Boccherini, Performance, and the Post-Modern Musicology

The composer achieves nothing without executants. . . for while it is pleasing to hear people say, “What a beautiful work this is!” it seems to me even more so to hear them add, “Oh, how angelically they have executed it!”

– Luigi Boccherini[1]

I know that music is made to speak to the heart of man, and this is the effect that I aim at producing, if it lies within my power. Music deprived of sentiment and of passions is meaningless, and consequently the composer achieves nothing without the performers.

-Luigi Boccherini[2]

The above statements by Boccherini may initially seem rather ordinary, or even perhaps somewhat flowery and superficial, but I begin with the above quotations written in letters to Marie-Joseph Chénier because both of these statements by the composer about his own music draw attention to something that is seemingly out of the ordinary in the history in western music. They emphasize not only the performers but also the performance of a work. In this paper I will show that not only is this out of the ordinary in the traditional historical “narrative” of music, but also that in order for one to fully appreciate the music of Boccherini they must reverse the polarity of the unfortunately still ubiquitous aesthetic of music as a score, or a “text.” In the process I hope to shed some light on both the question of why Boccherini has largely been ignored by past music scholars and why, in the philosophical and aesthetic context of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the interest in both the composer and his unique musical output has been piqued in performers and scholars alike.

Boccherini wrote at least 600 works, his most famous being the minuet from his String Quintet in E, Op. 13, No. 5. It has been rather frequently used in modern advertising and film, usually to depict or poke fun at high society. In addition to the minuet, however, he was a highly prolific and extremely inventive composer. His music is somewhat idiosyncratic and known for being highly repetitive or “cyclic” in nature and he was also extremely sensitive to subtle changes in timbre and volume. His scores are filled with specific performance instructions indicating the character, style, tempo, technique, or even the type of face that the performer is expected to make while playing the instrument.[3] He was a virtuoso cellist who frequently performed his own music and is now generally accepted to have made significant contributions to the cello repertoire and its playing technique.[4]

Despite his otherwise significant contributions to the cello repertoire, however, after the composer’s death his music slowly fell out of favor with the exception of his famous Menuet and a cello concerto that was arranged by Grützmacher at the end of the 19th century, almost one hundred years after Boccherini’s death.[5] Mendelssohn referred to a quintet of his as a “peruke,” and Spohr even went so far as to claim that “this does not deserve to be called music.”[6]

Miguel-Ángel Marín writes in an issue of Early Music dedicated to the composer that “he has occupied a relatively marginal position in music performance, writing, and scholarship throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, especially when compared to some of his contemporaries.”[7] Although the publishing of Yves Gérard’s catalogue of his complete works in 1969 has certainly helped to increase interest in the composer and his music, I believe that there are other important cultural and aesthetic issues that have been and indeed are contributing to a Boccherini revival.

Marín briefly presents a potential answer to the question of Boccherini’s decline in his editorial introduction to an issue of Early Music, suggesting that if, perhaps, Boccherini had continued his travels through Madrid and had gone on to a more noteworthy European capital he would have enjoyed a more appreciative reception after his death. This is nothing more than speculation, but it is certainly worth considering the context into which Boccherini’s music was placed after the composer was no longer alive to advertise and promote his own music through his publisher.[8]

Considering other influences which have undoubtedly had an effect on the recent interest in Boccherini, the “early music movement” which began in the late 20th century has most certainly contributed to Boccherini’s favorable re-introduction back into the musical discourse. Although much skepticism has been expressed with regard to the “early music revival”[9] perhaps one of the more obvious fruits of the movement is that works that were once forgotten and ignored (or in some cases entirely excluded from the modern repertoire!) are now reaching audiences who are willing to enthusiastically receive them. Among audiences of early music there is a palpable nostalgia for newly discovered or rarely played works, and the music of Boccherini presents no exception.

While the early music movement has certainly presented the music of the composer to a larger audience I would also like to argue that a simultaneous paradigmatic shift in the musicological discourse has ultimately created an intellectual environment in which Boccherini’s unique music can flourish and be appreciated by post-modern listeners, researchers, and performers.

