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A musical time capsule

Luis Paret y Alcázar, La Puerta del Sol en Madrid

I

magine taking a stroll through the streets of 18th-century Madrid, hearing church bells, military regiments, panhandlers, Rosary processions, and other relics of city life during the Spanish Enlightenment.

These are the sound effects that composer Luigi Boccherini tried to capture in a cheeky little string quintet called Night Music in the Streets of Madrid. Italian by birth, Boccherini moved to the Spanish capital in the mid-1700s to work in the court of a royal prince. When the prince got exiled to the countryside after falling out of favor with the king, the composer followed and wrote this quintet as a reminder of life back in Madrid.

Although it’s not that well-known to the general public, this music has appeared in a handful of films including the 2003 period drama Master and Commander. In the clip below, Russell Crowe’s character, Captain Jack Aubrey, plays a snippet from Night Music with one of his men in the cabin of his ship. At the 0:41 mark, you will see the cellist strum his instrument while resting it on his knee. Boccherini specifically wrote this gesture into the score as a way of evoking a street musician’s guitar.

This composition may be the closest thing we will ever have to a 200-year-old audio recording. Here is the Master and Commander scene, followed by a video of the complete piece and a roadmap of all the different sound effects. Try to see how many of them you are able to recognize.

 

Guide to the second video clip

0:02        Church bells ring

0:53        Drumroll from the barracks

1:25        Blind beggars playing their guitars, represented by strummed cellos

2:28        Rosary prayer

5:39        Manolos, or “majos,” singing and dancing (the Master and Commander scene is from this section)

7:45        Another drumroll

8:06        Military guard announcing the midnight curfew, with the music growing louder and softer to represent the soldiers getting closer or farther as they march past you

Performance by Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, adapted for a bigger ensemble than the original score calls for. Learn more about BUSKAID, a charity that offers music education to underprivileged children in South Africa.

 

Composition: Luigi Boccherini, Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid (Night Music of the Streets of Madrid), G. 324

 

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