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Book Review: The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the search for a Baroque Masterpiece

Pablo Casals was about 12-years old when he and his father– while rummaging through stacks of sheet music in a second-hand shop in Barcelona–came across a score of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites. This was in 1890. The score appeared to be an original, in Bach’s own hand. It was difficult music for anyone to play, especially for someone new to the cello, which Casals was at the time. Casals was determined, and practiced everyday for 12 years, before achieving the level of mastery he believed was necessary to perform in public. Having achieved that mastery, he was discovered performing Bach’s Cello Suites in a small Cafe, by Spanish composer/pianist Isaac Albinez, who was so impressed he arranged advanced lessons for Casals that ultimately led to a music teacher in Brussels, Belgium. In turn, this led to public performances in Paris, London, and Berlin, and throughout Europe, and eventually across the Atlantic in America, culminating in a date at the White House before President Theodore Roosevelt. (Some 60 years later, Casals would perform again at the White House, this time for President John Kennedy).

However, the question remained unanswered: was the score in fact the original as composed by Bach, and, if so, how did it end up in a second-hand music store in Barcelona? That is but a part of the fascinating story told in “The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the search for a Baroque Masterpiece,” by Eric Siblin. Siblin is a one-time rock critic (for the Montreal Gazette) and a fine writer. He knows a good story when he finds it. Having heard a performance of Bach’s Cello Suites at a concert hall in Montreal, he became intrigued and spent several years researching and writing his book. At 270 pages, “The Bach Cello Suites” presents a fascinating and dramatic narrative that uncovers the disappearance of Bach’s original manuscript in the eighteenth century; Casals’ discovery, mastery and popularization of the Suites in the nineteenth century; and in our day of Siblin’s quest for the truth behind Bach’s “lost” Baroque masterpiece. I enjoyed the book immensely, and recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good story, whether or not he has the slightest interest in classical music.

Siblin is not only a master storyteller, but he manages to describe the music of each of the suites and, in doing so, brings its magic to life. The author’s concise summary of Bach’s life and his musical output is included, which makes this book particularly worthwhile. He follows most of Bach’s great pieces and what became of them after he died, as well as the life of his children, many of whom achieved great success as composers themselves.

Because Casals’ life as a world-class musician overlaps with World War II and the Spanish Civil War, the author devotes much of his book to the grim business of war, and the inevitable politicalization of classical music and the musicians who perform it. For example, the Nazis took unbridled pride in the music of J. S. Bach, even though they had no real understanding of it. At one point two Nazi soldiers showed up in Spain at Casals’ door with a personal invitation to perform for Adolph Hitler. Casals’ politely declined.

With the invention of recorded sound, several record companies wanted to record Casals’ rendition of the Suites. At first, Casals turned them down. It wasn’t until his country was embroiled in the Spanish Civil War that Casals had a change of heart, and agreed to make a recording, not for a German company, but for EMI records of Great Britain.

Overwhelmed with grief, in 1936 Casals entered England’s Abbey Road studio in London to perform Suite Nos. 2 and 3; No. 2 was perhaps the most appropriate choice because it’s often called “The Tragic Suite” and reflected most Casals’ feelings at the time. On the other hand No. 3 is known as “The Heroic Suite”, which Casals may have chosen for less obvious reasons. (note: the title of each suite is derived from the mood of each of the suites' preludes). In 1938, Casals entered an EMI studio in Paris to record Suite No. 4 (“Struggle”) and 5 (“Mystery”). Then, in 1939, Casals finished the cycle by returning to Paris to record No. 1 (“Optimism, Youth, Innocence”) and 6 (“Transcendence”). The recordings of Nos. 2 and 3 were issued on a pair of a 7-inch 78 RPM records in 1940, while Nos. 1 and 6 were issued in 1941; for some unexplained reason, Nos. 4 and 5 were not issued until 1950.

Casals was the first cellist to record Bach’s Cello Suites, and such has been their popularity they have never gone out of print. In the post-war years they were repackaged and issued on a 12-inch Long-Playing record. In our time they have been digitally remastered and issued on CD.

As Casals grew older, he turned to conducting, and like so many people devoted to classical music, lived a good long life, well into his 90s; that said he continued to perform Bach’s Cello Suites right up until his death at age 96.

Casals’ early recordings of Bach Cello Suites remain in print to this day. Indeed, several music critics prefer Casals’ emotional account to more recent suave recordings, by the like of Yo Yo Ma and Pierre Fournier.

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