Before the skepticism of post-modernism crept into the mainstream musical discourse, however, musicology relied heavily on strict enlightenment ideals of objectivity and positivist assertions. In 1863 Friedrich Chrysander maintained that musicology should be considered a science in its own right, implying that it was not a discourse of subjective aesthetic critiques, but, rather, that it was an enterprise of fact-finding and procedural analysis in order to reveal the truth. With this type of methodological foundation musicology has proceeded with the underlying modernist assumption that the value of a musical work lies in the facts that may be ascertained from it.

That musicology was an enterprise initiated with an inherent Austro-German bent is a topic that has been written about widely by music scholars and critics.[10] The systematic study of music and its history was originally undertaken by those with a rationalist and positivist perspective and a vested nationalist interest. With this historical frame of reference these scholars proceeded to confront the musical past, riddled with a multiplicity of places, persons, and their associated values, and selectively write and propagate work that was centered around particular people who worked within particular places and who adhered to particular values. They essentially sought to create an intelligible historical “narrative” out of an otherwise unintelligible mass of apparent facts.[11]

The resulting narrative has for well over a century functioned as the core of  the western musical perspective, serving as a foundation for not only study, but also performance, education, and perhaps most importantly, aesthetic judgments. In an attempt to be objectively descriptive early musicologists inevitably became prescriptive, choosing (out of relative necessity, I might add) who to include and who to direct more time and attention to as they created an apparently sensible account of the past and how it led to their present. It is important to realize, however, that it is not the narrative itself that is being called into question, but, rather, it is the adoption of a particular narrative to the mutual exclusion of others that has become problematic.

Restated: the problem is not that musicology has created a historical narrative that contains a bias, the problem, rather, is that those who created this narrative and the majority of those who inherited it are not aware of this bias, and that, as a result, alternatives to the traditional Austro-Germanic narrative are regarded as not only secondary in their importance, but ultimately inferior.

Considering the positivist interests of early musicologists, their interest in supposedly objective “facts” is something that should not be ignored. The natural place to look for musical “facts,” besides the dates, names, and anecdotes about individuals, is the score itself. The score, therefore, was consciously adopted as the immutable document that could serve as the heart of any critical discourse surrounding the musical creation. The score could be engraved, printed, distributed, bought, and sold, and regardless of social or cultural context it would remain the same. By clinging to the musical artifact which was apparently the least subjective, as it was, after all, a corporeal physical object that could be easily reproduced and carefully studied, musicologists set an implied aesthetic standard from which composer’s and theorists could proceed. The score became the “text” of musical discourse.

The significance of this may not be apparent until we remind ourselves that we are discussing the art that is perceived with the ears, a fact that at this point in history may be more obvious to the layman than the musician. Yet the emphasis on the score as the “work” itself as opposed to an emphasis on the hearing of it, encouraged composers and theorists (both consciously and subconsciously) to create the score in the first place as the primary object of art.

This resulted not necessarily in scores that were “pleasing to the eye,” but in scores that contained elements that were easily perceived with the eye. Music was reduced to simple elements that could be discussed independently of one another like pitch, rhythm, and structure. It can, in fact, be argued that serialism was not only an aesthetic reaction to cultural expectations in 20th century Europe, but that total serialism was the direct result of an explicit emphasis on the score as artwork.[12] The master composer “hides up” their encrypted musical secrets in the score almost entirely for the sake of the theorist who drools at the prospect of discovering them.

This concept is certainly not only applicable to serialist works. The Austro-Germanic narrative, not surprisingly, happens to include and place great value on composers whom have cared a great deal about pitch, rhythm, and structure; the very elements that are readily apparent in the score.

Heinrich Schenker[13] developed an analytical method which depends entirely on structural elements perceived in the score. Schenkerian analysis emerged simultaneously with the rise of the twelve-tone structuralist obsession as articulated by Schoenberg. Any piece of tonal music may be “reduced” down to its fundamental structure or Ursatz, ultimately revealing how the work is simply the prolongation of the tonic triad.

