Bach and Casals Keyed the Cello

Bach Casals Sciammarella
Painting of Bach and Casals by Sciammarella

Bach and Casals Keyed the Cello
A book by music critic Eric Siblin reveals the secret connections between the composer and interpreter who elevated the instrument
El País: Bach / Casals, en clave de chelo
Jesús Ruiz Mantilla reporting from Madrid July 28, 2011

Sometimes the birth and consecration of a work of art is best understood through geometry. The triangle that connects Johann Sebastian Bach, Pau Casals, and the cello suites which the two engendered and elevated has been outlined in an exceptional book by music critic Eric Siblin.

The coherence and ageless modernity of this work storms the ears and emotions of anyone who listens to it now. Perhaps Bach only thought of it as a series of exercises for an instrument to which no one else ascribed importance. “It pains me to believe that because they are too beautiful to be something so small. But no one knows for sure,” says Siblin, a Canadian who specialized in rock and roll before entering the world of Bach and Casals to write The Cello Suites (Turner). The suites spent two centuries in oblivion until an interpreter discovered and revived them. When Casals found the Suites in a secondhand music store on Ample street in Barcelona, no one suspected that the sheet music contained what is today considered a universal work of art.

Casals’s father wanted him to be a carpenter, but his vocation was soon apparent. He was known as el nen, and he played in cafes before conquering the world’s concert halls as the great cellist of his era. He was catapulted there by Queen Regent María Cristina, a curious paradox because he never reneged on his convictions as a Catalonian nationalist, and by Isaac Albéniz.

Casals’s personal history is connected to the work through its traumatic recording at the EMI studio on Abbey Road (London) during the Spanish Civil War, and his determined antifascism. That mystical connection connects him to the father of a large family from Thuringia who began to compose the music at the turn of 1720 – its genesis is mysterious – soon after he left prison. Bach had been encarcerated on a whim. It was a prelude to the problems he faced in his later life, in which he had to work in the background to avoid being tripped up by jealousy and court intrigue. In this particular case, Duke Wilhelm Ernst wanted Bach to decline an offer made to him by the Prince of Köthen; Bach refused and was put in jail.

The rarest thing about the work was his choice of instrument. During the Baroque Era, the cello was no more than a sad accompanying element, a cushion for the others, until Bach catapulted it to the Olympus of sonority. Its players have now ennobled it to the point of virtuosity, and it’s all thanks to the Suites. For Siblin, the resonance is still fully alive. “It was modern in 1720, and it will be so in 2120,” adduces the author. “There are moments that remind me of Jimmy Page’s solos for Led Zeppelin. Each generation has approached Bach on its own terms. It tranforms in each era because of its exceptional quality.”

The reinventing of Bach is perpetually controversial. It is as fertile a topic as it is useless to pass judgment on because each music lover would pass his own sentence. Siblin criticizes authenticists, who defend interpretation using historical criteria such as period instruments, and defends the Romanticism which resounds in the Catalonian Casals’s recording, which is still the primary referent for today’s performers, from Rostropovich to Mischa Maisky to Yo-Yo Ma.

Casals evangelized with the Suites. He played them for the whole world and at the same time did justice for the cello. Until he dignified it with his playing, the instrument was considered no more than a “a bee buzzing in a stone jug,” in the words of music critic George Bernard Shaw.

The cello was never the same after Casals. He was a man of principle. He ennobled the instrument he loved, and he ennobled music. He refused to play for the Nazis or any of the countries that abandoned Spain to Franco and recognized his regime.

He had a rough time with the Nazis. They discovered that the maestro was spending the war in occupied France, hidden in Prades, and they searched for him. He believed they wanted to arrest him. The collaborationist authorities trapped him. He subsisted on no more than turnips, green beans, and potatoes. The chief of the delegation wanted him to play in Berlin before the Führer. Casals excused himself. First he brandished political reasons: “My position toward Germany is the same as my position toward Spain.” There was uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t enough. They insisted. His next answer sufficed: “I have rheumatism of the shoulder.”

After risking his life by saying no to Hitler, he felt enormous frustration when the war ended, and the Allies washed their hands of almost all the disgraces done by Spain under Franco. He was furious and felt deceived by those who compromised, the British most of all. “I cannot accept their money,” he said. He decided to retire.

After that, he did not play in public again until he agreed to a concert in the tiny village beside the Pyrenees in which he’d separated himself from the world. Obviously, he played the Suites: “the vibration of his bow felt like a dream from a deep sleep,” recounted an article for the New Yorker.

Explore posts in the same categories: Music, Spain, Translations

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