The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece
Eric Siblin (2009, Grove Press)
In 2000, Eric Siblin was away from home and at loose ends, when he decided to go to a concert of music he didn’t know, by a performer he’d never heard of. He had worked as a popular music critic for a Montreal paper, a job, he says, “that had filled my head with vast amounts of music, much of which I didn’t want to be there.” Three of the Bach Cello Suites, in a concert by Laurence Lesser at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, were a different story altogether. Not only was the music appealingly complex, but Lesser’s program notes hinted that there was a story behind it that might bear looking into.
Look into it he did, or, you might say, he fell into it head over heels. Though he had no classical music background to speak of, Siblin became a certified Bach geek, and the result is delightful. He delves deeply into Bach’s life and times, as far as they can be known; he also looks into the career of Pablo Casals, whose performances and recordings brought the Suites forth from deep obscurity. For both men, Siblin gives us a fascinating view of how their musical and domestic fates were affected by money, politics, and war.
Consider the question of why the suites were written for cello in the first place. The viola da gamba was generally considered the melodic or virtuosic instrument, while “the cello was a background instrument in 1720, expected to hug the shoreline of a tune’s progression, not an adventurous solo vessel.” At that time, when he composed the Brandenburg Concertos, and probably the Cello Suites, Bach was employed at the court of Prince Leopold of Cöthen. Prince Leopold was an ardent amateur player of the viola da gamba, and the sixth Brandenburg Concerto has a part for that instrument that he might have been able to play, while the cello part is written for a more skilled professional player.
Such a player was available for the relatively minor court of Cöthen because Prussia’s King Frederick William, preferring the austere arts of war over the creative (and frequently decadent) pursuits of his father’s regime, had disbanded the court orchestra in Berlin. Prince Leopold made the most of the chance to improve his own Capelle: he hired as many of the fired musicians as he could afford, which left Bach well-positioned to write some of his most brilliant instrumental works. This golden era ended when Leopold married a woman who was not particularly musical, and Bach left for what he hoped were the greater opportunities of Leipzig.
Siblin’s tales of Pablo Casals have similarly to do with matters of patronage and opportunity, complicated immensely by the political and military convulsions of Republican and Fascist Spain. As a boy, Casals enjoyed the favor of Queen Maria Cristina, who sponsored some of his training on the cello. In 1931, when Spain’s Second Republic spelled the end of the monarchy, Casals was named president of the Council of Music, but within five years, Fascist rebels gained the upper hand. Casals “buried papers and burned his letters from the royal family. He was a leftist in conservative eyes, but extreme leftists saw him as a well-connected monarchist.” His epoch-making recordings of the Cello Suites took place in 1938, as all of Europe was getting caught up in the conflagration. He never again lived in Spain.
The Cello Suites ingeniously follows the general structure of the suites themselves, comprising six sets of six chapters. Siblin gives roughly the first half of each set to Bach, followed by a couple of chapters on Casals. Then, in the final position, which is occupied in the suites by the lighthearted Gigue, he talks about his own immersion in Bach’s musical world. In addition to reading widely in the voluminous literature on Bach, and listening to innumerable recordings, he follows Casals to Catalonia and Puerto Rico, and Bach to Leipzig. He talks at length with various fine cellists about their association with the suites, and with Casals. He even tries to play the cello, progressing as far as a couple of Bach’s easiest tunes. On his own instrument, the guitar, he gets a little closer, mastering one movement of the suites. Not surprisingly, he learns that this stuff is hard, which is to say that, like all the best things, it repays a lifetime of study, and leaves you wanting more.
The Cello Suites whetted my appetite for the regions of Bach’s universe I haven’t spent much time in. It reminded me of how many treasures await, and how very fortunate we are that so much of his work survived the decades after his death when it was considered painfully dry and old-fashioned. A friend recently said to me, “I need more Bach in my life,” and, though I generally hear more Bach in a week than many people hear in a year, I know exactly what he means.
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