This method of analysis is particularly troubling to the sensitive musician who, for the first time witnesses a work of great personal meaning “reduced” and mechanically represented as a graph. With great efficiency the “surface” of the music is stripped away and the “meaning” underneath the surface, as represented by a prolongation of “structural sopranos” typically represented by a descending stepwise motion to the final cadential moment in the work.

Not only does this process tend to pull the heartstrings of those musicians of the emotional ilk, but it also conveniently sweeps away any element that is not readily apparent in the notation of the work. This necessarily limits the scope of this type of analysis to pitch, and over-arching structure. At higher levels of musical abstraction even the rhythm is ignored.

The problem is that this type of analysis is largely self-referential, and while making claim to exhibit the genius of various composers throughout history it is also fiercely exclusive by nature of its preference for music that doesn’t value the same structural coherence that is so elegantly presented by its own means. Alastair Williams summarizes this dilemma:

Schenkerian methodology, with its structural preoccupations, is intimately linked to the values built into the reception history of the Austro-German canon. In a circular process, it prizes music characterized by structural coherence, and by honing analytical tools to find these features reaffirms the prestige of the same music, placing Bach and Beethoven at the centre of its orbit. Geared to a particular repertoire, the values built into the technique not only enhance this canon, but serve to exclude musics that fail to meet these criteria, typically musics more firmly rooted in performance than text.[14]

This preference for self-referential justification has its roots in Enlightenment understanding and aesthetic ideals. Organicism, as famously articulated by Goethe, values those things which form themselves according to their own distinct set of laws.[15] Even now, musical composition students are frequently asked to justify their aesthetic decisions based on a reference to other elements within the context of the work itself. If the decision can be justified with a clear reference to some other motivic or thematic element contained within the score then the student is usually “off-the-hook.”[16] Schoenberg, looking back at the canon which preceded him, painstakingly codified his thoughts on the matter and by outlining a self-referential ideology that has reigned in music ever since: “[To reduce] music to a condition of what could be called pure structural substance, in which every element justifies its existence through its relation to a governing structural principle.” [17] Subotnik points this out in her now famous article, “Toward a Deconstruction of Structural Listening,” and goes on to emphasize that this valuing of the structure of the work is an appreciation which is intended to rely solely upon the work itself and should not rely on any culturally specific knowledge or otherwise “extra-musical” knowledge.

That music is, by its nature, performed and heard seems to be a virtue that is entirely lost in this modernist obsession (either implicit or explicit) with musical structure. The performance is practically an afterthought, a mere formality inherited by the tradition. Architecture reigns supreme. Unfortunately this tends to not bode very well for the ears of modernist audiences, as evidenced by the type of concert programming encountered in classical music institutions throughout the western world. The tonal Austro-German canon reigns supreme and tapers off beginning with works written in the early 20th century.

Even frequent concert-goers quickly tire listening to musical compositions that sound as if little or no attention was paid to how a work was going to sound. When music enters the realm of nearly pure “architecture” I cannot help but murmur that if the composer was primarily interested in architecture then perhaps they should concern themselves with designing buildings instead of music. Often the internal “system” of a work may readily be ascertained by looking at the score (or not!) but may be difficult or even impossible for the listener to hear. Alastair Williams points out that these types of “constructivist compositions are . . . afflicted by a . . . lacuna between their built-in systems and the sometimes arbitrary-sounding events perceived by the listener.”[18] I do not think that it is an over-generalization to claim that many of the difficulties listeners encounter with 20th-century music are due to structure-centered narrative of music history created over a century ago.

