Passa Calle: Celebrating Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid

Statue of Boccherini playing the cello to La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid

After rewatching Peter Weir’s Master and Commander (2003), we’ve become a bit obsessed with Italian composer Luigi Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid (composed in 1780).

Particularly the fifth movement of the piece—Passa Calle.

The section consists of the cello and violin and isn’t a major part of the whole composition, but appears to be everyone’s favourite. Everyone! Anyway, let’s have a look at the history of this thing.

The History of La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid

Glorious way to end a film, non? And yes, Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe did learn to play their instruments. Although Peter Weir decided to add classically trained musicians over the top instead.

For us, that short version there is still the best version we’ve heard.

La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid (The Night Music of the Streets of Madrid) can be arranged to be longer, of course, and there are plenty of examples of that online. It’s made up of seven movements:

  1. Le campane de l’Ave Maria (The Ave Maria Bell).
  2. Il tamburo dei Soldati (The Soldiers’ drum).
  3. Minuetto dei Ciechi (The Minuet of the Blind Beggars).
  4. Il Rosario, to be played cheerfully.
  5. Passa Calle (The Passacaglia of the Street Singers), which is to be played allegro vivo.
  6. Il tamburo (The Drum).
  7. Ritirata (The Madrid Military Night Watch), to be played maestoso in a majestic manner.

Passa Calle tends to be the favourite from that lot. Listening now, cut off from Boccherini’s era, it sounds joyous.

But it’s actually a bit of a snobbish piece of music—a sarcastic mockery of the “vulgar classes”. It’s there to sneer at the lowly rabble frolicking about in the streets at night.

Basically, street singers (called Los Manolos) would gather in and around Madrid and perform. These people weren’t viewed merrily by Boccherini and he thought of them as the working class scumbags of the day.

The result? He penned this ditty to put them in their place!

Passa Calle is a Spanish expression, basically meaning to pass through any given street singing for personal amusement purposes.

La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid wasn’t published until after the composer died. However, its public performances brought the work some success in Spain during Boccherini’s lifetime.

Particularly for piano quintet versions and string quartet and guitar.

His opposition against its publication was for artistic reasons. He wrote this to his publisher explaining why:

“The piece is absolutely useless, even ridiculous, outside Spain because the audience cannot hope to understand its significance nor the performers to play it as it should be played.”

Now, we covered this with our recent look at Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. The Norwegian composer hated that short piece of music, even though everyone else loves it.

It seems a bit absurd, huh?

And it seems very odd Boccherini wouldn’t want this brilliant music played in public across the world. He was being a bit snotty about it. It’s not like you need to understand his intentions to enjoy it—knowing nothing about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony doesn’t ruin it in any way.

Thankfully, La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid was published and not lost to time (as we fear so may other amazing pieces of classical music have been).

Complete Live Performance of La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid

Right, here’s a full peformance of every movement in La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid. This is a great performance! Passa Calle begins at the four minute mark.

We’ve got to say, the cello looks like one of the most aggressively uncomfortable instruments to play. Well done to anyone who can master that thing.

To note on the full arrangement, remember it was Boccherini’s goal to have the piece resemble the nightlife on the bustling streets of Madrid. Listening to it now is kind of a time capsule back to his era:

  • The Ave Maria church is there, with instruments imitating the tolling of bells.
  • Minuet of Blind Beggars to be played pesante (heavily).
  • Passa Calle imitates the “vulgar classes” performing street music, designed to replicate their singing as they walked around the city streets.
  • La Ritirata di Madrid imitates the military night watch of Madrid.

Of the military night watch, Boccherini wrote:

“One must imagine sitting next to the window on a summer’s night in a Madrid flat and the band can only be heard in the far-off distance in some other part of the city, so at first it must be played quite softly. Slowly the music grows louder and louder until it is very loud, indicating the Night Watch are passing directly under the listener’s window. Then gradually the volume decreases and again becomes faint as the band moves off down the street into the distance.”

To note, Boccherini personally instructed cellists to place their instrument on their knees to strum it like a guitar. Something Master and Commander got right! Excellent attention to detail there.

But it’s a fascinating piece of music. Great to listen to. But providing an audible history lesson of life over 200 years ago as it ambles along.

A Bit About Luigi Boccherini

Luigi Boccherini portrait

And what of the composer?! Well, Boccherini (1743-1805) was born in Lucca, a town in northern Italy. He was the third child of double-bass player Leopoldo Boccherini—music was very much in the family.

He took his first music lessons at age five.

And the young Luigi Boccherini was a natural genius on the cello and was soon at a virtuoso level, which got him recognition. He moved to Spain in 1761 and was employed by the Spanish royal family.

However, he was later dismissed by the King after disobeying an order to alter a piece. Instead of changing one movement, he doubled its length in an act of defiance. For his troubles he was sacked (better than getting beheaded, we guess).

He actually had quite a tumultuous, tragic life. His two wives died (in 1785 and 1805, the latter the year of his death) and his four daughters died between 1796, 1802, and 1804. Another indication of how fragile life was back in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early deaths were commonplace.

At the time of Luigi Boccherini’s death, he was survived by his two sons.

In all, he wrote over 500 pieces during his life’s work, most of it concerti, religious music, and symphonies. His most famous pieces are:

  • String Quintet in E, Op. 11, No. 5 (G 275)
  • Cello Concerto in B flat major (G 482)
  • Guitar Quintet No. 4 in D (G 448)

You’ll know the first one the instant it kicks off. All are worth a listen, too, alongside Passa Calle and its various movements. Getting into the spirit of a night in Madrid, eh?

Finally, to note the image heading this feature, the monument of Boccherini is located in his home town of Lucca.

Dispense with some gibberish!

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