Boccherini's Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology

Boccherini's Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology

Boccherini's Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology

Boccherini's Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology


In this elegant study of the works of the undeservedly neglected composer Luigi Boccherini, Elisabeth Le Guin uses knowledge gleaned from her own playing of the cello as the keystone of her original approach to the relationship between music and embodiment. In analyzing the striking qualities of Boccherini's music--its virtuosity, repetitiveness, obsessively nuanced dynamics, delicate sonorities, and rich palette of melancholy affects--Le Guin develops a historicized critical method based on the embodied experience of the performer. In the process, she redefines the temperament of the musical Enlightenment as one characterized by urgent, volatile inquiries into the nature of the self. A CD of sound examples, performed by the author and her string quartet, is included with the book.


The composer achieves nothing without executants: these must be
well-disposed toward the author, then they must feel in their hearts
all that he has notated; they must come together, rehearse, investi
gate, finally study the mind of the author, then execute his works. In
this way they almost succeed in stealing the applause from the com
poser, or at least in sharing the glory with him, for while it is pleas
ing 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 exe
cuted it!”

LUIGI BOCCHERINI, letter of 8 July 1799 to Marie-Joseph Chénier

When I first came upon this passage, I had been studying Boccherini for less than a year. Studying him as a musicologist, I should say: as a cellist, I had known his work for years before musicology entered the picture, having learned one or two of the sonatas, as student cellists still routinely do. That cursory, circumstantial familiarity had made me frankly reluctant to undertake anything musicological on Boccherini’s behalf. He did not seem terribly interesting—a Kleinmeister, a music-historical also-ran, living in the provinces and writing virtuoso (which to me meant second-rate) music; and then there was the tiresome inevitability, the unimaginativeness, as I saw it, of myself, a cellist, using musicology, with all its grand critical and philosophical potential, merely to study music by another cellist.

Thus when Daniel Heartz first steered me toward Boccherini in a proseminar at UC Berkeley, I chose to study the symphonies, on the theory that if Boccherini were a serious composer, he would prove it in this genre. My investigation of these works had not gone far before I found that my initial reluctance had evaporated. Boccherini was indeed “serious,” but the terms of his seriousness were not at all what I had expected them to be. This gave me some of the zeal of the reclaimer and rehabilitator; to varying degrees a similar energy, sometimes crossing the line into passionate partisanship, can be found in the work of most Boccherini scholars. I, and they, have considerable reason. Boccherini was prolific, highly regarded in his own day, and . . .

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