Above I have outlined some fundamental results of the application of structuralist and modernist philosophies to music. These philosophies slowly grew out of the obsession with rationality in the Enlightenment and found their way into aesthetic principles that came to be prized through the romantic era. Eduard Hanslick famously took the side of Brahms in the War of the Romantics emphasizing that music is expressive through its form and downplaying the significance of “extra-musical” associations. Schenker reaffirmed this aesthetic as a theorist looking at the music of the past, and Schoenberg codified the structuralist aesthetic looking to the future as a composer. It persisted to create what is known as the second Viennese school of composers and on through the second world war as total serialism; all the while both composers and musicologists staking claim to the long structuralist history of composers as their forebears.

And this is where we return to Boccherini. Recall the quotations which we opened with. Boccherini emphasizes that his musical work is a performance not a text. He clearly outlines his symbiotic relationship with the performers of his own music. It is this reversal of musicological thinking that is the aesthetic focus of Boccherini’s own work.

Boccherini’s music frequently employs repetitive ideas.[19] Repetition looks rather plain and ordinary in the score and is often used to pass the asinine judgement that the composer could not come up with anything else so he/she merely repeated the same figure to their own demise.

Boccherini’s music is filled with timbral inventiveness[20], taking full advantage of both instrumental combinations and the unique timbral characteristics of each instruments’ range. Timbral subtleties are certainly not something that are easily perceived on the page. Although the names of the instruments may be read and carefully noted, the produced effect when the score is performed is often an entirely different matter, a point of particular importance when considering that the timbral subtleties that are so often called for in Boccherini’s music are meant to be produced on the instruments from his time period.

Boccherini’s music is filled with dynamic and character markings indicating to the performer both the extreme and the subtle.[21] Dynamics are something that are often felt in addition to being heard. The “score-reader” with the keen ability to feel the dynamic markings in the music and how they create phrases and how they will ultimately affect the listener (and in Boccherini’s case, the performer!) is few and far between.

In summary, Boccherini’s music is meant to be performed and heard. An observation that, again, may appear to be more obvious to the layman than the accomplished musician. In another letter Boccherini writes that the “[performers] must feel in their hearts all that [the composer] has notated.” His is a music of sound and physical affect, an aesthetic that values the performance as opposed to the text, precisely the opposite of the kind of music that the Austro-German canon originally sought to include. Elisabeth LeGuin writes in the introduction of Boccherini’s Body, that “to put the performer always first, front and center, inverts an established order of musicological thinking.”

I regard this as a primary reason that Boccherini’s music was once almost entirely forgotten and is now experiencing a revival. Musicology is now accepting a multiplicity of discourses due to a post-modern criticism of the structuralist conception of the music-historical narrative. Boccherini adhered to an aesthetic that was not easily revealed by theorist pencil pushing or attempts at score decryption. His music is meant to be performed, and “is made to speak to the heart of man.”

How ironic it is that Boccherini’s most famous work, the Minuet, is so often used in contemporary film and advertising to depict a sort of “posh” antiquity—a pretentious return to a more civilized time, valuing the superficial elements of life— and yet it is actually a piece of music created by a composer who much more closely relates to current aesthetic trends in art and music than the old-world fineries that he is implicitly and falsely purported to represent.


Applegate, Celia, and Pamela Maxine Potter. Music and German National Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Bergeron, Katherine, and Philip Vilas Bohlman. Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Chanan, Michael. Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism. London: Verso, 1994.

Dell’Antonio, Andrew. Beyond Structural Listening?: Postmodern Modes of Hearing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Frisch, Walter. German Modernism: Music and the Arts. California studies in 20th-century music, 3. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Gérard, Yves, and Germaine de Rothschild. Thematic, Bibliographical, and Critical Catalogue of the Works of Luigi Boccherini. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Heartz, Daniel. “The Young Boccherini: Lucca, Vienna, and the Electoral Courts.”             Journal of Musicology 13, no. 1 (1995): 103-116.

Jerold, Beverly. “Colloquy.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 59,             no. 3 (2006): 800-804.

