There is some controversy, apparently, about whether the final movement in Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No. IV should include castanets. Some learned gentleman (forgotten his name already) used the loaded term “notorious” to describe that movement, attributing this to the irresponsible intrusion of castanets into so many performances of it. This was not “correct” the man argued. I suppose he was English. Or, “Protestant,” which comes to the same thing. The man could get away with his sneer, because the manuscript of the piece is long lost. The quintet was never published, with an Opus number, and no one could possibly know the original instrumental details. The guitar quintets were really just re-arrangements from other chamber music more formally published in Paris — back in the days before recording, when people had to make their own music, and so the big thing, when a new hit came out, was to be the first kid on your block with the sheet music. Boccherini had this aristocratic patron who played a guitar. He wrote six guitar quintets to keep his patron happy. But it is the concluding fandango on this one that can, notoriously, never be forgotten.
Of course there should be castanets! There have been castanets with that piece since time out of mind. A musical director would have to be very obtuse, to leave out the castanets.
I am Catholic myself — “the worst kind, a convert,” as McLuhan used to say — so fee, fi, fo, fum, I have no patience for an Englishmun who would leave out the castanets. (That’s why the Spanish sent the Armada.) I think the whole matter illustrates by analogy the importance of Tradition, where Scripture is silent or obscure. Trust the Tradition. Do not simply assume that you know better than the people who were there. By reversing the analogy, we see that the whole world makes a lot more sense on the “conservative” principle, or better, the reactionary principle, that our ancestors knew what they were doing. It is when the (self-selecting) smart people — the “enlightened” types — the “Brights” as the New Atheists like to call themselves — start to tinker with Tradition that the gates of Hell begin to yawn. And in the end, there will be no castanets.
But there are castanets in Heaven. I am sure of that.
The item of music we are considering is incidentally profane, not sacred. To the Protestant mind, which lies immediately beneath all modern Western protest movements, and makes its perpetual demands for “reform,” there was a sharp divide between these tendencies. On Sundays, in old rural Ontario, we were to sit still and do nothing, because that was the sacred day. The other days were profane, and we worked like dogs and horses. Superficially, things have changed. The Orange Parade, for instance, has been replaced by the Gay Pride Parade, and there are many other superficial inversions. God has been inverted into Human Rights. But the spirit of schism and division lives on, as revolution sacralizes itself and progressively eats its opponents. One sees this in the progress of music.
In the older view, however, a Christian must be Christian on seven days. That is to say, we have Christian music that is sacred; and we have also Christian music that is profane (just as we had a Christian Church that was sacred, and a Christian State that was profane). Sundays may be days of obligation, but the Mass is celebrated every day. It is a way of life, encompassing even the established human propensity to sin. To the Protestant mind, castanets are sinful. To the Catholic, they are at worst the occasion of sin, being perfectly innocent in themselves. The same could be said for whisky; or handguns. And a Spanish woman in long dress and flowing hair, playing the castanets, is surely an improvement on the belly dancing which was driven back across the Strait of Gibraltar by the Reconquista.
For gentle reader must realize that one of the things Tradition makes possible, is “subtlety.” A definition I have considered for this word, one of those mediaeval terms derived from old Latin, which originally meant, “with acumen, with fine discrimination,” … is the introduction of chastity into forms not intrinsically chaste. In their Golden Age, the Spanish were great masters of this. Or we might wish to recall the courting practices of the chivalrous. Or the traditions by which casualties were minimized, by the stylization of war. Things that were possible before the lurid triumph of Statism, in the seizure of the monasteries and appropriation of all the Church’s other worldly goods (the burning of the libraries, the trashing and smashing of the paintings and sculpture, the stripping of the altars, the butchering of living saints, &c).
Luigi Boccherini, an Italian from Lucca, found himself permanently in Spain as a consequence of chasing after what we can believe was an extremely beautiful soprano. Alas, she died — though not before presenting him with six children. His luck generally ran out, when she departed. For the supply of patronage was also running down, as his extravagant sponsors ran out of money, and Bonapartes trampled all over places where they did not belong. Our hero was reduced to the “publish or perish” stratagems of modern life, against the background of accumulating personal tragedies. But the light in him was truly light. (Mozart remembers that fandango in the finale of The Marriage of Figaro: O such a candle, as the peasants dance, while Susanna slips a note to the Count.)
As the Psalmist declared, the Lord delights in dancing.
He is also, according to my best information, well disposed to musical improvisation.
The version of the piece I most recommend, at the moment, is alas hard to find in this post-Protestant country, though probably available from the cybernetic cloud. It is by the Cambra Almodis, of Barcelona (Columna Musica, 2004). The grave assai properly merges, or rather collides with the fandango; Boccherini’s beloved cello lifts the melody in the guitar; the violins fully capture the sublime (and deliciously funny) drooping sounds that grace his composition. The whole movement is gratuitously doubled in length, and the castanets are shameless.