what would be better, what kind of period neck should be on it. Let’s say a pianist wants to play a program of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. What does he do, have three pianos onstage? It’s the same problem with the cello. Authenticity is always a compromise, no matter what anyone says. But recently, Willem Bouman, the wonderful man who made my Baroque bow, called me to tell me he had a solution. We decided to use a neck from the mid-18th century. My cello has gut strings, of course, and a baroque bass bar, which is longer and narrower than a modern bass bar. When you open up an old cello, you can see the outlines of the old bass bar, where the ends have been cut off with a sharp knife, so it is not difficult to replace it.
It is a beautiful instrument. I’m sure it is an inspiration to you.
Yes. As Geminiani said, “Men of purblind understanding will say, “How is it possible to give life to wood and wire?” But this is exactly our challenge as musicians.
This article first appeared in the Winter 1988 issue of Strings magazine.