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About this Piece

Composed: c. 1780/1975
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, keyboard glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, and strings

Scion of a musical family – his brother and three sisters were dancers and singers – Luigi Boccherini was one of the first virtuoso cellists. Although he composed much of his music in relative isolation in Spain, his patrons included the royal families of Spain and Prussia, as well as Napoleon’s brother Lucien. He composed in most genres then current, but he is particularly known for his vast chamber music production. He created the quintet of two violins, viola, and two cellos, largely for him to play himself with an established quartet. He wrote over 100 of these quintets, and also arranged many of them for other mediums, including guitar quintets and piano quintets.

One of the most popular of these was Op. 30, No. 6, “La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid.” This was one of those that he did arrange for guitar and piano quintets, and which – thanks to the manuscript collections his patrons assembled – exists in variant versions. (It has also been popular with film makers, the Passacalle movement appearing at the end of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World [2003] and – far more surprisingly – in William Friedkin’s Cruising [1980].) Ironically, this was a piece that Boccherini did not want published, believing that musicians outside Spain would not understand its evocation of the sounds of Madrid at night.

The final movement of the quintet is the “Ritirata,” Retreat as sounded by the city garrison to signal the midnight curfew. As the city watch comes closer the music grows louder, and then dies away as the parade passes. In 1975 the La Scala Orchestra asked Luciano Berio for a short opening piece, and Berio layered four versions of the “Ritirata” over each other, magnifying the heterophonous street music into an exuberant processional.

— John Henken