String Sextet No.1 in E flat Major, Op.23 No.1, G.454
This Sextet is the first of a set of six composed in 1776. They are among the earliest string sextets, if not the very earliest string sextets, ever composed. Boccherini makes good use of all of the voices including the second viola and cello, while the first cello part is given especial care, since he himself generally performed in that role for his royal patron. "That these works (the six string sextets) have remained unknown can be explained by the fact that sextets are so rarely played. But these works contain a multitude of the most splendid beauties and are among Boccherini's masterpieces." This was the opinion of the respected 19th century French music critic, Louis Picquot.
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) was born in the town of Lucca in northern Italy. He studied cello and became a virtuoso. But it was at a time that such players could not yet make a living from touring, so Boccherini found jobs in various orchestras in Vienna and Italy. Boccherini eventually moved to Paris where he hoped to establish himself as an independent soloist and composer but could not and was forced to take employment with the Spanish royal family for the rest of his life.
The opening movement, Allegro molto, begins quietly and with what sounds like a relaxed tempo because of the long-lined melody of the main theme. One can immediately how Boccherini solved the problem of four part harmony with six voices through the clever use of very short bursts of unison. The actual tempo only becomes clear when the first cello is given a short solo in its tenor register. The tempo marking of the second movement, Larghetto, is deceptive. It actually sounds more like an Andante. The music is almost brisk because of the many 16th and 32nd note passages. The finale, Minuetto, is quite original and it is clear that Boccherini, who was all of 23 at the time, was experimenting. There are three trios, the last of which is longer and more important than the minuet. In the minuet, the six voices are ingeniously banded together to create an almost orchestral effect. In the first trio, over the moto perpetuo of the second violin, the other voices take turns singing broad melodies. In the second trio, the 2 violins remain silent as the violas play a sad melody, made richer by the deep accompaniment in the cellos. The third trio features the cellos who are given a lush melody. Later, the first trio makes a brief appearance followed by a solo high in the first cello's treble register, recalling a similar episode in the opening movement. (Although the minuet is reprised after each trio, we have left it out of our sound-bite so that you could hear each trio.)
Not only is this work of great historical importance as possibly the first string sextet ever composed, but also because of the treatment each voice receives. Certainly this work should be a must for those looking for a sextet from the classical period. Outside of Boccherini's, there are no others. Mostly out of print for long years or hard to find, our modern edition is based on the 1780 Paris edition which first appeared erroneously under the opus number of 24.