Kerman, Joseph. Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Korsyn, Kevin Ernest. Decentering Music: A Critique of Contemporary Musical Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Kramer, Lawrence. Music As Cultural Practice, 1800-1900. California studies in 19th century music, 8. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Kramer, Lawrence. Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Le Guin, Elisabeth. Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Le Guin, Elisabeth. “’One Says That One Weeps, but One Does Not Weep’: Sensible, Grotesque, and Mechanical embodiments in Boccherini’s Chamber Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 55, No. 2 (2002): 207-254.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Theory and history of literature, v. 10. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Marín, Miguel-Ángel. “Luigi Boccherini, two centuries on.” Early Music 33, no. 2  (2005): 163-164.

Rothschild, Germaine de. Luigi Boccherini; His Life and Work. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Sarup, Madan. An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Speck, Christian. “Boccherini as cellist and his music for cello.” Early Music 33, no. 2 (2005): 191-210

Subotnik, Rose Rosengard. Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Subotnik, Rose Rosengard. Deconstructive Variations: Music and Reason in Western Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Taruskin, Richard. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Williams, Alastair. Constructing Musicology. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.


[1] Le Guin, Elisabeth Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

[2] Rothschild, Germaine de. Luigi Boccherini; His Life and Work. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

[3] Le Guin, Elisabeth. “’One Says That One Weeps, but One Does Not Weep’: Sensible, Grotesque, and Mechanical embodiments in Boccherini’s Chamber Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 55, No. 2 (2002): 207-254.

[4] Speck, Christian. “Boccherini as cellist and his music for cello.” Early Music 33, no. 2 (2005): 191-210

[5] Marín, p. 163

[6] Rothchild, p. 89

[7] Marín, Miguel-Ángel. “Luigi Boccherini, two centuries on.” Early Music 33, no. 2 (2005): 163-164.

[8] The complete correspondance of Boccherini with his publisher, Pleyel, is published as an appendix in Rothchild’s biography of the compsoser.

[9] See Richard Taruskin’s thorough analysis of this topic and it’s relation to “authentic” performance practice in Text and Act.

[10] Vincent Duckles, et al. “Musicology.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed January 30, 2010).
Also Williams, Alastair. Constructing Musicology. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

[11] See Lyotard’s work in “The Postmodern Condition” for how the concept of a “narrative” is used here and how he places it under intense scrutiny.

[12] Griffiths, Paul. “Serialism.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed January 30, 2010).

[13] Although Schenker’s work is typically applied to “tonal” works it may be argued that Allan Forte’s work may serve a similar analytical function to post-tonal and serialist music.

[14] Williams, Alastair. Constructing Musicology. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

[15] Suhrkamp ed., vol 12, p. 121; trans. Douglas Miller, Scientific Studies

[16] This is based entirely on my own observations and experiences while studying music within academic institutions. My own experiences have been corroborated with other students who have studied at a wide variety of musical institutions. It is worth noting that this desire to justify each element within the score is a methodology that runs across stylistic boundaries and is ever-present in even the most avant-garde circles. It would be a fascinating and insightful quantitative study to analyze how these tendencies towards organicism, and particularly structural cohesion in musical elements are valued across cultural boundaries, and particularly in societies whose aesthetic trends have developed wholly independent of the Austro-German musical canon.

[17] Subotnik, Rose Rosengard. Deconstructive Variations: Music and Reason in Western Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

[18] Williams, Alastair. Constructing Musicology. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

[19] Rothschild, p. 39

[20] LeGuin, p. 2

[21] ibid, p. 2

One thought on “Boccherini, Performance, and the Post-Modern Musicology”

  1. I could not agree with you more on this subject, especially as regards Boccherini’s music and the man himself; a true undervalued and under appreciated genius. Thank you for this interesting and prescient article. Anner Bylsma, the great Dutch Cellist has a short film documentary entitled “Boccherini’s Secret”, which in turn deals with some of the subtle aspects of Boccherini’s music; especially in reference to its performance requiring that the performer be “ego free” and wholly devoted to recreating the true intent of the work at hand in its being performed. In other words “the performance is the music as experienced by the listener” and performer alike-a wholly subjective affair. Those who “listen with the mind” are missing the point and the true experience of Music.

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